Wild Animals (Swahili Vocabulary and Tidbits)

For those who are familiar with safaris in eastern Africa, you’ll know that guides and rangers are in constant communication with each other, sharing the locations of different animals in Swahili. For a long time, I assumed that the use of the language was so that guides could make their way towards the attraction, and yet avoid disappointment for the non-Swahili-speaking tourists, in case the animal ran away or couldn’t be seen anymore.

Then, I heard another perspective: for tourists on longer, multi-day safaris, there is something to be said for stretching out the wildlife-viewing experience, so that guests feel their longer (more expensive) trip was worth it. In order to do that, it’s imperative that they don’t see every animal in one day; if you can see the big five in one day, why did we pay for ten? In these circumstances, communication is done in Swahili to evade the tourists’ ears, so they don’t realize that they’re actually avoiding certain animals, or at least saving them for tomorrow.

Either way, or even just to point and name the animals you see, here’s a list of some wild animals you might see. This isn’t an exhaustive list; I will just include the well-known ones, that I’m most likely to study and use and remember. I don’t know the difference between an antelope and a gazelle and an impala and a hartebeest in English, so I’m not even going to worry about it in Swahili.

  • nyani = baboon
  • nyati (or mbogo) = buffalo
  • duma = cheetah
  • mamba (or ngwena) = crocodile
  • ndovu (or tembo) = elephant
  • twiga = giraffe
  • kiboko = hippo
  • chui = leopard
  • simba = lion
  • kima (or tumbili) = monkey
  • kakakuona = pangolin*
  • kifaru (or pea) = rhinoceros
  • nyoka = snake
  • punda milia = zebra

*You might not think that pangolins are a common animal, but I wanted to include it because (fun fact) at this point in history, more than elephants or rhinos, pangolins are actually at the top of the list for poaching and export. Hippos, surprisingly enough, are also way up there. Additionally, if anyone can explain to me the word derivation of “kakakuona,” I’d love to hear it, because it sounds like “sister to see” (kaka kuona), and I’d love to know the story behind that.

Okay, enough stories and tidbits, go study the vocabulary! At least, that’s what I’m going to go do.

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