Africa is home to some wonderful wildlife, but it is also home to many dangerous — and sometimes deadly — animals. Indeed, some of the most dangerous animals on the planet are found in Africa.
Here’s my list of the 10 most dangerous animals on the African continent, based on the annual estimated number of human fatalities.
Responsible For An Estimated 1,000,000 Deaths Per Year
It may come as a surprise that the deadliest animal in Africa is also one of the smallest. The tiny mosquito is probably Africa’s most dangerous creature.
African mosquitoes transmit a myriad of potentially fatal diseases — including yellow fever, the Zika virus, the West Nile virus, dengue fever, and malaria — to more than 70 million people every year. For a traveler on safari, the greatest threat a mosquito presents is malaria, one of the deadliest diseases in the world. Malaria is spread by the female Anopheles mosquito, which is most active at dawn and dusk.
The good news is that you can easily prevent mosquito bites by using spray or lotion repellents, wearing light-colored clothing, and sleeping under a mosquito net. Your doctor should also prescribe you medication to take before, during, and after your safari. (There is also a malaria vaccine on the horizon, which is hoped to be able to reduce deaths by up to 75 percent.)
Responsible For An Estimated 3,000 Deaths Per Year
While hippos are a pleasure to watch from a distance, let me assure you that they are not as placid as they seem. Despite being vegetarian, hippos are considered the most dangerous terrestrial animals in Africa. Male hippos will fiercely defend their territories, and females can become extremely aggressive if they sense anything getting between them and their young.
Hippos can run at speeds of over 19 miles per hour on land and can weigh over 3,300 pounds, and a male hippo’s canine teeth can exceed 20 inches — so it’s best to keep your distance!
I have a healthy respect for hippos, having had several close encounters while canoeing on the Zambezi River. I also know of a few people who have lost limbs — or even lives — in hippo attacks.
3. African Elephant
Responsible For An Estimated 500 Deaths Per Year
Elephants, the world’s largest land mammals, can be unpredictable. Older bulls and young, inexperienced males in particular can be aggressive, even when not provoked (usually during musth, their sexually active period, when testosterone levels increase). It is also best to steer clear of mothers with young babies, since just like humans, they will protect their young at all costs. An elephant can weigh over 15,000 pounds, which certainly gives it the weight advantage in any encounter you may have. Indeed, most elephant-related human fatalities are caused by trampling or crushing.
I think it’s worth mentioning here that approximately 100 elephants are killed every day by poachers, and elephants tend to be much more aggressive in areas where poaching occurs.
In my early 20s, I worked near the famous Victoria Falls. I didn’t have a car, and to get to the falls, I would often walk the 7 miles alone. Several times I encountered elephants. Each time I would quickly attempt to conceal myself behind a convenient bush or tree until they moved on. I was never charged or attacked, though I do know of two people who were trampled to death by elephants in exactly the same place several years later.
4. Nile Crocodile
Responsible For An Estimated 300 Deaths Per Year
Crocodiles, though fascinating to watch, are Africa’s largest freshwater predators. A crocodile will submerge itself in water, with just its nostrils above the surface, waiting for something to come to the water’s edge for a drink, and then, with an incredible burst of speed, will launch upward, clamping its victim in vise-like jaws and dragging it underwater to drown.
Crocodiles boast the strongest bite on the African continent; they are indiscriminate hunters and will attack any animal that comes within reach, including people. Most human fatalities occur when people are washing or collecting water on the riverbank, or when fishermen take their boats in and out of the water. If you stay away from the river’s edge and keep your body (including all your limbs) inside the boat, you should be okay.
Responsible For An Estimated 250 Deaths Per Year
The lion is one of the world’s top predators, but under normal circumstances it will not target humans. There are instances in which they will, though. Mozambican refugees crossing South Africa’s Kruger National Park at night are quite often attacked and eaten by lions; it’s believed that at least 10 people a year die this way. In Tanzania, it is reported that lions kill up to 70 people a year. The most renowned incident involving man-eating lions happened during the construction of the Kenya–Uganda railroad in 1898, when a pair of male lions began attacking railway workers, killing more than 100 in a nine-month period.
There are only a handful of reports of tourists (or their guides) being killed by lions during a safari. The vast majority of humans killed by lions are locals going about their daily lives on the fringes of African game reserves.
6. Cape Buffalo
Responsible For An Estimated 200 Deaths Per Year
The Cape buffalo is renowned for its aggressive, unpredictable nature and is without a doubt one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.
Known in Africa as one of the Big Five, the Cape buffalo can weigh up to 1,760 pounds. Bulls are known to weigh up to 2,200 pounds! Cape buffalo usually travel in intimidatingly large herds, but if they are alone and injured, they will stalk and kill humans. Cape buffalo are known to circle back on their victims, trampling or goring them to death with their impressive horns.
On a walking safari in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park, we came across a herd of over 1,000 buffalo. Our guide instructed us to stand still, and with just a tiny bush to shelter behind, we stood as the huge mob walked around us. After half an hour, the entire herd had passed us by without paying us the slightest attention, but it had been a rather nerve-racking wait.
7. Great White Shark
Responsible For An Estimated 2 Deaths Per Year
The great white shark strikes fear into many people, but ignore what Hollywood might have you believe — these sharks have no natural instinct to attack humans. Great whites don’t consider humans prey, and they only seem to attack in cases of mistaken identity. Great whites charge their prey at up to 25 miles per hour, take one big bite, and then back off, leaving their prey to bleed to death before eating it. Although these sharks are extremely powerful and capable of massive devastation, attacks on humans are rare. In general, more people are killed by bee stings than sharks.
Rhinos are well known for their irritability. They are also extremely shortsighted and won’t hesitate to charge at anything they perceive as a threat. They may have poor eyesight, but their sense of smell is excellent, and the scent of a human can cause a rhino to charge at a person or vehicle. Rhino mothers are very protective of their young and quick to attack anything they consider a danger, so never, ever get between a mother and her baby.
Generally the black rhino is the most aggressive, but both black and white rhinos will charge when threatened. Adult rhinos can weigh up to 6,000 pounds and run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, so be sure to keep your wits about you and keep your distance!
9. Puff Adder
While not the most venomous snake in Africa, the puff adder is considered Africa’s deadliest snake, being responsible for perhaps 32,000 human fatalities per year.
The puff adder has excellent camouflage, and instead of fleeing from approaching danger, it will simply lie still. Most attacks occur when people accidentally step on the snake. Because of the snake’s potent venom and long fangs, 20 percent of bites will be fatal if not treated properly.
10. Black Mamba
The black mamba is another of the deadliest snakes in Africa. These snakes can reach up to 8 feet in length and achieve speeds of up to 12 miles per hour. Mambas are extremely aggressive when cornered and won’t hesitate to attack. Their venom is highly toxic — one bite contains enough toxins to kill 10 people. Without antivenom, death can occur in as little as 7 hours.
Black mambas are actually not black at all, but rather a brownish-olive color. They get their name from their inky black mouths, which they display when threatened. They have well-developed vision and are both ambush and pursuit predators.
So, there you have it — the 10 most dangerous animals in Africa. It’s worth bearing in mind that while there are some very dangerous animals on this list, many of them — like the lion, buffalo, and hippopotamus — are predominantly confined to national parks and game reserves where, if you follow the basic safety guidelines, they will pose little threat to your safety. In fact, most of the species on this list are currently classified as either vulnerable or threatened and have far more reason to fear humans than we have to fear them. It’s good to be informed, though, and you can avoid most negative interactions by treating these creatures with the respect they deserve.