Elephants at Victoria Falls

Zimbabwe with its diverse landscape is home to some of Africa's largest game reserves. Within these reserves or national parks, there is a wide variety of animals, from the desert pigmy mouse through to the largest land mammal - the African Elephant.

For this reason Zimbabwe, is considered to be one of the best safari destinations in Africa. On a safari in Zimbabwe guests will get to see a great number of these animals. It is also possible to see all of the Big Five although rhino are extremely rare these days and can only be found in certain game parks.

Loss of habitat and rampant poaching are the biggest threats to Zimbabwe's animals. Corruption and complete mismanagement by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority, which was once a leading light in animal conservation, has been a contributing factor to this destruction.

Fortunately independent organisations have stepped in, to setup and maintain conservation programs and anti-poaching units. These gallant organisation have, against the odds saved Zimbabwe's wildlife to a certain extent. The battle is ongoing, relentless and far from won, but we applaud them for all that they have done and are doing to save Zimbabwe's animals.

See Wildlife, Zimbabwe.

Introducing the Big Five of Zimbabwe Animals

The phrase Big Five game was coined by big game hunters to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. The term is still used in most tourist and wildlife guides that discuss African wildlife safaris.

The Big Five consists of the Lion, the African Elephant, the Cape buffalo, the Leopard and the Rhinoceros.

Below we have gone into further detail about some of the bigger and more well-known animals in Zimbabwe.

Lion - (family Felidae) - Panthera Leo

Lion - Panthera Leo

Prides consist of a group of four to twelve related females and one to six males, unrelated to the females. The lion will hunt collectively and individually: one animal sets up the charge and drives the prey toward other members of the pride, which then ambush the prey. Most hunting is done by the females.

Their favoured prey is wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, porcupines and warthogs. The habitat of lion is woodland and open savanna.

  • Latin name: Panthera leo
  • Gestation period of a lion: 3.5 months
  • Size of litter: 2-6 cubs, ± 2kg (4.5lbs) each.
  • Size of territory of a lion: where prey is abundant can be as small as 20 km2 (8mi2), in less favourable areas up to 400 km2 (155mi2)
  • Life span of a lion: ♂-12 years, ♀- 15 years
  • How fast lions can run: 80km/h (50mph) over short distances, however, they may be able with a very short burst of speed to reach up to 100km/h (60mph).
  • Weight of male and female lions: ♂- 250kg (500lbs), ♀- 190kg (420lbs)

'Big' cats are large felines that belong to the Panthera - this includes lion, leopard, tiger and jaguar. All have a specialised voice box which can expand and vibrate allowing them to produce loud noises. A lions roar can be heard up to 8 km (5 miles) away and is said to be as loud as a shotgun when heard at close quarters.

The reason they roar is varied and there are many variations. The main reason is to assert their dominance, letting other lions know that they are there and ready to defend their territories if they need to. Other reasons may include re-enforcing social bonds within the pride, communicating with or locating other members of pride, or even scaring prey species towards pre-set ambushes.

Elephant - (order Proboscidea) - Loxodonta africana

Hwange Elephants

The African elephant is the world’s largest living land mammals. Its nose and upper lip elongated into a trunk. Both males and females usually have a pair of tusks growing down and forwards from their upper lip. Their ears are very large. Elephants are almost hairless with rough grey skin, often coloured by dust or mud. They can stand approximately 3,2 m high and weigh up to 6 metric tons. They have poor eyesight and hearing but a very keen sense of smell.

Elephants can survive in a wide variety of habitats, their main requirements being a plentiful supply of fodder and access to unpolluted water. They are exclusively herbivorous, requiring up to 300kg of fodder daily. They may eat more grass in years of good rainfall and are especially partial to the ripe fruits of the vegetable ivory palm, the wild almond and the marula.

  • Latin name: Loxodonta africana
  • Gestation period of elephants: 22 months
  • Size of territory of elephants: elephants are not territorial
  • Life span of elephants: 60 + years
  • How fast elephants can run: 40km/h (25mph)
  • Weight of male and female elephants: ♂- 6500kg (14000lbs); ♀- 4500kg (10000lbs)
  • Height of male and female elephants: ♂- 4m at the shoulder (13ft); ♀- 3m (10ft)

Elephants obtain their various foods with their trunk, an amazingly versatile tool. Highly adapted and evolved, it contains over 40 000 muscle units, compared to the roughly 700 skeletal muscles in the entire human body. The trunk is actually an extension of the nose and upper lip. With the nasal cavities going down the entire length of the trunk. They use these for their incredibly acute sense of smell but also when drinking, sucking up to 10 litres of water into the nasal cavity, they will then stick the end of their trunk into their mouth and 'spray' the water down their throat. In the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) the end of the trunk has two finger-like protrusions that are so precise they can pick up a tiny seed, while the rest of the trunk is so dexterous and powerful it can be used to push over large trees.

Buffalo - (family Bovidae) - Syncerus caffer

Imbabala River Safari Buffalo

The (Cape) buffalo has curved horns in both sexes that rise from heavy bosses, spread out and downwards, then curve up and inwards. They are brownish-grey, darkening with age. Males are heavier (up to 800kg) than females. The bulls are known to be extremely aggressive when threatened or wounded. Some herds of buffalo can go up to thousands - and you will find both females and males in a herd together.

