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Animals in Kruger National Park

Visitors are drawn from around the globe to encounter the myriad of animals in Kruger National Park, but Kruger is not just a place. Kruger is a feeling – it captures your heart.

It awakens your soul and transports you into a world that is both beautiful and brutal. You are a voyeur of Mother Nature. She is a force that cares little about your opinion or judgement, continuing along her path, adapting and changing over millenniums.

Nowhere is life’s impermanence so visual. The predators feed, a life is lost. Scavengers mop up the remnants until all that remains are scattered bones amongst the tall grasses of the savannah.

Kruger transports you into a world that is both beautiful and brutal…

We spent over three months on our own self-drive safari in our 4×4 bush camper, amongst the animals in Kruger National Park from July to October.

This article includes first-hand information on:

  • Animals of Kruger National Park
  • Top locations for spotting animals in Kruger
  • Information on the big five
  • Our best sightings of Kruger animals (in photos)
close up of a lioness face

Lioness in Kruger 

The opportunity to encounter such a great cross-section of South African safari animals, often in relatively close quarters, imparts a feeling of wonderment, bordering on euphoria.

Visitors flock to see the mighty leopard with its kill – a sacrificial impala, head dangling from the branches above. Cameras click and whir. Cars reposition, jostling for the prime position and perfect photographic angle. The leopard, seemingly unperturbed, drowsily watches the performing circus below.

To look a lion in the eyes, hear the rumbling murmurs of elephant wallowing in mud and to watch the antics of African wild dogs (also known as painted wolves) darting in and out of bushes. That is just part of the magic found among the animals of Kruger National Park.

Two elephants playing in the mud

There’s nothing quite like a cooling mud bath

Animals in Kruger VIDEO

Jump right in amongst the wildlife of Kruger here:

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Animals in Kruger

Kruger National Park, in South Africa, is one of Africa’s largest game reserves. It lies in the very north-east of the country across the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, butting up against the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This world-renowned park covers an area of nearly 20,000 square kilometres and hosts a multitude of diverse ecosystems allowing for some of the world’s most amazing flora and fauna to thrive.

According to figures from the official government Sanspark site, there are 505 different species of bird, 148 species of mammals, 118 reptile species, 53 species of fish, 53 amphibians and a boggling 1990 different species of flora in Kruger National Park.

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African wild dog (also known as a painted wolf)

Animals in Kruger MAP

To use this map, expand it using the square symbol on the top right-hand side and you will find the key on the left-hand side.
Kruger Rest Camps are marked with a purple house and any rivers or roads mentioned in the post are marked in blue

Kruger National Park Big 5

If you’re considering a safari in Kruger National Park, then you have probably heard of Africa’s iconic ‘Big Five’. This illustrious list of animals includes:

  • Elephant,
  • Lion,
  • Buffalo,
  • Leopard and
  • Rhino

What are your chances of seeing all five of these animals in Kruger National Park?

It depends on how much time you spend in Kruger,  where you drive, and whether luck is on your side. The unpredictability of the African bush cannot guarantee an outcome, but you can take steps to nudge the odds in your favour.

One thing you can be sure of in relation to the animals in Kruger – you cannot script nature. And its wild unpredictability will have you hungering for more.

The African Elephant

Baby African bush elephant

I was surprised and baffled when someone, who spends a lot of time in the South African bush, told me, that in daylight hours…

“I’d rather walk into a pride of lions than a herd of elephants.”

Over the coming days and weeks, I began to understand that sentiment.

Elephants are found in almost all areas of Kruger and you would be unlucky not to come across any while searching for the big 5 there. Especially as they are the largest land-living animal on our planet. Though don’t underestimate their ability to blend exceedingly well into the surrounding landscape.

Although elephants are mesmerising – and the babies are just the cutest creatures – they aren’t always the ‘gentle giants’ you may think they are. They are intelligent and demonstrate deep bonds within their herds, but you do need to have your wits about you when in the presence of these wrinkly, grey giants.

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Elephant herd digging for water in one of the dry riverbeds in Central Kruger 

Elephant herds consist of a lead matriarch (older female and also often the largest), other females (cows) and younger calves. The males (bulls), are often solitary or hang out with a couple of older males, having left the herd in their late teens.

