The Big Five African animals

Wildlife wish list

What are the Big Five African animals?

So you’ve read how the “Big Five” term came about and now it’s time to really learn about each of the Big Five African animals. We feature each one here and list some of the best places you can go to see these endangered species in the wild.


Sadly these days, there are very few national parks in Africa that are home to each of the Big Five African animals. So don’t make that assumption!

The Big Five: Lion

The lion may very well be Africa’s most iconic species. Their numbers, however, are dwindling at an alarming rate. This is due to habitat loss, conflict with humans and many other factors. According to a Duke University study, lions have lost more than 75% of their habitat and are now extinct in 26 African countries. It means seeing lions on safari is not guaranteed in certain areas, and you have to choose your destination wisely if you want to see the king of the, um, savannah.

Tanzania has Africa’s largest population of lion so it’s a solid starting point, especially in Ruaha National Park in the south and the Serengeti in the north. Some of our other favourite spots are the Masai Mara in Kenya, Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe (where you can get up close on foot or from the safety of your 4×4), South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, and Mala Mala in one of South Africa’s private reserves, Sabi Sabi.

Lion behaviours have adapted over time to accommodate changes in their environmental conditions. It means that you can now see lions swimming across waterways in the Delta, and the Mara River between Kenya and Tanzania – and even climbing trees!

The Big Five: Leopard

Of all the Big Five animals, the leopard is, in our opinion, the most beautiful. They are also one of the most elusive, and often the number-one animal people want to spot while on safari. Solitary and stealthy, these predators are the masters of camouflage. For the best odds of seeing leopard in the wild, we recommend a handful of wilderness areas. This includes Sabi Sand, a private reserve in South Africa that borders with the Kruger National Park. Leopards are still elusive here, but there’s an impressive concentration of these exquisite animals, as well as guides who know the region and the animals’ preferred habitat well, ensuring your chances of spotting a leopard in the wild are high.

Next on the list is South Luangwa Valley in Zambia. The high concentration of prey and access to water in the valleys and plains of South Luangwa National Park make for the perfect leopard environment, and numbers here are good.

In Kenya the Masai Mara and Samburu regions are two wilderness areas boasting solid leopard numbers. Leopards here particularly enjoy lazing on riverbeds, sleeping in trees and hanging out among the kopjes (rock formations), waiting for their prey. Tanzania’s Serengeti shares the Masai Mara’s ecosystem, and therefore also has a great reputation for leopard sightings.

The Big Five: Elephant

The African elephant is the world’s largest land animal. These majestic creatures are wonderful to see in the wild while on safari.

There are two subspecies of elephant in Africa: the savannah elephant and the forest elephant. Savannah elephants are larger, with tusks that curve outwards. They also have larger family numbers. Forest elephants, meanwhile, are smaller and darker, with tusks that are straighter and point downwards.

While they once roamed the majority of the African continent, elephants are now confined to a much smaller area. About 50% smaller, in fact. Since the late 1970s there’s been a massive amount of land lost. Rife poaching has also caused the elephant population to drop significantly.

Of the safari destinations where elephants still roam, our all-time favourite locations include Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, where you can get close on foot and in a 4×4, and Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where Mount Kilimanjaro is the backdrop to huge numbers of elephants. To see them playing in – and even crossing – water, head to Botswana’s Chobe National Park, Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park or Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

The Big Five: Rhinoceros

Rhino used to roam this continent without fear, but in 150 years the population has dropped from more than a million to just over 20,000 – a pitiful, terrifying number indeed. Invasion of habitat, relentless hunting and poaching are some of the major factors responsible for their decline. These days, the two African rhino species – black rhino and white rhino – can be seen in just six countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana (at this stage only on one small island in the Delta), Kenya and Tanzania (in small numbers).

Despite their names, rhinos are not actually white or black, but there are subtle differences between them. Black rhinos are smaller, and have a hooked upper lip. White rhinos, on the other hand, are larger and have barely any hair, and have a square upper lip (it’s thought the term “white” was a misinterpretation of the Afrikaans word wyd , meaning “wide” and the term has just stuck over many years).

Rhinos are hugely important to the ecosystem. It’s not commonly known, but these creatures are important grazers, helping to shape the landscape of Africa by consuming massive amounts of vegetation. It benefits other animals and keeps a healthy balance within the ecosystems.

Extensive work is being done by numerous agencies, organisations and governments to protect this valuable species and their habitat, and we’re proud to be involved in a number of the rhino conservation initiatives.

We’re not going to to talk about where you should go to see rhino – poachers don’t need any extra help! Give us a call and we’ll let you know about the handful of places that are home to rhino. They’re worth every penny to visit.

The Big Five: Cape buffalo

The African buffalo or Cape buffalo is a large bovine found in Southern and Eastern Africa, while a smaller subspecies can be found in the forests of Central and West Africa.

It’s often assumed that buffalo share the temperament of domestic cattle. This is far from the truth, and buffalo are one of the most dangerous animals precisely because they’re underestimated. They charge when they’re anxious, and can gore and even kill a human if you’re unlucky enough to get in the way.

The African buffalo only has a handful of predators, namely lions and large crocodiles, because they’re so good at defending themselves with horns that are fused and form a continuous bone shield across the top of the head.

Buffalo live in impressive herds sometimes numbering up to 500, and are the easiest of the Big Five to spot on an African Safari.

Our favourite buffalo-sighting destination are in Tanzania’s Serengeti, where the herds are big and wonderful to see on open plains; Chobe National Park in Botswana (and, indeed, all over Botswana where buffalo can be found, but especially in the dry months of May to October when they come in big numbers to drink from the rivers and waterways); and Kruger National Park and the private reserves surrounding it, in South Africa.

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