Buffalo are almost exclusively grazers and will graze on most grass species. The herds split up into smaller units and disperse over wide areas during the rainy season and regroup after the end of the rains near permanent water supplies.

  • Latin name: Syncerus caffer
  • Gestation period of buffalo: 11 months
  • Size of newborn buffalo: One calf born weighing ±40kg (90lb)
  • Size of buffalo territory: Buffalo are not territorial, they live in home ranges.
  • Life span of buffalo: 15-20 years
  • How fast buffalo can run: 56km/h (35mph)
  • Weight of male and female buffalo: ♂- 800kg (1760lbs); ♀- 540kg (1190lbs)

Leopard - (family felidae) - Panthera Pardus


The leopard is pale yellow-gold with dark spots, those on the flanks arranged in rosettes. Their legs are strongly built and they have a long tail. Leopards are mainly nocturnal, especially in areas of human development. They are solitary and very territorial. They rest in trees, thick cover or caves. Their prey impala, bushbuck, reedbuck, monkeys, is stalked and rushed from short range and killed by bites to the back or neck, skull or throat. They will then often hoist the carcass into a tree and feed over several days.

A cornered or wounded leopard is one of the most dangerous of all African mammals and will launch a fierce attack which may prove fatal. The leopard is common, though elusive, throughout much of Zimbabwe, and can be found in most major National Parks but the best-known leopard population, is in the Matobo Hills.

  • Latin name: Panthera pardus
  • Gestation period of leopard: 110 days
  • Litter size of leopard: 1-4, ± 0.6kg each
  • Life span of leopard: 15 years
  • How fast leopard can run: 90km/h (55mph)
  • Weight of male and female leopard: Large variation between populations. ♂- 90kg (200lbs), ♀- 60kg (130lbs)

Rhinoceros - (family rhinocerotidae) - White - Ceratotheriumsimum, and Black - Dicerosbicornis


A rhino stands up to 1,8m at the shoulder and weighs up to 2 tons, the grey-coloured white rhino is the second-largest land animal after the elephant. The white rhino is distinguished from the black by its square upper lip, pronounced nuchal hump, heavier build and longer and narrower head. The white rhino (from wide lipped rhino) is a grazer and prefers fairly flat terrain with areas of short grass adjacent to dense bush. It drinks and wallows regularly and is usually found close to water.

The black rhinoceros is a browser usually found in woodlands and scrub, forests, riverine woodlands and dense bush, within about 15kms of water. It is generally solitary.

Rhinos are classified under Appendix One of the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species.

  • Latin name: White Rhino - Ceratotherium simum; Black Rhino - Diceros bicornis
  • Gestation period of rhino: White Rhino - 16 months; Black Rhino - 15 months
  • Size of a newborn rhino: One calf born weighing White Rhino - ±50kg (110lb); Black Rhino - ±40kg (90lb)
  • Life span of rhino: ±40 years
  • How fast rhino can run: 50km/h (30mph)
  • Weight of male and female rhino: White Rhino - ♀ 1600kg (3530lbs), ♂ 2400kg (5300lbs); Black Rhino - ♀ 700kg (1540lb), ♂ 1100kg (2425lb).

Other Zimbabwe Animals

Giraffe - Family Giraffidae - Giraffa giraffa

Hwange Giraffe Waterhole

Worth mentioning for their size and awe are the giraffe. Zimbabwe is home to two species of giraffe - the Cape or South African giraffe found mostly in the southern part of the country, and the Angolan or Namibian giraffe, found mostly in western Zimbabwe.

  • Latin name: Giraffa giraffa
  • Gestation period of giraffe: 14 months
  • Size of a newborn giraffe: one calf born weighing ±100kg (220lb)
  • Size of giraffe territory: Giraffe are not territorial, they live in loose herds.
  • Life span of a giraffe: 20 years
  • How fast giraffe can run: 60km/h (40mph)
  • Weight of male and female giraffe: ♂ - 1 400kg (3085lbs), ♀ - 900kg (1985lbs)
  • Height of giraffe: 4.5m-5.5m (15ft-18ft)

Sable Antelope - family Bovidae - Hippotragus niger

Sable Antelope

The sable antelope is the national symbol of Zimbabwe. The sable is found throughout southern African as well as areas up to Kenya in east Africa. A close relative, the roan antelope, can also be found in Zimbabwe. This one is brown in colour, while the sable antelope is mostly black.

There is also a giant sable antelope or royal sable antelope (Hippotragus niger variani), known in Portuguese as the palanca-negra-gigante. It is a large, rare subspecies of the sable antelope native and endemic to the region between the Cuango and Luando Rivers in Angola.

Hippopotamus - family Hippopotamidae - Hippopotamus amphibius


The third largest animal that you can find in Zimbabwe, and indeed Africa, is the hippopotamus. The hippo is found not only in major rivers such as the Zambezi, but also in areas where water sources are found, such as pans in Hwange National Park. The most dangerous animal in Africa (after the mosquito and humans), the hippo has appeared in the press for attacks on canoes.