Knowing whether there is an elephant herd nearby or that you are just near a solitary bull, can help you know what to look out for and how to handle any uncomfortable situations. I can’t tell you how many times in the 3 months we spent in the bush, both in Klaserie Nature reserve, in Greater Kruger, and in Kruger National Park, that I jumped out of my skin as a trumpeting mother screamed her annoyance at us. Yes, a 10-foot, 6-ton animal can hide extremely well behind a bush.

Female Elephants

Amongst the herd, there are likely to be young calves. Be warned that their mothers can become very agitated if they sense their youngsters may be in danger.

An instinct I’m sure we can all relate to. The elephant mother may also just be having an ‘off day’. Maybe the pressures of parenthood are getting to her or she just wants a few moments of ‘me time‘;)  Whatever the reason, she could be, ‘on the edge‘ and not at all happy with annoying vehicles encroaching on her space.

So always be particularly careful when around elephants and their calves.

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Baby elephant sucking its trunk – they do this much like human babies suck their thumbs 🙂

Male Elephants

If you see a male elephant with a dark strip of fluid running down its face and urine dribbling down its legs then it is likely in ‘musth.’ This elephant is also likely to be aggressive because it has more than ten times the normal amount of testosterone flowing through its body.

Also, the swollen temporal glands (behind the eyes), which produce the tar-like fluid running down its face, swell to the size of a grapefruit, causing the elephant pain equivalent to a major toothache. It’s therefore, no wonder that male elephants in ‘musth’ tend to be temperamental.

Close-up-of-elephant in Kruger National Park

Mock Charges

An elephant will let you know that it isn’t happy to have you around. It may trumpet if suddenly frightened, or give a vigorous shake of its head. That’s a warning to let you know it isn’t particularly happy and is thinking about what it might do next. It may also slightly lift one of its front legs and sway a little – again thinking, and weighing up the situation.

The elephant may also run toward you in what is called a ‘mock charge’. In this scenario, the elephant will likely have its ears spread out wide and may also trumpet. If it’s a mock charge, it will then pull up suddenly, hoping to have intimidated you. It then reassesses the danger. Often, reversing too loudly or quickly may spur the elephant on to further chase you. If it doesn’t sense any more danger, it may just turn away. If it isn’t a mock charge the elephant will likely have its ears pinned back and be silent or roar rather than trumpet.

The best thing is to not get too close and to read the situation carefully if you find yourself in that scenario. By treating the animals with respect, and limiting any actions which would antagonise or make them uneasy, is the best course of action.

TIP:  I used to think that an elephant flapping its ears meant it was angry but they do this to simply cool themselves down – literally cool themselves, not to cool tempers.

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Elephants crossing the Luvuvhu River by the Pafuri Picnic Site

Kruger Elephant Experiences

Elephants in Kruger will sometimes feed amongst the bushes right by the road hidden from view, so always be aware that a huge giant could step out into the road at any time. This happened to us several times and we were normally able to back up, giving them some space, and watch from a suitable distance.

Elephants-on-bridge-at-Punda-Maria

You’re not going anywhere until this herd disperses – we ended up reversing all the way back along the bridge near Pafuri picnic spot.

Other times we would be stationary, watching something else, and a solitary elephant or even a herd would suddenly appear. Those times we had to judge the situation and normally sat quietly while they passed. Sometimes a juvenile elephant would hover around in the road, sizing us up before attempting a half-hearted mock charge. It would then hasten off to catch up with the rest of the herd; teenagers are the same the world over – thinking they’re all grown up.

We loved to sit and watch a herd of elephants with their little ones playing and practising using their little trunks as they learn all about the world around them.

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Baby elephant happily playing and taking a keen interest in us at the same time

We were lucky enough to see one of the solitary big tuskers digging for water in the sands of the dry Mphongolo River bed, not far from Shingwedze bush camp. These behemoths of the bush are the stuff of legends. One climbed the bank and crossed the road right in front of us – such a treat.

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Big Tusker, Kruger National Park

If you have a keen interest in elephants and find yourself passing by the Letaba bush camp, in the central part of Kruger National Park, then duck into the camp and pay a visit to the Elephant Hall. Here you can wander around a fantastic exhibition explaining the habits and history of elephants in Kruger. You can also admire the ivory from the ‘big tuskers’ of old that are hung from the walls.

