The overgrown pussies we refer to as ‘Big Cats’ are Africa’s best-known carnivores, and many would regard quality cat sightings to be the benchmark of a successful safari. For first-time visitors, the languid lion is the guaranteed showstopper, burt repeat visitors generally place a higher premium on the elusive leopard and localised cheetah. In fact, Tanzania is home to some 30 carnivore species, ranging from hyenas and jackals to mongooses and genets, all of which are described under the links below.
- Carnivores are typically solitary by nature, but the African wild dog, spotted hyena, lion and dwarf mongoose boast some of the most complex social systems in the animal kingdom.
- Carnivores vary in size from the 250g weasel to the 3,400kg elephant seal, but the only vegetarian among the world’s 260 species is the bamboo-guzzling giant panda.
Viewing tip: Most carnivores are nocturnal and you’re likely to see the greatest variety on night drives (where available) or spotlighted waterholes after dark. Failing that, many species are also active at dusk and for a short period after dawn, with early morning drives (ideally, leaving shortly before sunrise) likely to be most productive.
Top spot: Serengeti and Ngorongoro for the greatest numbers and variety, but also Ruaha, Tarangire, Selous, Katavi, Mikumi and Manyara.
African wild dog
Small canids and felids
Mustelids and Viverrids
Lion Panthera leo
The world’s most sociable cat and second-largest after the tiger, the lion is the one animal that everybody hopes to see on safari. It is rendered unmistakeable by its size and tawny-grey coat. The male has a mane, while young adults are often subtly spotted. A pride typically consists of one adult male, 2-3 adult females, and assorted youngsters, but larger groups dominated by a coalition of 2-3 adult brothers are a feature of the northern Serengeti and Ruaha. Rivalry for domination is intense: takeover battles are frequently fought to the death, and very few males ever reach a ripe old age! When not fighting, however, lions are remarkably languorous, spending 20-plus hours at rest daily, though cubs tend to be more active and playful, and prides often cover large distances at night.
- The large male lion might stand 1.2 metres tall, and be 3-4 times heaver than the average human male.
- The favoured prey is antelope such as wildebeest and gazelle, but a large pride can down a giraffe or buffalo with ease.
- The hunt is generally undertaken cooperatively by females, after which the dominant male will emerge to exercise his right to the choicest cuts.
- In an extraordinary mating ritual, a male and female lion might pair off for 3-4 days, copulating at 15-20 minute intervals until they return hungry and exhausted to the main pride.
Viewing tip: Lions seldom move far in the heat of the day, so if you locate them at rest in mid-morning, it’s worth returning later in the afternoon to check for renewed activity.
Top spot: Serengeti (especially Gol Koppies), but also Ngorongoro, Selous (for daytime kills), Katavi, Ruaha (for large prides), Mikumi, Manyara (for tree-climbing).
Stealthy, secretive and inscrutable, the leopard is the supreme solitary hunter, so well camouflaged that it often gets to within 5m of its prey before pouncing. This elusive creature is eagerly sought by the safari cognoscenti, partly because sightings are rare and often fleeting, but also because it’s astonishingly beautiful with its black-on-gold rosette spots and powerful build. With the exception of a female with cubs, the leopard is defiantly solitary and territorial - a chance meeting between individuals will be accompanied by real or feigned aggression, and coupling tends to be an ill-tempered affair.
- In forests, where lions and hyenas are absent, the leopard is the apex predator and may weigh 90kg. Elsewhere, it typically weighs 70kg and stores its kills in trees to deter less agile competitors.
- The name leopard stems from an ancient Greek belief it is a hybrid between a lion (‘leo’) and panther (‘pardos’) – the latter being an uncommon melanistic (all black) morph of leopard.
- Elusive it might be, but the leopard is also the most widespread, habitat-tolerant and abundant of Africa’s large predators, still maintaining a spectral presence in farmland and periurban forests where other large mammals are hunted out.
Viewing tip: Leopards often lie up in trees by day, revealing their presence only by the occasional twitch of a dangling tail – a phenomenon often noticed in the acacia-lined Seronera River in the Serengeti.
Top spot: Serengeti (especially Seronera valley), but also Ruaha, Ngorongoro (crater rim only) and with a great deal of luck practically any other protected or uninhabited area.
Cheetah Acynonix jubatus
The felid equivalent to the greyhound, the cheetah is capable of outsprinting all other terrestrial animals, achieving speeds of 110km/hour in short bursts thanks to its streamlined built. Cheetahs are normally solitary and highly territorial, but coalitions of 2-3 brothers are often seen in the Serengeti, and fluffy-maned youngsters stick close to mum for two years while they learn to hunt. Favouring gazelles and other medium-sized antelope, this diurnal hunter will creep to within 20m of its intended prey before opening chase. It is often bullied off its kill by lions or hyenas, so it gobbles down its food quickly, consuming up to 10kg in 15 minutes.
- The cheetah cannot roar, and its twittering call recalls a bird or bat more than a large carnivore.
- It’s easy to distinguish Africa’s two large spotted cats – the cheetah has diagnostic black ‘tear marks’ running from eyes to mouth, and is evenly spotted where the leopard has rosettes.
Viewing tip: As might be expected of a creature that relies on speed to catch its prey, the cheetah is almost always seen in open country, pacing restlessly or resting up in short, flat grassland.
