Following the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, mammals were poised to steal the limelight. A remarkable process of diversification was about to take place that would ultimately lay the foundation for today’s safari tick list. Curiously, however, most of Africa’s familiar species – from zebras, giraffes and antelopes to lions, rhinos and wild dogs – began evolving not in Africa, but in Eurasia and North America.

Picture the scene 50 million years ago. Tropical forests smothered every scrap of land, from pole to pole. In this humid stew, African mammals were sprouting branches of evolution that would lead to elephants, primates, hyraxes and elephant shrews. Fast forward a few million years and the earth began to cool. North American and Eurasian forests thinned, giving rise to patchy plains – a new land of opportunity that began to be exploited by the ancestors of horses, camels, rhinos, buffalo, deer, cats and dogs.


Although Africa remained largely cloaked in jungle, its mammals also continued to diversify. In 2003, palaeontologists in Ethiopia discovered fossils of archaic elephants, as well as a veritable ark of other African mammals. Some were huge and, it has to be said, spectacularly ugly. Arsinoitherium, for example, stood 2m at the shoulder, and sported a pair of massive horns protruding from either side of its snout – a kind of botched attempt at the modern-day rhino.


So why, you may ask, does Africa’s treasured Big Five contain the descendant of a European import rather than Africa’s homespun version? Well, scientists are still pondering the demise of Arsinoitherium, but it undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that 24 million years ago ‘island Africa’ collided with Eurasia (which had long been connected by a land bridge to North America). Mammals from all continents began to mix and compete for the first time and the evolutionary shakeout inevitably had winners and losers. While more primitive species became extinct, the Eurasian influx modernised Africa’s fauna.


Mammals cradled in Africa, such as hyraxes, elephants, aardvarks, monkeys, spring hares and golden moles held their own (and some, like the elephants, invaded new territory), while Eurasian herds began to roam Africa. Around 13 million years ago, Africa’s newly formed grasslands were witnessing an influx of antelope and buffalo. Short-necked giraffes, ancestral hippos and sabre-tooth cats spread from Eurasia, dogs arrived from North America, while Africa’s primates began venturing from their ancestral forests to forage across the spreading savannahs.


This momentous ‘meeting of mammals’ reached its climax in the Pleistocene, about two million years ago, when Africa was home to an unrivalled range of mammal families. While the Ice Age reaped its toll of great mammals elsewhere in the world, Africa’s megafauna got off lightly. Ironically, it was only with the arrival of humans – the continent’s most recent mammalian progeny – that Africa’s empire of mammals began to crumble.

Africa: Wild Places

25 wildlife destinations in Africa

Morocco’s Atlas Mountains (1) are ablaze with wild flowers in the spring and also provide a refuge for endangered birds, like the bald ibis. Birds are the main attraction at Banc D’Arguin in Mauritania (2) – a wetland sanctuary for millions of migratory waders. In West Africa (3), birdwatchers flock to Gambia and Senegal, while the pristine rainforests of Gabon (4) offer exceptional wildlife-watching opportunities, from western lowland gorilla to humpback whale. Intrepid travellers can venture into the heart of the Congo Basin (5) in search of lowland gorilla and forest elephant – a complete contrast to a relaxed diving holiday in the Red Sea (6) where spectacular coral reefs are just one of many natural spectacles in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Further south in Ethiopia (7), the escarpments and plateaux of the Simien and Bale Mountains are strongholds for the endemic Ethiopian wolf, gelada baboon and walia ibex. In Uganda and Rwanda (8), mountain gorillas claim the high ground, while the Great Rift Valley is seen at its most majestic in the volcano-pimpled plains of the Serengeti-Mara (9). Rift Valley lakes are renowned as hotspots of biodiversity, and none more so than Tanganyika and Nyasa (Malawi) (10) with their endemic communities of colourful cichlid fish. Chimpanzees can be found in forests along the shores of Lake Tanganyika (11), while the vast wilderness reserves of Selous and Ruaha in southern Tanzania (12) promise some of Africa’s best safari experiences, with high standards of guiding. The same is true for Zambia’s Luangwa Valley (13) where you will be led through beautiful scenery on unforgettable walking safaris. Victoria Falls is a highlight of any visit to the Zambezi Valley (14), but there are national parks upstream and downstream of the falls with superb lodges and activities ranging from canoeing to night drives. Botswana’s Okavango Delta (15) is one of Africa’s most magical safari destinations – a verdant oasis on the edge of the Kalahari (16). Wildlife of the Namib Desert (17) is mainly confined to its coast, although a good guide will help you track down desert elephant, rhino and gemsbok in remote tracts of Damaraland and Kaokoland (18). South Africa’s natural treasures cover everything from the proteas of the Cape Floral Kingdom (19) to Kruger’s big five (20) and sharks along the Wild Coast (21). Further north, Africa’s shoreline is peppered with wildlife-rich archipelagos, like the Quirimbas of Mozambique (22). Coral reefs fringe the East African coast (23), while the Seychelles (and Aldabra) (24) have reefs, seabirds, giant tortoises and the coco-de-mer palm. For pure island magic and lemurs galore, head to Madagascar (25).

Read the latest posts on African wildlife travel


When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your wildlife holiday in Africa, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.

Africa: Natural Zones

Habitats of Africa

Most people imagine endless plains covered with big game when they think of wildlife in Africa. But the quintessential savannah of the Serengeti and Masai Mara is just one facet of the continent’s rich kaleidoscope of habitats. The Sahara is perhaps the most impoverished part of Africa when it comes to species diversity – but even here you will find desert-adapted creatures like the fennec fox and dorcas gazelle. It’s a different story in the Congo Basin where a patchwork of rivers, swamps and flooded forests support more than 10,000 plant species, 1,000 species of birds and over 400 different mammals, including lowland gorilla and forest elephant. The variety of life is also astonishing in the Great Rift Valley where isolated mountains and lakes have led to a high level of endemism, particularly in areas like the Ethiopian Highlands, Ruwenzoris, Eastern Arc Mountains and Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa (Malawi). Spreading south from Tanzania into Zambia and Zimbabwe, vast miombo woodlands are home to huge herds of elephant and a wide range of antelopes. Africa’s second great desert, the Kalahari covers much of Botswana – the Okavango Delta forming a verdant oasis on its northern fringes. Great rivers like the Zambezi, Luangwa and Orange also support teeming wildlife in southern Africa. The tip of the continent is characterised by the unique Cape Floral Kingdom where two-thirds of an estimated 9,000 plant species are found nowhere else. On Madagascar, no less than 80% of species are endemic.

Africa: Wildlife Travel


Timing and logistics are crucial when planning a wildlife trip in Africa. Wet and dry seasons affect animal movements, seasonal floods can make entire areas inaccessible for months at a time, while many wildlife hotspots are remote or require special permits, and expert guides. Fortunately, there are numerous safari specialists that know exactly how to overcome these obstacles. The key to a successful trip is to talk to the experts and start planning well in advance. The standard of accommodation and guiding in Africa’s wild places is second to none.

African Wildlife: 25 Greatest Ticks


I post regular wildlife travel features, destination guides, reviews and news. Sign up below to be notified of the latest posts.
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.