In the northern parts of the park (north of Letaba bush camp), the elephants seem to be more easily agitated – likely as there are fewer tourists and the elephants are therefore less habituated to onlookers, (SansPark also include a similar warning in their brochures).

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Elephants along the Mphongolo Loop in Kruger

Lion

I had many misconceptions about African safari animals when we arrived in South Africa. Not only did I believe elephants were harmless, but I thought that if a lion spotted you, it would immediately attack. I haven’t yet tested this theory at night, but during the day lions really aren’t that interested in you unless you look like an impala or buffalo.

I soon learnt that I didn’t have to rapidly wind my window up every time I saw one approaching. In fact, the lions in Kruger are completely habituated to vehicles. They wander along the road with a couldn’t care less attitude to the row upon row of cars; all with eager passengers straining their necks to get a good look at these majestic creatures.

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Two male lions in Kruger National Park

We had that privilege on more than one occasion – and luckily had front row seats. The enormity of their paws was what struck me first, and the casual air with which they padded along the road. I suppose being at the top of the food chain, king of the beasts, offers a sense of security that isn’t too common among most of the other animals in Kruger National Park.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying a lion won’t attack you if you were stupid enough to get out of your vehicle – but it’s safe enough to get closer to a lion on the road than an elephant let’s say.

Lioness drinking in Kruger National Park

Old lioness taking a drink near Skukuza, Kruger

Lions are more prevalent in the southern and central parts of Kruger. They can be regularly sighted near the Sabie River where the water continues to flow during the dry months from June to October, attracting all types of potential prey. The Skukuza – Lower Sabie Road road parallels the Sabie River from above giving great views down to the river bank where lions can be seen stalking or just lying about in the sand.

Lion and lioness beside river Lower Sabie

In the daylight hours, it’s not unusual to come across a pride of lions sleeping. It’s equally unusual that you’ll see them get up to much. You can watch them for quite a few hours waiting for just some movement. It’s always nice to get at least a yawn or a  stretch in return for sitting there, camera at the ready, for two hours!

Buffalo

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 Buffalo missing a horn and a helpful yellow-billed oxpecker

I still remember seeing my very first buffalo after arriving in South Africa. Stompy was his name, and he was walking towards our vehicle at the Lion and Rhino Nature Reserve near Johannesburg.

I’d just finished reading the book, Torn Trousers, written by a couple who gave up their repetitive 9-5 live in the city to run a game lodge in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Intrigued as to what our overlanding Africa experience would perhaps be like, I had been gathering information about the wilds of Africa and the animals that we might encounter. I remembered their safari guides words to their guests; 

… If you see a buffalo climb a tree. If you see a lion stay still, if you see a leopard don’t look it in the eyes.

I also learnt that if I ever came face to face with an angry baboon – to make myself appear as big as possible by spreading my arms out and to wave and shout loudly. 

At the time, I doubted I would ever be in such close proximity to any of those animals, much less have to take heed of those warnings. But the information had stuck and it was suddenly thrust to the forefront of my mind as Stompy the buffalo headed straight towards us. 

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Buffalo and elephant sharing the tiny waterhole in the dry riverbed

These lumbering beasts can weigh up to 750 kgs and you’ll find them all over Kruger National Park, either grazing in large herds or lone bulls ambling along alone or in a small group. If the herd decides to cross the road, you can be waiting for quite a while as they slowly file across. Several times the herd seemed to stop en masse in the middle of the road just looking at us. I wonder what they think of us, as they stare down our 4×4 gently rumbling beast.

If stopped for a while, we would turn off the engine to be less obtrusive, but unlike elephants, buffalo are not a danger when you are in your vehicle. However, if you were on foot, that would be a very different story. We heard a few stories of those on walking safaris having to climb trees to escape a buffalo charge. They can be particularly bad-tempered when they perceive you as a person rather than a large moving beast (your vehicle).

Herd of buffalo-on-Kruger-Road

Buffalo stopped in the middle of the road in Kruger National Park

Dagga Boys

These older male buffalo are known as ‘Dagga Boys’. ‘Dagga’, in Afrikaans, means cannabis or hemp, but is also used as slang to call someone crazy. The older males, without the protection of a large herd, rely on attack as their defence and give little to no warning of an impending charge. Therefore, they have gained the reputation of being grumpy old men prone to acting crazy.

