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Well-known for its breathtaking landscapes, as well as being a cultural centre with many museums and monuments, Cape Town is one of the most celebrated tourism destinations in the world and the second most visited city in Africa. However, many visitors to this great city miss the rich diversity of wildlife that co-habits with the five million locals.

Here are nine urban wildlife species and where you can see them in Cape Town:

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Flamingos at Woodbridge Island, Cape Town ©Carolynne Geary

1. Cape fur seals

The seals in Cape Town are not shy. If you know where to look you are virtually guaranteed a sighting. It’s easy to forget that they are wild animals as they are so used to humans that it’s not uncommon to see them pop up next to your surf board or chase you for your freshly bought fish. But please don’t feed or try to play with these beautiful creatures!

Fast fact: Seals are often eaten by sharks, but recently a male seal in Cape Town was documented killing and eating five blue sharks.

Where to see them: Head to Kalk Bay harbour to pick up some fresh fish from the local fishermen and you will have to negotiate your way around seals (be careful as they can bite) or walk to the Clocktower at the V&A Waterfront to see them next to the swing bridge. Alternatively brave the ocean water in Muizenberg to see them at their most agile.

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A seal enjoys the sun at the Waterfront ©Tim Booth

2. Malachite kingfishers

Although widespread through Africa, the malachite kingfisher is very elusive. Partly due to its tiny size – just over ten centimetres – and the difficulty of getting close to a bird on the water’s edge. However Cape Town is the ideal place to get up close and personal with one of the most colourful and beautiful of all African birds.

Fast fact: Malachite kingfishers nest in small burrows in river banks and lay three to six eggs.

Where to see them: The bird hides at Rietvlei Wetland Reserve or Intaka Island provide bird enthusiasts with ample opportunity to get stunning photographs of this tiny bird.

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Malachite kingfishers have a varied diet that includes insects as well as fish ©Derek Keats

3. Humpback whales

At 16 metres, humpback whales are the longest of all mammals in South Africa. They can be seen in Cape Town during September and October when they migrate from their breeding grounds in the tropics to the southern ocean, via False Bay.

Fast fact: Humpback whales travel around 25,000km each year, which is the equivalent of a human migration of over 3,000km a year!

Where to see them: Try Cape Point Nature Reserve, where they like the calm waters in the bay just off Diaz beach, or stop by the shark spotter tents on Boyes Drive – if anyone is keeping a close eye on the sea it’s the spotters!

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A humpback whale ©Christopher Michel

4. Orange-breasted sunbirds

The smallest of our list, the orange-breasted sunbird weighs just a few grams. These birds are fynbos endemic (found nowhere else in the world) and, although found all over Table Mountain, they are one of the big attractions at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens because they are too busy fighting over nectar flowers to care about nearby camera lenses.

Fast fact: Sunbird tongues are covered in bristles and are tube shaped to help them drink nectar.

Where to see them: The quickest route to the sunbirds is to enter Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens through Gate 2 and walk past the koppie to the erica garden which is the main source of nectar for the birds. Look out for southern double-collared and malachite sunbirds which also vie for erica nectar.

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A male orange-breasted sunbird on a pincushion protea ©Derek Keats

5. African or jackass penguin

Initially called the jackass penguin because the sound they make is similar to that of a braying donkey, the Endangered African penguin is one of Cape Town’s more well-known urban residents, but no less worthy of a mention. To swim with penguins is a truly Capetonian experience, and they have great taste in beaches! Just remember that penguins cross roads much slower than cars.

Fast fact: African penguins can swim at 20km an hour and can dive up to 130m.

Where to see them: Head to Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town for an unforgettable urban wildlife experience. The penguins are used to humans but should not be touched.

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A jackass penguin with a single chick ©Joachim Huber

6. Chacma Baboons

The highly intelligent chacma baboon has a bad reputation in Cape Town due to their fondness for petty crime such as vandalism of cars and theft – particularly of fruit and sugar. However, it is precisely because of their intelligence that they are so enjoyable to watch. They constantly entertain but, be warned, baboons can be dangerous and resourceful so keep any food items inside closed cars with locked doors!

Fast fact: Baboons can run at 45km/h, that converts to 100m in eight seconds.

Where to see them: Baboons travel large distances but our Cape Town baboons tend to be confined to the peninsula from Simon’s Town through to Chapman’s Peak. However, for the best viewing go to Cape Point Nature Reserve where, if you go at low tide, you might be lucky enough to see them forage for shellfish and shark eggs on the beaches – the only place in the world where they are known to do this.

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A baboon opening a pine cone to get the nuts inside ©Carolynne Geary

6. Cape clawless otters

A rare but thrilling sighting is a romp of otters in their natural habitat. Cape clawless otters fish in both salt and freshwater environments and are found throughout the so-called mother city.

Fast fact: the whiskers of a Cape clawless otter are sensitive to vibrations in the water caused by potential prey.

Where to see them: Although by no means guaranteed, there are regular sightings in the ocean halfway between the V&A Waterfront and Mouille Point lighthouse. They have also been spotted at Scarborough Beach and in the rivers on Table Mountain.

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Otters in the surf at Scarborough beach ©Matthew Swart

7. Hippos

One of the largest and most dangerous of all African land animals, Cape Town is the last place one would expect to see hippos. Reintroduced in 1981 there are now eight resident hippos peacefully living within the confines of the city.

Fast fact: Hippos live extremely aquatic lives, and mate and give birth in water!

Where to see them: The hippos of Cape Town live in Rondevlei Nature Reserve and are best viewed in the early morning or late afternoon in winter.

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A hungry hippo ©Carolynne Geary

8. Flamingos

A once rare sight, large flocks of both lesser and greater flamingos inhabit most of the waterways of Cape Town, although the greater flamingo is more common.

Fast fact: Sub-adult flamingos remain grey and white for several years and obtain the pigment for their pink plumage from their diet.

Where to see them: It’s hard not to see flamingos in Cape Town, however for the best sightings head to Rietvlei Nature Reserve or Woodbridge Island in Milnerton – where the backdrop of Table Mountain makes for a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.

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A flock of greater flamingos in Cape Town ©Carolynne Geary

9. Rock hyraxes

Called dassies by the locals, rock hyraxes look like some strange hybrid between a rabbit, rat and a guinea pig. However their closest land relative is in actual fact the elephant! Although usually shy, the Cape Town dassies are happy to pose for photos and steal your lunch.

Fast fact: Although rock hyraxes only weigh about 4kg their gestation period is unusually long, about 7 months.

Where to see them: Take the Table Mountain Cableway to the top of Table Mountain and enjoy the view of the city next to a dassie or six!

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Two rock hyraxes warm up in the morning sun ©Marko Kudjerski
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Carolynne Geary

Carolynne is a South African who has returned after a decade here, there and almost everywhere. During her travels she gained a Masters in Conservation from University College London, taught in a Mexican university, managed a language school in Italy and became a field guide in the African bush. She is passionate about conservation, photography, languages and Italian gelato. The views expressed in her posts are her own. Connect with her on Facebook.