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Our own magical unicorns of the African bush, these nine animals have captivated the imagination of rangers and safari-goers for decades. And the reason is simple. Their tendency to navigate through the wilderness under the radar makes encounters with them a-once-in-a-blue-moon event. So rare, a sighting often results in a celebration (complete with drinks) and revered storytelling around a crackling fire.
Zambia is one of the best African countries to embark on a riveting safari, and most importantly, it’s home to an impressive number of rare and unusual animal species. Some of the best places to see them is within South Luangwa National Park and Kafue National Park, which are the biggest parks in Zambia. Now, who doesn’t love a Where’s-Waldo challenge? Why not go beyond the Big 5 and try meeting these exquisite nine? To add to the fun, we’ve included a scale of how lucky you’d be to see them, with ten being you’ve witnessed the rarest of them all.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material as our nails Image credit: Amy Attenborough, Londolozi
The Temminck’s pangolin can be described as a “walking pinecone”, thanks to its array of brown keratin scales. This nocturnal creature is perfectly adapted with sharp claws and a long, sticky tongue to prowl around the savannah woodlands in search of termites and ants to feast on.
The shoulder is set higher than the hips – an unusual feature for antelopes Image Credit: Cirdan Travels (flickr)
This shy species of antelope is native to Zambia, which makes it a unique animal to see on your safari. Its unusual horn shape sets it apart from the other grazing antelopes on the open savannah. Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest prefer to graze as a small herd early in the morning or in the evening, perfectly coinciding with the game drive times.
White-tailed Mongoose prefer to roam at night Image credit: MC Schaeffer
Perhaps the African version of Puss-in-Boots, the White-tailed Mongoose is the largest member of the mongoose family, and has a distinctive white tail with black “boots” on all its paws. Mostly a night-time eater, it will follow its nose for scrumptious insects and the occasional reptile.
A bushpig in South Luangwa National Park Image credit: Will Burrard-Lucas
The rare and elusive bushpig is a stocky creature with a pale, horse-mane stripe of hair and sharp lower tusks. Most astonishing, though, is their ability to build grass “nests” of about 3 metres across for their piglets. They snuffle around the savannah early in the morning and late evening for tasty roots, fruits and bulbs. In the moment of seeing them, check if they’re running with their tails down – if their tails are up, it’s a warthog…
Doesn’t the African Civet’s face remind you of something? Image credit: Will Burrard-Lucas
Face of a raccoon, mane of a hyena and spots of a cheetah. Sounds like the start of a great Julia Donaldson story for kids, doesn’t it? The African Civet is a rare sight to see because it’s a nocturnal eater and only scuttles through the bush for a short while. Rumour has it they spend their days sleeping in the safety of trees.
Even Zambia has its share of tree-climbing lions Image credit: WWF Zambia
Okay, the lions in Zambia are not rare or remarkably different from those in the rest of Africa. But have you seen one in a tree? And the hilarity that ensues as they try get down rather clumsily? Some theories for this behaviour include lions finding out that trees offer cooler resting spots and refuge from tsetse flies, especially during the hotter seasons. Then it simply became a case of copy-cats.
Small and dainty Sharpe’s Grysbok Image credit: Will Burrard-Lucas
Timid and dainty, these fairytalesque Sharpe’s Grysbok are only about 40 – 65 centimetres tall, which makes them blend in perfectly with the long grasses of the savannah. They are quite shy and stay within cover of shrubs and woodlands. So, if you do meet one of them, you deserve to feel like a Disney princess…
Their mask-like facial feature sets them apart Image credit: Johan van Zyl
Another antelope species with rather unusual features. The Roan has long, pointy ears, curved horns and a mask-like face (which looks uncannily like the Marvel villain, Venom). Jokes aside, the Roan is actually shy and prefers to graze close to the cover of savannah woodlands and grasslands.
Thornicroft’s Giraffes are isolated to Luangwa Valley in Zambia Image credit: Will Burrard-Lucas
And now for the cherry on the top – Thornicroft’s Giraffe is a subspecies only found in Luangwa Valley, which makes them pretty special. Their coat patterns are different from other types of giraffe and it can be described as notched leaf-like prints.
Many thanks to Will Burrard-Lucas, for the use of his photographs of Zambia’s rare animals.
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Jessica grew up surrounded with stories and photographs of the Congo and Lake Kivu, where her grandfather experienced his childhood. After reading several National Geographic magazines, she realised her dream of travelling and writing about Africa. Jessica is proudly Deaf and fluent in South African Sign Language and hopes to master more languages. Besides being an avid reader, she loves animals and wants to experience owning as many pets as possible.
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