Dagga boys are easily recognisable with their large horns and ‘big boss’ – the thick centre part between the horns. An almost constant companion of the buffalo is the oxpecker. The most common being the red-billed oxpecker, or you might be lucky to spot the less common yellow-billed variety. The contrast of this cute little bird cleaning up this brute of a beast makes for some endearing photos and brings a pop of colour to this member of the big five team.

buffalo in Kruger National park

Buffalo and Oxpecker

Buffalo, being a favourite meal of lions, will group together when threatened, to thwart an attack. We didn’t see any attacks, but we did come across these full-bellied lions laying in the sun with a freshly devoured buffalo carcass in the nearby bushes.

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Lions laying with full bellies 

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Buffalo carcass

You can read more about the old dagga boys (old buffalos) who slept around our camp and all the other wildlife we experienced while living in Klaserie Nature Reserve African bush during Covid lockdown – in these posts:

You’ll see I came closer than I liked to more than just buffalo in our overlanding adventures… Which brings us to the next of the big five animals in Kruger National Park – the leopard.

Leopard

From all the photos of Kruger Park leopards I’d seen on social media, you know the ones – with a leopard draped lazily over an overhanging branch – I assumed that we too would spot this attractive big cat in such a pose. I became very excited several times when we stopped to find out what all the other cars were looking at and were told there was a leopard in the tree.

There may very well have been, but we could neither position our 4×4 in such a way to see such supposed leopard (take note that some Kruger visitors are very reluctant to move once they have a prime spot to view one of these elusive big five animals, and can hog that spot for hours at a time), or the leopard was so well hidden and so far from the road that even our zoom lenses could only manage a blurred rosette through copious leaves and branches.

leopard-on-branch in Kruger

Female leopard on a branch 50 cms off the ground –  not quite my leopard in a tree pose …

This beautiful animal with its distinctive black rosette markings prefers to live a mostly solitary existence. The male leopard is quite a bit larger overall, with a large head and muscled neck and torso, compared to the female whose appearance is more refined. Leopards can often be found around the rivers in Kruger – especially those with bushy trees.

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Although found throughout Kruger, the highest concentration of leopards are found along the stretch of the Lower Sabie river but we did hear of sightings even in the far north of the park near Crook’s Corner.

It wasn’t until our very last day in Kruger that I found my elusive leopard draped over an overhanging branch. Seeking refuge from the heat, he was hiding in the dappled shade overlooking the Mphongolo River; so well hidden, that I almost missed him. But I had that feeling in my bones, that after three months in the bush – today I’d see my leopard in the pose so many before me had captured on film.

Leopard in tree in Kruger National Park

Finally, my leopard in a tree …

This wasn’t our first leopard sighting in Kruger though. We had seen several stalking in the bush on their solitary daily sojourn and some sunbaking on mounds of baked red earth, both land and animal waiting for the summer rains.

One had crossed the road right in front of us as our skin prickled with excitement. The best encounter though was spotting a leopard and her cub crouched in the bushes as we drove north to our next camp, Letaba.

As we slowly drove along the main road, we caught a speck of movement alerting us to stop, reverse and take a closer look. The winter bush, with its bare confusion of sticks and stems, had not yet begun its spring renewal – so the small whiskered face was all too clear as it peered out between the branches.

Another movement signalled its mum bringing up the rear, before leaping up into a nearby tree, where a mass of brown fur hung limply. In her maneuvering, of what we later assessed to be the remains of a baboon, the mangled body dropped from the tree.

We watched on, voyeurs of nature’s cruel but necessary cycle.

Mum and cub then tucked into lunch at the foot of the tree. Five minutes later, she decided it would be better to continue their meal ‘upstairs’ and she niftily hoisted the carcass back up into the safety of the tree. Mum, cub and lunch disappeared into thick greenery and dappled shade.

(You’ll see more of mum and cub feeding in the video above)

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Leopard with a baboon kill

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Rhino

Both white and black rhino are found in Kruger, however, it’s the black rhino that is the rarer sighting. (We still haven’t seen one.Black rhinos weigh up to 1.4 tonnes and are smaller than their distant ancestor, the white rhino, with adult males possibly tipping the scales at 3.5 tonnes.

