Covering 20% of the planet, a savanna is an expansive grassland that often stretches on as far as the eye can see. With hazy horizons often broken only by meandering animals, the savanna is a habitat that changes with the seasons: from very dry in summer to teeming with rain once the wet season arrives.
The savanna grassland that dominates the African continent is the most famous example of this type of habitat. Stretching across more than half of this vast landmass, the African savanna brings to mind wide open grasslands, herds of migrating wildebeest, and the odd tree, sparsely framing the horizon.
This tropical savanna is home to some of our planet’s most magnificent creatures: lions, giraffes, elephants and leopards. It’s estimated that 2 million animals call this sprawling landscape home.
Africa isn’t the only place that savannas are found, though. In Brazil, the Cerrado covers 2 million square kilometres, and is South America’s second largest biome. Here, over 1600 different species of bird, mammal and reptile live in an environment that has existed since the time of the dinosaurs.
- Year-round high temperatures
- Tropical grassland
- Flooded grassland
- Wet and dry seasons
- High summer rainfall
- Widely spaced trees
Climate change is likely to increase rainfall, increasing tree growth and shrubland in some areas and limiting it in others, which could disrupt the savanna ecosystem and cause animals and plants to adapt to these new surroundings. Much of Africa’s savanna is used for crops and agriculture, so a change in the savanna habitat is also likely to have an effect on food production.
Conversely, more droughts are also expected due to the prevalence of increasingly extreme weather conditions. A large-scale drought that took place between 2014 and 2016 in Kruger National Park in South Africa caused the destruction of a large number of trees.
Poaching and the illegal trade in items such as elephant tusks also pose a threat to the savanna, with 30% of the area’s elephants being lost between 2007 and 2014. Rhinoceros and zebra are also at risk from hunting and the destruction of the savanna habitat.
The Brazilian Cerrado is under threat from human intervention too: cattle ranching, soy production and other agricultural activities are encroaching on its land, and only 20% of the area’s original vegetation currently remains.
Taking a trip to the savanna in order to spot Africa’s elusive wildlife, for example on a Serengeti safari tour, is high on the bucket list of many of those looking for a longhaul adventure. Staying in a safari lodge or camping outside can be great options if you want to get close to these animals in their natural environments. Daytime activities might include animal tracking, game drives, cultural immersion experiences and helicopter rides.
For a completely different savanna experience, those with a strong sense of adventure might consider jetting off to explore the Cerrado, a tropical grassland and savanna that is home to the Planalto highlands and the UNESCO-listed Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park. This lush, extremely biodiverse area is often overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbour, the Amazon - but it’s stunning waterfalls and ancient natural rock pools are truly a sight to behold. You can hike, spot toucans, jaguars and armadillos, and visit historic sites throughout this expansive region.
The key reason to visit a savanna is likely to be the animals that call it home. There are awe-inspiring natural features in the landscape too, though. The Serengeti has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and in Kenya Mount Kilimanjaro sits within the savanna of the Amboseli National Park. The colours found in the savanna, framing its vast open landscapes at sunset and sunrise with a burnt orange hue, are a natural wonder in themselves.
Animals that live in the savanna include the ‘big 5’ - leopard, buffalo, lion, elephant and rhinoceros. Other animals that explorers might spot from their safari jeep or camp hideout include zebras, giraffes, springboks, gazelles, cheetahs, hyenas, wildebeest, antelope, vultures, oryx and meerkats. In the Kalahari savanna, birds including hawks, kestrels, eagles and falcons can be spotted.
The African savanna is mainly made up of grassland, with a few trees (mainly acacia, jackalberry, baobab and whistling thorn) dotted around. Grasses include lemongrass, star grass, and rhodes grass. Most plants in the savanna have deep roots, offering a strong defense against fires.
The African savanna covers a huge 5 million square miles of land - around half of the entire continent. Famous destinations such as the Serengeti are found within it, and countries that it touches include Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. There are less famous savannas in Australia and parts of South America, including Venezuela. The savanna ecosystem, the Cerrado, which also includes tropical grassland, covers much of Brazil.