With the cheetah we move away from the Big Five. Other quintessentially African large animals of the wild are hippo, giraffe, kudu, wildebeest (the famous gnu) and zebra, all frequently seen in conservation areas.
Heightened awareness, however, has created an increased appreciation of lesser known animals: a sighting of the rare tsessebe (a relative of the hartebeest) may cause as much excitement as the sight of a lion pride stretched out under a bushveld thorn tree. And while one can hardly miss a nearby elephant, spotting the shy little forest-dwelling suni (Livingstone’s antelope) takes sharp eyes and is cause for self-congratulation.
On the really small scale, one could tackle the challenge of ticking off each of the seven South African species of elephant shrews, a task that would take one all over the country and, probably, a very long time to accomplish.
With well over 200 species, a short survey of South Africa’s indigenous mammals is a contradiction in terms. A few examples may indicate the range.
In terms of appeal, primates rate highly. In South Africa they include the nocturnal bush babies, vervet and samango monkeys, and chacma baboons which, encouraged by irresponsible feeding and under pressure through loss of habitat, have become unpopular as raiders of homes on the Cape Peninsula. Image
Dassies (hyraxes, residents of rocky habitats) and meerkats (suricates, familiar from their alert upright stance) have tremendous charm, although the dassie can be an agricultural problem. The secretive nocturnal aardvark (which eats ants and is the only member of the order Tubulidentata) and the aardwolf (which eats termites and is related to the hyena) are two more immensely appealing creatures and both are found over virtually the whole of the country.
And for those who like their terrestrial mammals damp, there is the widely distributed Cape clawless otter, which swims in both fresh and seawater. The spotted-necked otter has a more limited territory. Both are rare, however, and difficult to spot.
One mammal whose charm is in a sense newly acquired is the wild dog or Cape hunting dog, one of the most endangered mammals on the continent. Once erroneously reviled as indiscriminate killers but now, as a result of environmental education, appreciated for both their ecological value and the remarkably caring family behaviour in the pack, wild dogs require vast territories. A single pack needs on average several hundred square kilometres.
They are found in small numbers in KNP and environs, northern KZN (including the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park), the Kalahari, and the Madikwe reserve in North West.
More common canine carnivores are the hyena, jackal and bat-eared fox. Aside from those already mentioned, felines include the caracal with its characteristic tufted ears, the African wild cat and the rare black-footed cat, and other flesh eaters include civet, genet and several kinds of mongoose.
The plant eaters are particularly well represented by various antelope, from the little duiker to the large kudu and superbly handsome sable antelope, which is found only in the most northerly regions.
Mammals take to the air, too: South Africa is well endowed with bat species.