Everything you need to know about Africa’s Big 5 animals
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Travelers who are planning to go on a safari in Africa may have come across the term ‘Big Five’ while doing their research; this refers to five African animal species, namely the Buffalo, Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhino.
When selecting where to go on a safari, you will notice that game reserves, or lodges and safari camps, will state whether they offer a Big Five Safari; if so, this means that there is the possibility of spotting these five animals in the wild.
Why are they called the Big Five?
Many moons ago, hunters in Africa dubbed the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot as ‘The Big Five.’ Although most safaris do not offer hunting activities anymore, the term ‘Big Five’ is still used in the tourism industry today and it is a phrase that has become widely recognised around the globe. This is because seeing a leopard dangling from a tree, a rhino and her calf sauntering past, or being three feet away from the majestic king of the jungle with not a single sound but the beating of your own heart, is a privilege second to none. Viewing these animals in the wild is such an exhilarating experience that may be difficult to grasp until it is your safari vehicle that is in the way of a large elephant bull flapping his ears and thrusting his tusks!
Africa's Big 5
The African Elephant
The African elephant is the largest animal roaming the earth and their most recognisable features are their long trunks, large ears, and fearsome tusks. Unfortunately, it is the latter attribute that has contributed to the massive decline of this species because of poachers who are driven by the illegal ivory trade. Another threat to their survival is a growing human population. As our numbers increase, the need for more land increases, which in turn decreases the land for the elephants. A lack of resources leads to elephants destroying agricultural land, which puts them at risk from human conflict. A huge part of African elephant conservation is collaborating with local communities to assist them with effectively managing conflict with the species.
Without these threats, elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild in multi-generational herds. These herds are led by a matriarch and made up of other females and their young. Pregnancy can last up to 22 months with elephants usually reproducing one calf every 3 to 4 years. Males and young bulls roam the land on their own or form small groups known as bachelor herds.
Elephants are herbivores and can be seen eating roots and fruits, grasses and bark, which they consume in abundance! They spend most of their day covering large distances while feasting along the way. They also love water so consider yourself lucky if you stumble across a herd bathing at a waterhole!
Travel tip: One of the best places to view African elephants is in Chobe National Park in Botswana, suitably referred to as ‘The Land of the Giants.’ This destination is home to Africa’s largest elephant population with individual herds reaching into the hundreds. Chobe, along with the Okavango Delta (also located in Botswana), are two fantastic safari destinations in Africa. If you are thinking of visiting Botswana, the best time to travel would be between May and October as the rains have stopped and water is abundant, creating excellent conditions for game viewing.
The African Leopard
The most elusive of the Big Five, the African leopard is considered the holy grail of safari sightings and you will not be disappointed. This cat has an exquisite coat that is yellowish-brown in colour, sometimes appearing gold, with black spots also known as rosettes decorated across its body. Milky green eyes are often captured behind a camera lens with a piercing stare that will send chills down your spine!
These are nocturnal animals, solitary by nature, and incredibly adaptable to different environments (location and habitat can influence the size and colour of a leopard). Males are noticeably larger than females, however it is rare that you will have the opportunity to compare the two genders unless territories have intersected (with males overlapping territories with females), or if they are mating.
A leopard is pregnant for approximately three and a half months, giving birth to between 1 and 3 cubs at a time. Generally, only 50% of the litter will survive, and those that do can live for about 15 years in the wild.
Sighting of leopards often occur in trees as they are known to hoist their meal into the treetops away from other predators or scavengers, such as hyena. Their diet consists of small to medium size prey, which can be anything from a guinea fowl to a small antelope. The strength required to drag an impala up a tree is immense and shows just how strong these animals are!
Like most cats, leopards communicate through scent, body language and behavior such as the marking of trees. With scent glands on their cheeks, they rub their faces on branches or pathways to make it clear whose territory it is, and they also communicate their mood with their tail. Growling, hissing or a rasping roar may be heard when leopards are communicating between their own or other species.
Unfortunately, leopards are listed as vulnerable on the global IUCN Red list due to habitat loss, trophy hunting and conflict with humans.
Travel Tip: One of the best places to see the African leopard is in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa, where highly skilled guides will pull out all of their knowledge and expertise to get those close-up encounters of this extraordinary wild cat of Africa.
