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African Safari Wildlife Cheat Sheet

White and Black Rhinoceroses

white rhino

The contrasting names of these massive, endangered herbivores might seem like a surefire way to tell them apart, but that is a rookie mistake. Both rhinos are gray in color.



black rhino

“Black rhinos have a pointed nose with a hooked upper lip adapted to browsing [eating from trees and shrubs], while the white rhinos have square, wide mouths adopting to grazing,” John says.

If you are fortunate enough to see either rhinos with newborn babies, another behavioral indicator helps in decoding which of the two you are facing. “White rhino babies lead the way while the mother follows,” John explains. “For black rhinos, the mother walks ahead of the baby.”

Cheetahs and Leopards

leopard

The only big African cats bearing spots, these two species could potentially be difficult to differentiate. Step No. 1 to telling them apart? Body markings. “At first glance, leopards have a rosette pattern on their coats, while cheetah markings are random spots,” he explains. “Secondly, cheetahs bear distinct ‘tear markings’ running from the inner corners of the eyes to the edge of the mouth, unlike a leopard.

cheetah

Of course, this is assuming you are close enough to see and hear these magnificent cats. If you really want to show off your masterful tracking, make the call from afar by remembering two things: “Cheetahs have a streamlined body and resemble greyhounds, while the leopard has a stocky physique,” John says. “Finally, keep in mind that cheetahs hunt during the day in open grasslands, while leopards do most their hunting under the cover of night and prefer thick, bushy habitats.”



Antelopes

impala

The most common antelope in East Africa is the impala, Grant’s gazelle and Thomson’s gazelle. These three types live in open grasslands and in the acacia woodlands. To differentiate them, start by looking back – literally. “You can easily pick out the impalas by the markings on their butts,” John says. “Impalas have black markings that resemble McDonald’s golden arches, while the gazelles both have white behinds. ” Another major characteristic is the male impala’s broad, ridged horns, absent in females.

thompsons gazelleThings get trickier between Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles. Both types are tan, and both genders bear horns. However, a Thomson’s gazelle – known as a “tommy” – features a black stripe down the sides of its body. Grant’s gazelles are also bigger than Thomson’s, a fact that makes the latter a favorite snack for cheetahs.




Zebras

burchells zebra

“The two main types in East Africa are Burchell’s zebra – also referred to as the plains or common zebra – and Grevy’s zebra, found mainly in Kenya. First, Burchell’s is smaller than Grevy’s and resembles a donkey, while Grev’s looks like a horse.


grevys zebra

Second, the Grevy’s has “bat” ears that are almost twice the size of the common zebra and pinstripes with a white underbelly, while a Burchell’s boasts widely spaced stripes that go all the way round its belly. Finally – and this is for the truly eagle-eyed – the Burchell’s zebra will have one chevron on the side of its forelegs while the Grevy’s has two chevrons on the sides of the front and hind legs.




Giraffes

rothchilds giraffe

Of all the animals safari-goers will see, none is easier to spot than a giraffe. “It is the tallest mammal on earth and impossible to miss,” says John. In all of Africa, there are three types of giraffes: the Rothschild’s giraffe, the most rare; the Masai giraffe, the most common; and the reticulated giraffe, the most beautiful.

masai giraffe

It is best to identify them by process of elimination, starting with the Masai. “The Masai bears jagged-edged, brown markings that look like maple leaves that stop at the knees,” John explains. “Meanwhile, the reticulated giraffe has beautiful, brick-shaped, reddish coat patterns with very distinct, narrow white lines separating the bricks. Both these species have three horns.”

reticulated giraffe

In contrast, the Rothschild’s has a paler coat with less-jagged markings than the Masai; they also appear to wear white socks. “Finally, the males of these species have five horns, while the female sports three,” John says.

First time in East Africa?

