If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, you’ll definitely have heard the term – The Big 5 – the must-see wild animals and frequently used marketing slogan for game reserves and national parks in Southern Africa, where these animals are considered safari royalty.

The Big 5 animals of Africa are; lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo and rhino. – These iconic beasts are what most think of when picturing wildlife in Africa. The term ‘Big Five’ was originally coined in the 1800s by colonial hunters who recognized that these species were the hardest and most dangerous to hunt on foot.

 

Although these animals are still hunted today, increasing popularity in safari-tourism has iconisized the big five and they represent the most sought-after sightings on safari. However it is a matter of personal preference as some of Africa’s most beautiful and charismatic mega-fauna don’t feature on the list. These include; cheetah, African wild dog, giraffe and hippo.

Lion

The African Lion is the world’s second largest cat species, after the tiger – and the largest in Africa. They are a major attraction for tourists and one of the most iconic symbols of the continent.

The undisputed king of savannah and woodland regions, male lions stand 1.2m (4 ft) tall at the shoulder and can weigh over 200 kilograms (450lbs). These awe-inspiring cats are characterised by their majestic manes, highlighted with hues of red, brown and black with some males boasting almost-completely black manes. This is thought to be a sign of strength and an attractive attribute to females.

Female lions – or lionesses – are slightly smaller in stature, weighing around 130 kilograms (290bs) and don’t grow any form of mane. Unlike other cats, lions are an extremely social species and are almost always found together in family groups called ‘prides’. The average pride of lions ranges from around three to thirty individuals. Females usually remain together and are even able to synchronising their birthing cycles so that they can help each other to raise their young. Cubs are born with spot-like rosettes which fade as they grow older.

Prides aren’t always headed by a single male lion. They are often led by multiple males, who form a coalition. Coalitions are a group of brothers or cousins who come together to lead a pride and defend its territory. These coalitions endlessly patrol their territories to ensure no other lions are encroaching.

The Big 5 Of Africa
The African Lion | Pixabay

Lions are opportunistic predators, which means they will hunt and eat almost anything when the opportunity arises. However their ideal prey mainly consists of large mammals like Zebra, Wildebeest and Buffalo and sometimes even Giraffe. Smaller antelope species like Impala and Steenbok are usually only on the menu when the perfect opportunity presents itself. They are ambush hunters, who use their tawny-brown skin colour to blend in with their surroundings.

Although lions are sometimes active during the day, they are primarily nocturnal, and most day time sightings involve the pride sleeping under a shady acacia tree – which they can do for up to 20 hours a day!

Adult lions have no natural predators, and most fatalities occur while young. Rival male lions are known to kill cubs in attempts to prevent the spread of other male’s genes and buffalo have also been known to trample cubs when den sites are discovered.

As with almost every wild animal species on earth, humans are the lion’s biggest threat. Hunting, poaching and habitat loss are the primary contributing factors to wild lion populations in Africa, and they are currently classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The best places to see lions in Africa:

Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, South Africa

Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Elephant

The largest of The Big Five – the African elephant – is the world’s biggest land animal and a keystone species, that plays an irreplaceable role in Africa’s various ecosystems. Bulls can reach 3.3m (11 ft) tall at the shoulder and can weigh up to 6 tonnes, while the heaviest individual ever recorded weighed over 10 tonnes!

Elephants are found in 37 African countries and thrive in a range of different habitats, from lush wetlands and arid deserts to thick rainforests. They live in large family herds, led by a matriarch, that often number more than 100 individuals. Females tend to stay with the herd for life, while young males leave to live nomadically or to join bachelor groups. Elephants have developed an incredible form of communication which involves low-frequency rumbles that can travel for kilometres.

The Big 5 Of Africa
The African Elephant | Pixabay

African elephants play an essential role in shaping and development the environment in which they live. During times of drought, elephants use their tusks to dig for water, which provides much-needed hydration for other species. Over time, their tree-pulling and feeding activities change the layout of woodlands, which is why elephants are affectionately referred to as ‘bush architects’.

They are also the best seed dispersers in the animal kingdom thanks to the vast amount of food they eat, and the distances they travel. They can consume over 200 litres of water and nearly 200 kilograms (400lbs) of vegetation every day.

They are expertly adapted to life in the harshest of conditions, with one inch-thick skin that protects them from the sharp thorns and parasitic bugs to their enormous ears, which help disperse heat and regulate overall body temperature.

Over the last 50 years, the increase in global demand for ivory has led to a dramatic decrease in wild elephant numbers. Prohibitions on the ivory trade has brought about a stabilization in population numbers at around 600,000 individuals however poaching is still the biggest threat facing elephants today. The African elephant is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The best places to see elephants in Africa:

Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

Mana Pools National Park and Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Chobe National Park, Botswana

 

Rhino

Africa’s Big Five includes both species of rhinoceros – the white rhino and the black rhino.