Although their names suggest that one is white and one black – they are actually both grey. The easiest way to differentiate between the two is by looking at the shape of the mouth. The white rhino has a square mouth while the black rhino has a more hook-shaped mouth.

We had a great sighting of a white rhino pair not far from Lower Sabie bush camp. They allowed us to drive within 10 metres of them and we watched them for a glorious ten minutes before they wandered off into the bush. The White rhino is not known as being particularly ill-tempered, unlike the short-fused Black rhino which is known for not needing any provocation to charge.

two rhino animals in Kruger National Park

Two white rhino in southern Kruger

At each of the twelve main rest camps in Kruger National Park, you’ll find a sightings board that displays the locations of sightings for lions, buffalo, elephant, leopard, cheetah and wild dogs. However, you won’t see any rhinos indicated because of the constant threat of poaching.

Many of the rhinos we had seen in Klaserie Nature Reserve, Greater Kruger, had been dehorned to protect them from poachers but the cost to undertake such a project for all the rhinos in Kruger would be too exorbitant. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to see a rhino in Kruger it will likely still have its horn intact.

Rhino up close

White rhino can be distinguished by its square shape mouth

Other Animals in Kruger National Park

The big five have developed and marketed their brand well – with most of us knowing the stars of the show. But just because they have top billing, doesn’t necessarily mean they are the most talented or most interesting of the animals in Kruger.

History has labelled them as such because hunters used to find them the most difficult and dangerous to shoot and capture. There are a number of other large mammals and indeed a number of other predators that are just as, if not more interesting as some of the Big 5.

There are also lots of smaller and more obscure animals in Kruger. We were thrilled to see a honey badger almost skipping around in the long grass and our most treasured sighting was seeing a pangolin.

Honey badger in Kruger national park

Honeybadger 

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Rare pangolin in Kruger

Wild Dogs

Coming across a pack of wild dogs and their pups’ musical yips and yelps is always a special moment. Also known as ‘painted wolves’, these dogs with dappled brown, black and white fur and large bat-like ears are an endangered species, with only about 6,500 left in Africa.

Wild dogs in Kruger

What are we all looking at? 

We saw them twice in the two months in Kruger. The first time, we came across a lot of parked cars on the side of the road – a sure sign there was something interesting up ahead. As we edged closer we could see about 20 dogs, all huddled under the shade of a large tree. What was particularly special were the number of tiny faces inquisitively peering out over the jumble of sleeping bodies. The pups were still quite small, so likely only about 4 or 5 months old.

We couldn’t believe they’d chosen a spot so close to the road – and it was just a couple of kilometres from Skukuza main camp. 

wild dog pups in Kruger Natiional Park

Wild dogs and their pups

The second time, we met a whole pack in the middle of the road. It was a miserable morning, with drizzly rain – seemingly light but which still manages to drench you if you keep your window down trying to spot game. But these pups didn’t seem to mind the wet weather – or the fact that they were blocking the main road from Letaba to Shingdwezi.

For 20 minutes they tussled with and chased each other in the road. The young ones darting across the road from side to side playing imaginary games, like kids in a school playground. As our lenses zoomed in and out and we played with angles and captured their reflections on the sodden tarmac, the rain no longer mattered. To share rare moments such as these are part of the Kruger magic.

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Wild dog pup

A more common predator sighting in Kruger is the hyena. This brings me to the next category of animals found in Kruger National Park – the Ugly Five.

Kruger National Park Ugly 5

The ugly five goes hand in hand with the Small Five and the Shy Five. I imagine these have been grouped together to highlight the other albeit uglier, smaller, and shyer animals found in Kruger that are just as deserving of our attention; for us to appreciate the underappreciated.

The Ugly Five: 

       ♦ Hyena ♦ Warthog ♦ Vultures ♦ Wildebeest ♦ Marabou Stork

The Small Five:

  • Leopard tortoise
  • Lion ant
  • Rhino beetle
  • Elephant shrew
  • Buffalo Weaver

The Shy Five:

  • Meerkat
  • Aardvark
  • Porcupine
  • Aardwolf 
  • Bat-eared fox.

