South Africa is a land of breathtaking landscapes, diverse cultures, and incredible animals. From the famous ‘Big Five’ to an array of everyday creatures found nowhere else on Earth, the southernmost region of Africa boasts a rich tapestry of animal life. Over 290 mammals, 859 birds, and upwards of 43,000 insects live in sunny South Africa. In this blog post, you’ll discover 5 of the most iconic animals that call South Africa ‘home’.
1. African Elephant
Just like no list of animals of Antarctica is complete without a mention of the emperor penguin and how every article about animals you’ll find in the Everglades includes the alligator, no discussion of animals in South Africa would be complete without mentioning the ‘Big Five’. Arguably, the most iconic animal in this exclusive group is the African elephant.
The world’s largest land animal, the African elephant can reach a shoulder height of up to 13 feet and a body weight of up to 10.4 tons. These gentle giants have wrinkly grey skin, complex communication methods, are known for being incredible animal mothers, and are deeply revered in all South African cultures – the South African coat of arms even boasts elephant tusks to display wisdom, strength, and moderation.
African elephants are herbivores. They eat grass, leaves, vines, herbs, and bark. Poachers, habitat loss, and sickness have led to African elephants being categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
South Africa has so much more to it than the Big Five. Though this next creature doesn’t often appear on lists like this one, anyone who has been to South Africa will attest that the hadeda is one of the most memorable animals they encountered.
The hadeda is a grey-brown ibis bird that is known for the booming four-note call it makes in the early mornings and evenings when exiting or entering its nest. The loud “ha-ha-de-dah” noise it makes has earned it a reputation for being Africa’s alarm clock.
This iconic bird eats earthworms, spiders, lizards, and the legendary Parktown prawn which you will be introduced to soon. Apart from the arid Karoo, hadedas are found in abundance across South Africa, where they enjoy their conservation status of Least Concern. Beginner birdwatchers love the hadeda as it's so used to humans it barely notices them.
3. Rain Spider
Another animal that is synonymous with South Africa is the rain spider. The rain spider, whose real name is the Palystes superciliosus, is a species of huntsman spider that is native to South Africa. It’s huge, hairy, and horrible-looking. It’s also completely harmless to humans.
The rain spider has a body length of 1.4 inches and a leg length of up to 4.3 inches. This, coupled with the fact that the underside of its legs is striped with alarming black and yellow bands, causes people to immediately fear the rain spider. There are many venomous spiders out there, but the rain spider isn’t one of them. It only really bothers people when it enters their homes to avoid the rain – hence the name.
Lizards and small insects make up the rain spider’s diet. It is found in several South African provinces, including Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West as well as the Western and Eastern Cape areas. The rain spider is a common creature that is not considered endangered in South Africa.
Another iconic member of the Big Five is the mighty rhinoceros. Two species of rhinoceros call South Africa ‘home’: the white rhino and the black rhino. There are an estimated 15,940 white rhinos scattered across the earth. Of these 15,000 plus, a whopping 12,968 live in South Africa.
Conversely, there are only around 6,000 black rhinos in the world. Of these, a little over 2,000 live in South Africa. Thankfully, this number is steadily rising.
White and black rhinos live in open savannahs and grasslands, and great conservation efforts have been made to protect these majestic creatures, so you’ll find them in numerous nature reserves and national parks. Sadly, due to poachers erroneously believing that its horns have medicinal properties, the black rhino is Critically Endangered. The white rhino has a Near Threatened conservation status.
5. Parktown Prawn
And last, but by no means least, is the legendary Parktown prawn. Ever wondered why people are so scared of bugs? In the case of South African people, this creepy crawly is the primary reason why. Despite its name, the Parktown prawn, also known as the African king cricket, is a monstrous insect that is not a prawn and not quite a cricket either but rather it’s a type of large flightless insect.
These frightful invertebrates are bright brown and orange with black stripes, can measure in at 3.1 inches, and boast barbs on their legs and a large pair of tusks on their mandibles. Parktown prawns are incredibly strong (don’t worry if you accidentally stand on one, you won’t crush it!) and are aggressive. Although they don’t bite humans, they do eject liquid black fecal matter when stressed.
Parktown prawns are omnivores that will eat just about anything from vegetables to slugs and from fallen fruit to pet poop. Luckily for the rest of the world, Parktown prawns are endemic to Southern Africa. Though they can be found all over South Africa, great numbers of Parktown prawns are specifically found in the Parktown area of northern Johannesburg, which is where the name comes from. They are by no means threatened.