The king of the animal kingdom is truly a magnificent beast. These territorial cats will fiercely defend their territory, which can be anything from 50 to 400 sq km! Lions usually hunt in the night and for most of the day they are just napping, lazing around. Your best chances of seeing them in person will be in the very early hours of the morning, at dawn. As a reference, sunrise was at about 5.30am in late August/ early September, when I visited.
Diet-wise, even though lions can virtually hunt anything, the most common dishes on their menu are wildebeests, zebras, and buffaloes.
Fun fact 1: a lion’s roar can be heard from as far as 5 miles away!
Fun fact 2: young male lions are usually kicked out from their pride from as young as 2 to 3 years-old. From then onwards, they begin a period of nomadism, which ends when they’re about 5 years old, when they are old enough to take over their own pride.
I had the fortune of running into a pride of 11 lions on my last day in Etosha National Park. Our jeep found them at a waterhole, and it was the most fascinating thing to watch a group of cubs play with each other, forming the lion’s version of a train (or a conga line!) Also noteworthy was that they seemed engrossed with all things related to buttocks.
When going to game parks we like to drive parts ourselves but also always take a drive with a guide. Although we saw a lot of animals while driving ourselves. You do not know the trails the animals use to go to the waterholes. This is something the guides know and what makes the difference on every game drive. Ok you pay more but you will most definitely also see more instead of driving the same trail yourself.
As you survey the savannah for giraffes rustling through the trees or elephants strolling in the distance, don't forget to look closer to you or just look down. Sometimes, bones/skeletons are right off the road, next to the jeep, and will provide a fascinating and rewarding study of the natural cycle of life.
Took this shot when we were busy photographing an elephant. It is likely to be bones belonging to a zebra. A classic case of "survival of the fittest" in the great, wild savannah.
The wildebeest is a funny looking and (if you will) rather disproportionately formed animal. The most distinctive feature I find is its head which seems so big it is as if it's too heavy to be held up properly (which may go some ways to explaining the constant head down/"I'm just grazing" pose ;p ).
Elsewhere in Africa (eg. Kenya, Tanzania), the wildebeest is commonly found in large herds that counts its numbers in tens of thousands. The famed wildebeest migration that takes place each year between counts wildebeests in the millions! However, in southern Africa (eg. Namibia) wildebeest herds are far smaller. It is also not uncommon to find them alongside zebra herds. In contrast to the hardy Oryx (see my other tip), the wildebeest can't survive for more than five days without water, and will therefore migrate vast distances to track water down.
It is easy to overlook these creatures because they are so abundant in numbers throughout Etosha National Park. However, from a scientific point of view, the impala is actually a unique antelope with no close relatives.
They are easily distinguishable by their horns, which always have a sharp-angled turn in them. The impala is also known for their speed and ability to leap - in one single bound they can cover 10metres across land or leap 3metres vertically up in the air! Hard to tell given its lithe body, eh? Never judge a book by its cover.
Once widely hunted for their horns, the rhinoceros is now Africa's most critically endangered large animal. At Etosha, you'll commonly see the White Rhinoceros, which is a bit of a misnomer because this species is actually gray in color. (The name is actually a corruption of "wide-lipped rhino", for they have a wider, square-ish jaw compared to the Black Rhino, which again is anything but black but has a triangular jaw). These White Rhinos typically use the broad mouths to crop short grass.
Rhinos in general have spectacularly poor eyesight, and have been seen charging at trains or at elephant carcasses.
On my safari tour of Etosha, I noticed that the rhinos appear particularly shy compared to the other wildlife. Whenever a jeep pulled up it would, more than any other animal, tend to back away into the bushes and disappear altogether. (Or maybe they just see us as massive, moving ugly blobs) The shot here was taken at a waterhole at dawn.
Photography/general tip: Instead of trying to spot one during the day, you have a much better chance of seeing them for extended periods of time if you visit one of the waterholes near the established campsites in Etosha, such as the ever-popular Okaukuejo.
Kori Bustard's are known as the heaviest flying bird on earth. Unsurprisngly, however, its weight restricts its flight distance severely. It is not uncommon to see one take off into the air and then see its swoop back down again after a hundred metres.
These birds are omnivorous and will eat anything from insects to small mammals, snakes, berries, and even carrion.
Fun fact: the Kori Bustard belongs to the minority of about 10% of the bird kingdom that are considered polygynous.
The Lilac-Breasted Roller is known for its brilliant colours and for the way it enrolls from side to side during courtship flights. These birds are commonly found throughout Eastern and Southern Africa and are known to inhabit acacia trees. You can always tell between the fully grown and the adolescents by the length of their tail feathers. The adult rollers tend to have a long, full length tail feather while the adolescents have a short, stunted tail feather.
This birdie commonly feeds on grasshoppers, beetles, and sometimes even lizards and crabs! Like the vast majority of birds, the Lilac-Breasted Roller is monogamous. It is also highly territorial. To hunt, the birds typically perched on a dead tree and survey the area for prey. As you see from the photo above, this particular roller is just taking flight from the dead tree, most likely because it spotted something for lunch!
To capture a shot of a bird in flight, don't trying to track one while it is already airborne. Sure, you can do it that way with enough patience and work, but it's far easier to catch a bird while it is still perched atop a tree branch. Set the shutter speed to 1/4000 or something similar fast, and try to zoom in as much as possible. The shot above was done at 200mm zoom. Also, train your lenses patiently at the bird and be ready to snap in the direction it is likely to fly off in. You will have to take a guess at the direction but that's not too difficult since, more often than not, it is going in the direction it is already looking while perched atop the tree!