The ugly five include the hyena. Now, if we were judging the hyena portrayed in the hit children’s movie ‘The Lion King’, then I would agree that both their looks and temperament in that move is ugly indeed

However, the real-life spotted hyenas, you’ll find in Kruger, have been unfairly misinterpreted in my opinion. They are just as endearing as many of the animals in Kruger and although maligned as the scavengers of the bush, along with vultures, spotted hyenas actually kill more than 80% of their food rather than scavenge it. And I challenge anyone to tell me that a baby hyena cub isn’t just the cutest thing.

Lucy Cook, an author and conservationist, has written a really interesting article, ‘Everything you know about hyenas is wrong’, – highlighting that hyenas are fierce, social and incredibly smart.

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Now tell me that face isn’t adorable

The vultures – well yes, they’re probably not the prettiest of birds soaring the skies above Kruger. None the less, they do an excellent job of cleaning up every last scrap and morsel of the mess left behind by the predators. The black-backed jackal will also be happy for any scraps it finds.

The other bird in the Ugly 5 group is the Marabou stork which does indeed have a very unfortunate look about it. You’ll likely find these in the trees or by the river just outside the entrance to Shingwedzi main camp.

Vulture in Kruger national Park

Hooded Vulture in Kruger Park (critically endangered), a lesser-seen vulture,  found mainly near rivers in Kruger 

vultures huddled around a kill

White-backed vultures waiting to move in on a kill

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Marabou Stork in Kruger

The warthog, usually a common sighting in Kruger is often found kneeling on its front legs, grazing and digging in the dirt or quickly trotting through the undergrowth. Again, probably a fair call to be lumped into this group, but it’s just as well they won’t be reading this –  I’d hate for them to develop any self-esteem issues.  

two warthog in Kruger National Park

There are so many other animals in Kruger National Park that deserve our attention and Kruger is not Kruger without the whole gambit of wildlife.

Grazers of Kruger

The day becomes complete when your eyes set upon a dazzle of zebras, a tower of giraffes, a confusion of wildebeest or a bloat of hippos. The impala, kudu, nyala, steenbok, waterbuck and duiker (all types of antelope), will keep you guessing until you’re familiar enough not to have to page through your animal identification app.

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A dazzle of zebra in Kruger National Park

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Impala – always on alert for predators 

Hippo in the grass

We saw many hippos in Kruger and contrary to textbook behaviour, they don’t just come out of the water at night. We saw many laying out in the sun and grazing along the riverbanks during the day. 

two impala head to head

Two male impala practising their skills

Birds of Kruger

Hornbills and rollers, bee-eaters and kingfishers, hoopoes and shrikes. Just a few of the bird names that’ll be rolling off the tongue in Kruger. Not having a huge knowledge of South African birds, we were intrigued by the variety and appearance of Kruger’s array.

There are far too many bird species to go into detail about here, so we’ve covered them in much more detail in our Birds of Kruger post. Kruger is definitely a birders paradise and ideal for bird watching. Here are just a few of our favourites.

Bateleur eagle

Bateleur Eagle

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Southern ground hornbill

Lilac breasted roller

Lilac-breasted roller

Nightfall in Kruger

As dusk descends over Kruger National Park, the hyenas whoop their ghostly calls. Baboons and vervet monkeys take to the trees to roost. Hippos grunt in a chorus before hoisting their bulbous bodies onto land, grazing 40 kilograms of grass before daybreak. 

Tiny bats swoop and flit as darkness sweeps across the savannah. A lion roars, signalling the start of the ‘Hunger Games’ – where no one is safe and only the strongest and smartest survive. A shriek of a bird or bark of a baboon, a reminder that the night is full of surprises as the predators prowl. 

Animals in Kruger – That’s a Wrap

Immersion in the wonders of nature does wonders for the soul and reminds us of the connectedness of all who share this planet.

It reminds us to be in the moment, to live for today. Beauty and brutality abound. But it is this rawness, this embodiment of nature in all its glory and gore that brings us back to our primitive being, back to our true selves.

Kruger is a feeling – it captures your heart.

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Cheers and bottoms up! 

We are looking forward to continuing our Overlanding Africa trip and sharing many more memorable moments with Africa’s wildlife. 

Have you been to Kruger? What was your favourite sighting? Share your story.

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