No matter whether you’re off on a luxury safari in the Kruger National Park, want to meet the penguins and whale pods of the Garden Route, or are looking to taste the rich wines of Stellenbosch, this guide to the most dangerous animals in South Africa is a must read.
It will outline the critters and the creatures that you most certainly DON’T want to meet. Or, at least, it will outline the ones that you’ll want to keep your distance from if you do. They’re the beasts that are known to bite, envenomate, crush, and trample – you name it! And they’re all ones that you could potentially encounter during that once-in-a-lifetime jaunt to the Rainbow Nation.
It’s an eclectic mix, too. There’s naturally a strong showing of snakes, since this country at the end of Africa plays host to some of the deadliest known to man. But you’ve also got colossal mammals and big cats, along with one or two that might just surprise you. So, without further ado: The most dangerous animals in South Africa…
Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious)
When most people think of the most dangerous animals in South Africa, they probably don’t immediately think of the hippo. But they should. These guys are known to be extremely aggressive animals. A lot of incidents occur when they ram boats on rivers, which can result in the deaths of multiple people in one go. What’s more, hippos really don’t like being separated from their home in the water and will quickly anger and charge any humans that might be in their way.
A central part of African folklore since the times of the ancients, hippos are often called the elephants of the water. One thing’s for sure: They’re huge. They can measure a whopping five meters from end to end and weigh up to three tons – yep, three tons! They are semi-aquatic, living mainly in riverways but emerging sometimes to feed.
Today, hippos are still present all over Africa and South Africa. However, the picture doesn’t look good. They are now listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Out of control poaching and hunting has seen a severe decline in numbers largely across the board.
Black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)
No list of the most dangerous animals in South Africa could possibly skip out on the legendary black mamba. There are some scientists who say that this snake is the single deadliest type of snake anywhere on the globe, trumping even the king cobra on the “who you really wouldn’t like to meet” charts.
They’re actually a fairly non-descript snake. They don’t have any big, bold patterns. Instead, the body is a gradient of light blues, whites, and greys. The head is small, and the eyes are deep set at the top. The main defining feature – and the reason they are known as the black mamba – is the presence of shadowy black markings on the inside of the mouth. Fingers crossed that you don’t catch a glimpse of those, though!
The thing about attacks from the Dendroaspis polylepis is that they aren’t often just about one bite. These guys regularly hold on to victims and bite multiple times, increasing the venom yield that’s injected overall. On top of that, there’s rarely ever a sign of any local pain, just two fang punctures on the skin. The real dangers begin 10-15 minutes later, when the whole nervous system starts to shut down.
Lion (Panthera leo)
Ah, the lion. The king of the plains; the chief of all the Big Five game. This animal, more than arguably any other, has risen to become an icon of the fauna of South Africa. It’s the reason that the country reigns so high on lists of the best safari destinations and is one of the most sought-after creatures for folks on game drives.
But they are certainly formidable customers. Tales and legends of man-eating lions have long plagued the peoples of this continent. They’re scary largely because they are laced with smidgens of the truth – there have even been reports of a spate of lions eating humans up in nearby Tanzania, and reported incidents as recently as 2021!
We certainly wouldn’t want one bearing down on us. Famed as exceptionally good pack hunters, these guys regularly grow to weigh over 220kgs and measure more than two meters in length. They can run up to 46 miles per hour in pursuit of prey and will often group together to bring down large beasts like water buffalo and whatnot. Our advice? Just don’t get out of the Jeep!
Puff adder (Bitis arietans)
The puff adder has a claim to be among the most dangerous animals in South Africa because it’s got the dubious honor of being the overall deadliest snake on the whole continent. Yep, this one’s thought to be responsible for more human deaths than any other serpent in this corner of the globe – the dreaded black mamba and all those cobras included!
Looks wise, it’s a fairly typical sort of pit viper. You’ve got a triangular head shape followed by a body that starts thin and then tapers out to a stouter middle. The coloring is brownish-beige and fades into a lighter underbelly, though that can change depending on the region you find them. Good at swimming and hiding, the snake is usually passive but can be quick to anger and adopt its defense position.
The real reason that the puff adder kills so many people in these parts is because of how widespread it is. It’s adapted to live right across the continent. In fact, South Africa is but a single corner of its territory, which extends northwards through Mozambique and Tanzania all the way to the Horn of Africa, and even further north than that all the way to Morocco.
Cape cobra (Naja nivea)
Expert herpetologists will tell you that the cape cobra has some of the most wildly potent venom of any snake in South Africa. Studies are yet to identify the exact percentage of biting incidents that end in death, but it’s thought to be very, very high indeed. The reason? This type of snake can inject lots in a single bite and mingles two of the worst types of toxins, one that impacts the nervous system and another that impacts the cardiovascular system.
They are native to the whole of southern Africa but are mainly found in the Rainbow Nation itself. There, they’ve adapted to live in a whole array of different habitats, from the high fynbos hills that skirt the Garden Route to the rolling savannahs of the central plateaus. They also have a penchant for slinking close to areas of human habitation, which often brings them into contact people, sometimes to disastrous ends.
African bush elephant (Loxodonta Africana)
Most people who come across an elephant see a cute and galumphing creature with flopping ears and a slinking trunk. They see an animal that’s been colored by Disney narratives and movies. But there’s another side to these mighty beasts; a side that sees them get up there with the most dangerous animals in South Africa…
The largest land mammal on the planet, the African iteration of the elephant is one colossal customer. They can hit four meters in height from the ground to the top of the ears and weigh in at a car-crushing 11 tons. That’s about half of your average 18-wheeler when fully loaded. AKA – it’s heavy!
Elephants aren’t thought to be naturally dangerous creatures, but they can get defensive, especially when separated from their young or their greater herd. That’s happening more and more these days with habitat destruction, which is pushing farms and towns ever closer to roaming lands. When incidents do occur, it usually involves elephants charging people and trampling them to death.
Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
Taking us away from the safari savannahs and the snake-slithering fynbos, the great white shark plunges us into the icy seas that slosh around the whole of South Africa. There’s no doubt that it deserves a place among the most feared and dangerous creatures in the country, especially since good old SA has some of the worst stats on shark attacks of anywhere on the globe!
Yep, there’s been a whopping 37 shark attacks in these parts in just the last 25 years. That puts the Rainbow Nation on worse footing than Oz, Cape Cod, and a whole host of other places where the snapping swimmers are known to reside. What’s more, large portions of said attacks have been attributed to surely the most feared of all the sharks around: The great white.
An apex predator with some serious size, these guys often grow to weigh in at over 2,800kgs, measuring up to six meters from fin to snout. They prowl all the major oceans of the world, but it’s thought that the waters around Gansbaai, Cape Town, Mossel Bay, and Port Elizabeth have some of the highest populations on the planet.
Dangerous animals in South Africa – our conclusion
There are oodles and oodles of dangerous animals in South Africa! This is the country of the iconic Big Five game, after all. But it’s also a land that hosts some of the planet’s deadliest snakes in the form of the slithering black mamba and the puff adder, plus a whole medley of bloodthirsty great white sharks when you trade dry land for saltwater. The list above focuses in on just seven creatures that we think you should be sure to watch out for when you head off on that safari.