In spite of their names, there is no colour difference between the two species, the primary difference is in the shape of their lips. A black rhino’s lip is sharp and hooked, making it easier to pick leaves off trees and shrubs, also known as ‘browsing’. The white rhino sports a broad, flat lip which is used for ‘grazing’ or feeding on grasses and roots in the ground. The Dutch word for “wide” is “wijd”, and a mispronunciation of this word is where the name ‘white rhino’ was derived.

The White Rhino | Pixabay

Both species are huge, with a max weight of 2500 kilograms (5500lbs) and horns that can grow up to 1.5 metres long (5 ft)

Black rhinos are solitary and are usually seen alone except for mothers with young calves. They are notorious for their bad temper and propensity to charge. White rhinos often live in pairs or small groups and while still extremely temperamental, they are a lot more relaxed than their ‘cousins’. This difference in disposition is perhaps a result of size, as black rhinos are significantly smaller than white rhinos and therefore face far more threats in the bush.

White rhinos are most often spotted out in open grassland savannahs and woodlands, while black rhinos are usually seen feeding on shrubbery in dense tickets. It is thought that rhinos may have been roaming the plains of Africa 50 million years ago.

At present their are four subspecies between the two primary species, all of which are at risk of extinction due to the high demand for rhino horn in the far east and Asia. It is estimated that there are around 5,000 black rhino and 20,000 white rhino left across Africa.

Three sub-species of black rhino are already extinct, and recently the northern white rhino was declared extinct in the wild.  The black rhino is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, while the white rhino is ‘Near Threatened’.

The best places to see rhinos in Africa:

Kruger National Park and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, South Africa

Etosha National Park, Namibia

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

 

Leopard

Arguably the most beautiful big cat in Africa, the leopard is the most elusive of the Big 5 and one of the most highly sought after sightings on the continent. Nocturnal by nature, leopards are solitary cats which are usually seen alone except while mating or mother’s with cubs.

The African leopard’s intricate pattern is made up of black spots arranged in rosettes, contrasted against a golden-yellow background. White spots on the tips of their tails and the backs of their ears allow mothers to stand out to their cubs in the long grass.

the big 5 of africa
The African Leopard | Pixabay

They are heavy-bodied and powerful cats, able to pull prey heavier than themselves several metres up a tree to avoid scavengers like lions and hyena. Their diet is varied and prey items include; wildebeest, birds, baboons and even fish, but most times the unfortunate victims are impala.

Leopards have large territories and never stay in the same area for long. A males territory spans wider than a females and they ‘mark their territory’ by urinating on trees and bushes and leaving strategic claw marks. Game fences are no good for keeping leopards in and they move freely between wildlife reserves and surrounding areas. They are one of the only big game species that can still be found outside of national parks and game reserves.

They are excellent hunters thanks to their variety of skills; the ability to run at speeds of over 56 kilometres (35 miles) and jump over 3 meters (10ft) into the air means they are highly successful predators. They are also excellent swimmers and have been seen wading into shallow pools to hunt catfish.

As with the rest of the Big 5 in Africa, leopards are threatened by humans. Habitat-loss for agricultural use means that wild leopards have less space and often wander on to farms where they end up getting shot by farmers trying to protect their livestock. They are currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The best places to see leopards in Africa:

Sabi Sands Game Reserve and Kruger National Park, South Africa

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana

 

Cape Buffalo

Also known as ‘The Black Death’ the Cape buffalo is perhaps the most fierce of all the big 5 in Africa. They are found in large numbers in water-rich game reserves and national parks across sub-Saharan Africa.

Notoriously bad-tempered and unpredictable, buffalo have earned themselves a reputation as one of the continent’s most dangerous animals. Both males and females are armed with a set of deadly curved horns. The only notable difference being the thick ‘helmet’ which males develop over the top of their heads. This is called the ‘boss’ and provides extra protection and reinforcement for males when engaging in vicious fights for dominance. Male buffalo can weigh up to 920 kilograms (2000lbs).

The Cape Buffalo | Pixabay

Buffalo congregate in large herds, sometimes in the thousands, and carry out their lives on open grasslands and woodland areas, and because they eat coarse grass and bush, they cannot live in desert areas. They are never too far from water. They are extremely protective over other herd members, especially weaker individuals, and will readily fight back against a threat.

Lion and buffalo are eternal enemies and when a pride of lions sets its sights on a buffalo herd, they aim to pick out and isolate the young, sick or injured members. Buffalos almost never give up on one of their own and form defensive circles around those targeted by predators. They will fight the lions off using their hooves and horns and many-a-lion has been killed during these battles for survival.

Cape buffalo are still one of the most sought-after trophies among big game hunters, and are exceptionally susceptible to domestic cattle diseases like bovine tuberculosis. However they are listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN redlist.

The best places to see buffalo in Africa:

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Chobe National Park and Okavango Delta, Botswana

Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia