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Henk and Jane in jeep

When we headed to Tanzania for a safari a few years ago, Henk and I fully expected to be wowed by the wildlife. What we didn’t expect was that we had unknowingly enrolled in ‘Safari School’.

I am, of course, kidding – there is no ‘Safari School’ – and certainly no amount of studying that can really prepare you for the incredible amount and diversity of animals that you will encounter. Of course, everyone searches for the Big Five to check off their list, but these animals are a no-brainer – after all, who doesn’t know what an elephant looks like?

The real challenge comes with the other animals, of which there are millions: trying to identify all of the various species of antelope, birds, even creepy crawlies that we spotted, most of which we had never seen before in our lives. All while riding around for hours in a pop-top jeep on the Serengeti.

Of course, we weren’t without help. Our guide, William, had eyesight equal to one of the high-flying predator birds cruising the skies, and he could spot a group of snoozing cheetahs under a tree hundreds of yards away that we didn’t see until we were practically on top of them.

How many cheetahs do YOU see?

How many cheetahs do YOU see?

But it was because of William that I found myself wanting to prove myself a good student, by showing him that I was doing more than just observing during our game drives – I was actually learning to identify the differences in appearance and behaviour of the animals we were spotting. It killed me when I would mis-identify one antelope for another, and get a ‘tsk tsk’ of disappointment from William, and I realized that I wanted to be that ‘A’ student from grade school all over again and impress the teacher! And it seemed that it was the antelope that would earn me that ‘A’.

Studying in the field in the Serengeti

Studying in the field in the Serengeti

Antelope 101

Should you want to study in advance for your own safari, or just enjoy the beautiful and graceful antelopes, I’ve collected just a few to showcase here as part of your own introduction to Tanzania’s wildlife. I think before long you’ll begin to see how confusion could easily set in…

Impalas were one of the first antelope we saw, and very similar to the deer we have here in North America. And like our deer, only the males have the nice curvy horns, and the bachelors like to hang out together until they can find a herd/harem they can make their own. Once they do, they form larger herds of 20 or more animals, making it easier to identify them from other, more solitary species.

Male Impalas hanging out looking good for the ladies

Male Impalas hanging out looking good for the ladies

A herd with the horned male and several females

A group of Impala with the horned male and several females – notice the black markings on their tails and butts?

Then there are the Thomson’s Gazelles, or as the cheetahs like to refer to them, ‘Dinner’. About the size of a young deer, they travel in large herds, and their distinctive black stripe makes them easy to identify – or does it?

Thomson's Gazelle

Thomson’s Gazelle

Young Springbok has similar horns and markings to the Thomson Gazelle

Young Springbok has similar horns and markings to the Thomson Gazelle

You can see how it starts to get a little harder to be that “A” student… Of course, some antelope are easier to identify than others, like the Waterbuck, which has a shaggy fur throat (very pretty, actually), and a recognizable rear-end which looks like it sat on a freshly painted toilet seat. We saw this first one near the Ngorongoro crater, and then later a herd of them with the male. (he’s the shy guy by the bushes with the nice rack!)

This waterbuck was a little skittish, but we managed to snap this shot before she bolted.

This waterbuck was a little skittish, but we managed to snap this shot before she bolted.

The male is a little camera-shy and off to the right

The male is a little camera-shy and not showing off his ‘toilet seat’

The Hartebeest is a large antelope that became easy to recognize, even from a distance, because of its large ears that made it look like it had two sets of horns (or 2 sets of ears, depending on how you look at it, I suppose.)

Count the ears/horns

Count the ears/horns

Tanzania has some smaller species, as well, like these Dikdiks, which we always considered to be the romantic antelope, since you only ever see them in pairs with their mates. Tiny and delicate, about the height of a cocker spaniel, we often spotted them in the early morning.

If you see one Dikdik, look for another.

If you see one Dikdik, look for another.

And if you think spotting brown wildlife on the brown grasslands is tough, try finding them in the bush behind trees and bushes, like this aptly-named Bushbuck (which is a bit larger than the Dikdik but no less shy).

Bushbuck have deer-like spots AND subtle stripes.

Bushbuck have deer-like spots AND subtle stripes.

Grant's Gazelle

Grant’s Gazelle

Of course, the animals aren’t nearly as close as you see in these photos when you first spot them, making it even more difficult from a distance to see which one is which. But I have to admit, by the end of our 10 days or so of safari, Henk and I had begun to impress William with our field guide expertise as we started calling out the animals before he could even point them out. I never did quite manage to get the Grant’s gazelle right, though (which I think secretly made William happy to know he was secure in his job!)

“Pop Quiz?!!” Panic Time

C’mon, it wouldn’t be school if there wasn’t a Pop Quiz! Time to test your Safari Spotting Skills, and see if you can you identify the animals in these two photos (without cheating and checking the answers below).

It's a little harder from a distance to know what you're looking at, isn't it?

It’s a little harder from a distance to know what you’re looking at, isn’t it?

Did you get them right?

TIP: We were given this book before leaving, which became our ‘textbook’ in Safari School for a number of reasons: part guidebook, part planner, part journal, we used it to check off animals we saw, record where we saw them, write notes and thoughts, and even used it as a pocket phrase book! Even William was impressed with it! You can get one here on amazon.com

Answers: If you guessed waterbuck and impala in the two photos above, it might be time for you to graduate to the ‘real thing’: a Tanzanian safari! 

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