Etosha’s most widespread vegetation type is mopane woodland, which fringes the pan and constitutes about 80% of the vegetation. The park also has umbrella-thorn acacias and other trees that are favoured by browsing animals, and from December to March this sparse bush country has a pleasant green hue.
Depending on the season, you may observe elephants, giraffes, Burchell’s zebras, springboks, red hartebeests, blue wildebeest, gemsboks, elands, kudus, roans, ostriches, jackals, hyenas, lions and even cheetahs and leopards. Among the endangered animal species are the black-faced impala and the black rhinoceros.
Etosha is Namibia's most important stronghold for lions, with more than half of the country's wild lions – 450 to 500 according to the last estimate by peak conservation NGO Panthera (www.panthera.org).
The park’s wildlife density varies with the local ecology. As its Afrikaans name would suggest, Oliphantsbad (near Okaukuejo) is attractive to elephants, but for rhinos you couldn’t do better than the floodlit water hole at Okaukuejo. We've also seen them by night at the water hole at Olifantsrus and Halali. In general, the further east you go in the park, the more wildebeest, kudus and impalas join the springboks and gemsboks. The area around Namutoni, which averages 443mm of rain annually (compared with 412mm at Okaukuejo), is the best place to see the black-faced impala and the Damara dik-dik, Africa’s smallest antelope. Etosha is also home to numerous smaller species, including both yellow and slender mongoose, honey badgers and leguaans (water-monitor lizards).
In the dry winter season, wildlife clusters around water holes, while in the hot, wet summer months, animals disperse and spend the days sheltering in the bush. In the afternoon, even in the dry season, look carefully for animals resting beneath the trees, especially prides of lions lazing about. Summer temperatures can reach 44°C, which isn’t fun when you’re confined to a vehicle, but this is the calving season, and you may catch a glimpse of tiny zebra foals and fragile newborn springboks.
Birdlife is also profuse. Yellow-billed hornbills are common, and on the ground you should look for the huge kori bustard, which weighs 15kg and seldom flies – it's the world's heaviest flying bird. You may also observe ostriches, korhaans, marabous, white-backed vultures and many smaller species.
The best time for wildlife drives is at first light and late in the evening, though visitors aren’t permitted outside the camps after dark. While self-drivers should definitely wake up at dawn, when animals are most active, guided night drives (N$600 per person) can be booked through any of the main camps and are your best chance to see lions hunting, as well as the various nocturnal species. Each of the camps also has a visitor register, which describes any recent sightings in the vicinity.