Impress fellow guests and even your guide with this comprehensive primer to the region’s show-stopping wildlife. Expert A&K Africa Safari guide John Niva knows a thing or two about East Africa’s legendary game. He specializes in guiding throughout Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, and there is no better source to break down the region’s astounding – and often lookalike – wildlife than a man who has spent 15 years doing so with A&K.

White and Black Rhinoceroses

white rhino

The contrasting names of these massive, endangered herbivores might seem like a surefire way to tell them apart, but that is a rookie mistake. Both rhinos are gray in color.



black rhino

“Black rhinos have a pointed nose with a hooked upper lip adapted to browsing [eating from trees and shrubs], while the white rhinos have square, wide mouths adopting to grazing,” John says.

If you are fortunate enough to see either rhinos with newborn babies, another behavioral indicator helps in decoding which of the two you are facing. “White rhino babies lead the way while the mother follows,” John explains. “For black rhinos, the mother walks ahead of the baby.”

Cheetahs and Leopards

leopard

The only big African cats bearing spots, these two species could potentially be difficult to differentiate. Step No. 1 to telling them apart? Body markings. “At first glance, leopards have a rosette pattern on their coats, while cheetah markings are random spots,” he explains. “Secondly, cheetahs bear distinct ‘tear markings’ running from the inner corners of the eyes to the edge of the mouth, unlike a leopard.

cheetah

Of course, this is assuming you are close enough to see and hear these magnificent cats. If you really want to show off your masterful tracking, make the call from afar by remembering two things: “Cheetahs have a streamlined body and resemble greyhounds, while the leopard has a stocky physique,” John says. “Finally, keep in mind that cheetahs hunt during the day in open grasslands, while leopards do most their hunting under the cover of night and prefer thick, bushy habitats.”



Antelopes

impala

The most common antelope in East Africa is the impala, Grant’s gazelle and Thomson’s gazelle. These three types live in open grasslands and in the acacia woodlands. To differentiate them, start by looking back – literally. “You can easily pick out the impalas by the markings on their butts,” John says. “Impalas have black markings that resemble McDonald’s golden arches, while the gazelles both have white behinds. ” Another major characteristic is the male impala’s broad, ridged horns, absent in females.

thompsons gazelleThings get trickier between Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles. Both types are tan, and both genders bear horns. However, a Thomson’s gazelle – known as a “tommy” – features a black stripe down the sides of its body. Grant’s gazelles are also bigger than Thomson’s, a fact that makes the latter a favorite snack for cheetahs.




Zebras

burchells zebra

“The two main types in East Africa are Burchell’s zebra – also referred to as the plains or common zebra – and Grevy’s zebra, found mainly in Kenya. First, Burchell’s is smaller than Grevy’s and resembles a donkey, while Grev’s looks like a horse.


grevys zebra

Second, the Grevy’s has “bat” ears that are almost twice the size of the common zebra and pinstripes with a white underbelly, while a Burchell’s boasts widely spaced stripes that go all the way round its belly. Finally – and this is for the truly eagle-eyed – the Burchell’s zebra will have one chevron on the side of its forelegs while the Grevy’s has two chevrons on the sides of the front and hind legs.




Giraffes

rothchilds giraffe

Of all the animals safari-goers will see, none is easier to spot than a giraffe. “It is the tallest mammal on earth and impossible to miss,” says John. In all of Africa, there are three types of giraffes: the Rothschild’s giraffe, the most rare; the Masai giraffe, the most common; and the reticulated giraffe, the most beautiful.

masai giraffe

It is best to identify them by process of elimination, starting with the Masai. “The Masai bears jagged-edged, brown markings that look like maple leaves that stop at the knees,” John explains. “Meanwhile, the reticulated giraffe has beautiful, brick-shaped, reddish coat patterns with very distinct, narrow white lines separating the bricks. Both these species have three horns.”

reticulated giraffe

In contrast, the Rothschild’s has a paler coat with less-jagged markings than the Masai; they also appear to wear white socks. “Finally, the males of these species have five horns, while the female sports three,” John says.