The African Buffalo
If you have seen a buffalo in person, then you will understand why it is part of the Big Five. With a helmet of horns perched on their heads, buffalos can weigh between 300 to 835 kilograms and are about one to two meters in height. It is no surprise that the hunter once considered this to be a formidable opponent in the African bush, and the same goes for today’s travelers. If you happen to find yourself on a walking safari, coming across a herd of buffalo along the way is not something you take lightly, especially if they are in close range.
The Cape Buffalo is the most common out of the four subspecies and are often seen in large herds, predominantly made up of females and young, with males breaking away to form bachelor herds. Living in large herds protects the buffalo from predators, such as lions, who will single out an individual as a meal for their pride. This species can live 11 to 22 years in the wild and the females will reproduce every two years about. Considering they spend most of their time grazing, birthing season typically occurs after the rainy season when there is an abundance of grass.
Travel Tip: One of the best places to see buffalo is in the Kruger National Park where you will come across very large herds.
The African Rhino
The white and black rhino are two subspecies of the African rhino, with the former recognisable by its square lip and the latter a hooked lip. Both species have two horns and are just as prehistoric looking as each other! Despite a long lifespan of 35 to 40 years in the wild, few make it as long as this because they are being killed for their horns.
In Asia, it is believed that rhino horn, which is made of keratin, has the ability to cure cancer, hangovers and even impotence. This has resulted in a massacre of this species and the war is still being fought today to protect rhinos from the threat of extinction. Sadly, it has become a common sight finding a young calf standing alongside its dead mother who has had her face severed. With 16 months in gestation, the turn around time is just not long enough for the species to revive itself and that is why rhino conservation is at the forefront of African wildlife protection.
Travel tip: Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve is the oldest proclaimed game reserve in Africa, and the very place that saved the white rhino from the brink of extinction. Today, it is home to one of the largest populations of white rhino in the world. Visiting this reserve in Zululand, South Africa is a very special experience as it is the birthplace of white rhino conservation. (Our article ‘Operation Rhino’ will provide more information on the history of this reserve)
The African Lion
The mighty ‘King of the Jungle’ is in a league of its own and definitely deserves a spot on Africa’s Big Five list being the largest carnivore in Africa! This is a highly sociable species that live in prides that can range from anything between 10 and 40 pride members, which are made up of females, their young, and dominant males. The males are easily distinguishable by their manes that are regally wrapped around their head and chest, and their iconic roar will evoke and emotion that will reverberate through your soul!
Ironically these fearsome beasts can sleep up to twenty hours a day and are more active at night when they are known to hunt.
Lions will take down medium to large prey, and this can be anything from a young warthog to a large buffalo. Although they have very few threats of their own in the wild, and as with most of the Big Five, human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss have had them listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Travel tip: The Timbavati region in South Africa, which borders the Kruger National Park, is one of the only places in the world where you can still see white lions in the wild. Private reserves will generally have smaller numbers of lions than places such as the Kruger National Park where exceptionally large lion prides are sighted.
How much does a safari cost to see the Big 5 in Africa?
Going on a Big Five Safari in Africa will vary in cost depending on which location or country you are visiting. The most affordable option would be South Africa as the Rand to Dollar, Pound or Euro exchange rate is excellent and you get a lot for your money. Please click on the link for more information on the cost of a budget, middle-range and luxury safari in South Africa.
Bucket-list safari destinations such as Botswana and Tanzania will work out to be more costly, especially around the migration period. Etosha National Park, one of the largest national parks in Africa, situated in Namibia also offers excellent value for money with the Namibian Dollar being equivalent to the Rand.
For a quote and itinerary on your chosen safari destination please email us at email@example.com
"African Elephant" World Wildlife Fund, Retrieved from African Elephant | Species | WWF (worldwildlife.org)
"Africa Elephant" Kruger Park, Retrieved from African Elephant - Kruger National Park - South Africa (krugerpark.co.za)
"African Leopard" South African National Biodiversity Institute, Retrieved from African leopard - SANBI
"African Buffalo" African Wildlife Foundation, Retrieved from African Buffalo | African Wildlife Foundation (awf.org)
"Rhinoceros" African Wildlife Foundation, Retrieved from Rhinoceros | African Wildlife Foundation (awf.org)
"African Lion" Kruger Park, Retrieved from Lion - Leo Panthera - African Lion (krugerpark.co.za)