Regardless of sex, giraffes would have "horns". These are effectively short protrusions of skin-covered bones. Surprisingly, despite its incredibly long neck, the giraffes only has seven cervical vertebrae, which is the same number as all mammals, including humans. (Perhaps someone had simply taken one by its neck in infancy and stretched it a lot? :p) Male adult giraffes can grow up to 5.2m while the females are about 4.5m on average.
Photography Tip: after you get a shot of a giraffe and its incredible body, don't forget to zoom in on its face, for its horns as well as long eyelashes make for incredibly fascinating details in a photo.
Found only on the African continent, the secretary bird is notable for what I like to call "its flamboyant head gear" and long legs. As you can see from the photo above, the resulting look is almost comical -- it's as if the 1980s leggings fashion has made a comeback amongst the secretary birds!
These birds are not migratory and are commonly found in open grasslands / savannahs as supposed to dense shrubbery / forests. The secretary bird is also largely terrestrial, meaning that they mostly hunt on foot as supposed to doing so by flight. (May have something to do with their relatively heavy and less aerodynamic bodies!)
Fun fact: the secretary bird is found on South Africa's coat of arms and is also Sudan's national emblem. Another random fact about these birds is that they appear fractricidal, as the youngest in the brood of reading almost always dies of starvation.
Zebras are divided into three species -- plains zebra, Grevy's zebra, and the mountain zebra. At Etosha, you will see the mountains zebra. The zebras also appear to be the most numerous of animals in this park, next to the springboks.
The mountains zebra is distinguished by its narrower stripes and white belly. I also noticed that it tends to have lighter, brown stripes between the black and white stripes. In comparison, this is missing in the far more common plains zebra, which is further distinguished by its stronger, bold stripes that wrap around right around its belly. A general fun fact about these creatures is that no two zebras have exactly the same stripes - somewhat like fingerprints in humans!
Zebras tend to hang out in herds. Trying to photograph all of them at once could result in a rather "noisy" photo in which there are too many clashing patterns. Instead, try to focus only on one zebra and, if the zoom on your camera allows, focus just on the head so that the stripes on the zebra's face look more dramatic.
It is also helpful to juxtapose one lone zebra against the wide savannah plains. This helps highlight the zebra's patterns and make the shot look more dramatic.
This animal hardly needs any introduction. Claiming the honour of the world's fastest land mammal, the cheetah can reach speeds of up to 110 km/hour. However, these really are the sprinters of the animal kingdom, for they become exhausted after running for a few hundred meters. It is far more common to see cheetahs stalk prey to within 50 to 60 metres before they unleash their lethal muscle power.
Cheetah typically prey on antelopes as well as zebras. They often produce large litters - up to nine sometimes! However, in an open savannah as in Etosha, the cubs are often killed by other predators, especially lions. While the male cheetahs form coalitions, the female cheetahs remain solitary for life.
I was lucky enough to see one in broad daylight during my safari. However, cheetahs commonly hunt by night so a cheetah seen during the day is likely to be a hungry cat desperately seeking to fill an empty stomach. Whoever said life was easy in the animal kingdom, even if you were the king of sprints!
Also known as gemsbok, the oryx is a grazing animal that is distinguished by its near straight horns that rise high above its head. These horns are found in both males and females and are not merely a fierce looking item, for they can be used to sometimes even kill aggressive lions!
Although the oryx is known to hang out in herds, on my safari trip the oryxes I came across were mostly loner rangers. The oryx is also notable for being able to tolerate extreme heat and they can survive without drinking as they obtain enough water from their food alone. As another way of conserving water, the oryx can let its body temperature rise to levels that would kill most other mammals. The things evolution brings to ensure survival! What a fascinating world.
It is said that when an elephant is angry, not even a rhino, cheetah, or lion would stand around to argue with it.
On my trip, I found that the most commonplace to see these otherwise gentle animals is around waterholes. So make sure to check out one in the early hours of the morning (around 6am) or late at night near a well-lit waterhole near one of the campsites. The African elephant is distinguished from its Asian counterparts by its much larger ears that go beyond the neck...perhaps they use it as a fan for themselves whenever it gets too hot? ;)
Elephant societies are matriarchal and the herds are dominated by old females. Male elephants tend to live alone or in bachelor groups outside of mating season.
And if you think you have a big appetite, take comfort in the following fun fact: the average adult elephant eats about 250 kg of grass, leads, and bark every day. :)
Photography Tip: elephants do not have the bold stripes of a zebra or the fierce mane of a lion to give the photo an extra "kick" or element of drama. Therefore, when it comes to photographing elephants, lighting becomes even more important than usual. You want to make sure that the elephant is well-lit by the sun, and not backlit. Otherwise, none of the details on the grey animal will show up very well. If you find that your safari truck is parked at an angle which backlights the elephant, do ask the driver nicely to see if he can nudge the car position accordingly. I did on my trip and he very happy obliged. The result? This photo right here.
If this bird looks familiar, it may be because you've seen him already in Disney's Lion King (starring as Zazu) :) This one in the photo is a Southern yellow-billed hornbill, and is distinguished by its long, hooked beak and the pinkish skin around its eyes. This species is typically found in Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. In comparison, the Eastern yellow-billed hornbill bird is normally found in North Eastern Africa, and has blackened skin around the eyes. These birds typically feed on seeds, small insects, spiders and scorpions. During the dry season, termites and ants also become part of the menu.
Photography tip: as is the rule for general bird photography, capturing good shots of this bird in flight will require you to set a fast shutter speed of about 1/4000 in advance. Train your lens steadily on the bird and get your lightening reflexes ready for the moment of flight!