Top spot: Serengeti (especially southeast of Seronera) and abutting parts of Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Elsewhere, it is most likely in Ruaha.
Hyenas habitually receive a bad rap as giggling, cowardly scavengers. However, the classic safari scenario of lions feeding on a fresh kill while hyenas lurk cravenly in the wings may be an inversion of what it seems – recent studies demonstrate that hyenas are adept hunters and are often chased off their kills by lions. The spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta is Africa’s second-largest carnivore, with a powerful build, hunched back and bone-crunching jaws, and it lives in loose matriarchal clans of up to 5-25 animals. Similar in size, the striped hyena Hyaena hyaena is pale brown with dark vertical stripes, while the insectivorous aardwolf Proteles cristatus is closer in size to a jackal.
- A hyena’s vagina is obscured behind a false scrotum and penism leading to the ancient belief that it is hermaphroditic and can change sex at will.
- Though doglike in appearance, hyenas are more closely related to cats than canids.
Viewing tip: Park back from a hyena den in the early morning to watch as various individuals return home and perform their elaborate dog-like greeting ritual. Top spots: Ngorongoro (the crater harbours Africa’s densest population, unusually active by day), also Serengeti, Selous and to a lesser extent any other game reserve or thinly inhabited area.
- The hyena’s justifiably legendary ‘laugh’ is heard less often than its greeting call, a haunted, far-carrying, ascending whoooo-oooop which many regard to be the definitive African night sound.
African wild dog Lycaon pictus
The African wild dog is distinguishable from other Tanzania canids by its large size and blotched cream brown coat. It is probably the world’s most sociable dog, living in packs of up to 50 animals, and is a co-operative hunter, with several individuals literally tearing apart their prey on the run. Formerly so common that it was listed as vermin, the African wild dog is now endangered, with the total wild African population estimated at 4-5,000.
- Southern Tanzania is the wild dog’s most important stronghold; the Selous harbours 1,300 individuals, more than any other African country.
Viewing tip: Wild dog packs are notoriously nomadic, and are most reliably sought during denning season (June/July), when pack members seldom range far from the denned pups.
Top spot: Selous Game Reserve, also Ruaha and to a lesser extent Mikumi and Mkomazi.
Tanzania’s three jackal species all stand about 40cm tall at the shoulder, and are placed in the genus Canis alongside the domestic dogs they closely resemble. Most widespread is the black-backed jackal, whose ochre coat is broken by a flecked black saddle. The side-striped jackal has an indistinct pale vertical stripe on each flank and diagnostic white-tipped tail, while the duller common jackal is a northern hemisphere species whose range extends into parts of Tanzania bordering Kenya,
- The Serengeti-Ngorongoro ecosystem is the only place on earth where all three jackals’ ranges overlap.
- The eerie high-pitched call of the black-backed jackal is one of the most evocative sounds of the African night.
Viewing tip: Jackal pups usually disappear underground when a vehicle approaches, but if you park at a sensible distance, they will often re-emerge to play.
Top site: Serengeti (all three species), but also most other reserves and thinly inhabited areas.
Small canids and felids
- The insectivorous bat-eared fox is slightly smaller than a jackal, and easily identified by its huge ears and black eye-mask. Common in the Serengeti-Ngorongoro, it’s most likely to be seen during the denning season (Nov/Dec).
- Reminiscent of a scaled-down cheetah, the serval has a streakier spot pattern, and pounces on its prey with a spectacular high spring before striking it with its claws. In the Serengeti, early risers encounter it with fair frequency, but it’s seldom seen elsewhere or at other times of day.
- The caracal is a widespread lynx-like cat with a tan coat and tufted ears. A solitary nocturnal hunter, it might be encountered almost anywhere in Tanzania, but seldom is.
- The African wild cat, ancestral to the domestic cat, is similar to the familiar tabby, but longer legged. Among the most widely distributed of African predators, it is seen very occasionally in most Tanzanian reserves.
These are the most prolific of African carnivores, and several species are likely to be seen on safari. Most are characterised by a slender build, narrow muzzle, long tail, small eyes and ears, non-retractable claws, and uniform grizzled coats. It is popularly assumed that mongooses feed mainly on venomous snakes, but most species are as likely to eat rats, insects, molluscs, crabs and any other small terrestrial creature.
- The solitary badger-sized white-tailed mongoose, the largest Tanzanian species, is sometimes observed on night drives, when its bushy white tail is diagnostic.
- Another large solitary hunter, the marsh mongoose has a scruffy brown coat and, as its name suggests, is often seen close to water.
- The common banded mongoose is dark brown, with a dozen faint black vertical side stripes, and lives in bands of up to 25 members, which might be seen in any wooded habitat.
- The slender mongoose is a widespread and solitary diurnal savannah inhabitant with a uniform brown coat and distinctive black tail tip.
- Diminutive, light brown and highly sociable, the endearing dwarf mongoose is often seen in the vicinity of termite mounds, particularly in Tarangire and other dry parts of the Rift Valley.
Mustelids and Viverrids
Ancestral to most other modern carnivore families, the viverrids are small catlike nocturnal Old World hunters of which the best-known are the African genets and civets. The mustelids are a more diverse family of doglike carnivores comprised of 55 species worldwide but poorly represented in Africa.