  • Latin name: Hippopotamus amphibious
  • Gestation period of hippo: 8 months
  • Calf size of hippo: 1 calf weighing 50 kgs (110lbs)
  • Life span of hippo: 35-45 years
  • How fast hippo can run: 35km/h (22mph)
  • Weight of male and female hippo: ♂- < 2500kg (5500lbs), ♀- 1800kg (4000lbs)
  • Hippopotamus is a Greek word meaning "River Horse" - Hippo (horse) potamus (river)

Hippo are well suited to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, but interesting they cannot 'swim' in the full sense of the word. They rely on their huge reserves of fat to help keep them positively buoyant. They will mostly walk along the bottom of the river or lake, when they need air they will effectively jump and use their buoyancy to float to the surface briefly before carrying on along the bottom. They can flex the muscles around their lungs to use them as a swim bladder.

Hippos spend much of their days in the water, resting in groups known as pods or rafts. Hippos can hold their breath for 5-6 minutes, but hippos cannot breathe underwater. However, they can sleep underwater, lying just under the surface they will automatically come up for air.

These pods prefer to rest in shallower water where they can lie down with their heads out of the water. Often resting their chins on each other's backs. If the pod is disturbed or feels threatened, they will move into the deep water where they can use the water as cover.

Hyaena/Hyena - family Hyaenidae - Crocuta crocuta

Spotted hyena - Crocuta crocuta

A bit misunderstood and often overlooked is the hyena. Being viewed as pests, often killing livestock around farming areas they have been heavily persecuted in the past. Once widespread throughout large tracts of Africa, only being absent from dense forests and extreme desert areas, the hyena distribution is now very much confined to protected wildlife zones.

Hyena are incredibly social and complex animals. They are often given a bad name as dirty scavengers that skulk around in the darkness. This is not true; they are very successful hunters and in some areas, lions will actually scavenge from hyena.

There are four distinct types - the Spotted, Brown and Striped hyenas, and the Aardwolf.

  • Latin name: Crocuta crocuta
  • Most commonly spelt Hyena but correctly spelt Hyaena, from the family name Hyaenidea
  • Gestation period of hyena: 3.5 months
  • Size of hyena litter: 1-2 pups
  • Size of hyena territory: where prey is abundant can be as small as 20 km2 (8mi2), in less favourable areas up to 400 km2 (155mi2)
  • Life span of hyena: 15 years
  • How fast hyena can run: 60km/h (40mph) for over 5 km (3 mi)
  • Weight of male and female hyena: ♂- 50kg (110lbs), ♀- 90kg (200lbs)

Nile Crocodile - family Crocodylidae - Crocodilus niloticus

Nile Crocodile

These prehistoric reptiles have inhabited the waters of Earth for over 95 million years. Ancestors of the Archosaurs 'the ruling lizard' of the Early to Late Triassic period 250 million years ago, they outlived the Dinosaurs. Once crocodiles evolved into the form we know today, they changed very little in the following millions of years.

Crocodiles are amazingly clever animals. Their hunting strategy is fairly wide depending on the individual's size, the most well known is the large adults employing stealth and patience at the water's edge, hoping for an unsuspecting animal to wander down to drink.

  • Latin name: Crocodylus niloticus
  • How many eggs crocodiles lay: 35-50 eggs
  • How long crocodile eggs incubate: 2-3 months
  • How old crocodile get: 70 years, possibly up to 100 years
  • How fast crocodiles swim: 32km/h (20mph)
  • How much male and female crocodiles weigh: <750kg (1650lbs) heaviest recorded was 1089kg (2400lbs)
  • How big crocodiles get: 3.5-5m (11.5-16.5ft), up to 6.1m (20ft)

A highly evolved circulatory system means crocodiles can stay underwater from more than an hour. Holding their breath, their unique heart will divert blood away from 'unnecessary' organs that with use oxygen in general muscle metabolism.

Through a special valve called the 'Foramen of Panizza' the blood route can be changed at will. Above water, the four-chambered heart functions much like our own but when they dive this system changes to effectively function as a three-chambered heart, in this way they conserve precious oxygen needed to power the brain and heart and vital organs.

The crocodile head is arranged linearly, with the nostrils, eyes and ears on top of the head. They can sit for hours underwater with only the top of their camouflaged head exposed. The nostrils and ears are muscular slits that can be closed while they are underwater, stopping and water from entering.

The highly refined vision is protected by a third eyelid, also known as a nictitating membrane, that slides across the eye while they are underwater acting much like a set of swimming goggles. The eyes can also be retracted into the head for protection during an attack. And the tapetum lucidum a reflective layer of crystals behind the retina of the eye allows them to hunt in very dim lit conditions of the murky waters of the African rivers.

Worthy Mentions

African Wild Dog

One of the widely found animals and a favourite among safari goers is the plains zebra. Other game found in Zimbabwe include kudu, waterbuck, bush buck, impala, nyala, gemsbok, eland, klipspringer, and other antelope species. Predator species include the African Painted Dog (formerly wild dog) and cheetah.

Further reading