If you’re planning a safari holiday, you’ll no doubt hear about the “Big Five”. These five fabulous game animals of Africa seem to be the main event for so many safari goers. Whether it’s the challenge of spotting them or just the hype surrounding their existence, these mammals seem to take all the glory whether you’re on a drive or on a guided foot safari.
So what exactly is the Big Five and what makes them so special to be included in this elite list? The Big Five refers to the African lion, the African leopard, the African elephant, the White or Black rhino and Cape buffalo. You may be wondering what the cheetah did wrong to miss out on such stardom, or why the hippos should shy away from the fame and the limelight. In this comprehensive Big Five guide, we reveal everything there is to know from their history to interesting facts to the best places to spot them.
Read on for everything you need to know about the Big Five for your next African safari…
The African Lion
The African lion is one of the big cats from the Genus Panthera family of Felidae and the African lion often includes a number of different of subspecies found across the continent. Currently, there are 12 known subspecies which fall under the African lion umbrella, and each is determined by differences in their mane. It is the second largest living cat after the tiger and more than 10,0000 years ago, the lion was the second most widespread land mammal in the entire world (second only to humans). Today, the population is decreasing and the African lion has been “vulnerable” in the wild. Lions provide fantastic viewing on safari and if you’re lucky, you might catch them hunting in the early morning.
The African Elephant
From the Genus Loxodonta family, the African Elephant includes two extant species, which are the African bush elephant and the African forest elephant. The latter is the smaller of the two whilst the former is classified as the largest living terrestrial animal, and neither should be confused with the Asian elephant which has several distinct physical differences. Elephants are currently living in Eastern, Southern, Western and Central Africa and they are perhaps the most gentle of the Big Five, and an absolute joy to watch for safari goers of every age.
The African Leopard
The African leopard is definitely one of the most exciting animals to see on safari and it’s recognised for its patterned coat. There are many variations in coat colour, ranging from pale yellow to deep gold or sometimes even very dark to almost black. The coat is marked with black spots and because the leopard hunts at night or very early in the morning, they are not easy to spot on safari. Leopards, unlike cheetahs, also like to drag their prey up into the trees rather so they can sometimes be hidden out of sight.
The White / Black Rhino
The current status of the rhino is classified as “not extinct”, which means that they are very close to extinction and are under serious threat from illegal hunters and poachers. Currently there are only three Northern White rhinos left in the world and they are being constantly guarded at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Armed guards parole the area to deter illegal hunters and the final three Northern Whites named Sudan, Najin and Fatu are unlikely to reproduce successfully and will ultimately fall into extinction, whilst the Southern White rhino remains as one of the most abundant subspecies. Not only are the two remaining females, Najin and Fatu incapable of natural reproduction but last male, Sudan has a very low sperm count. Black Rhinos are also endangered from poaching, so rhino sightings on safari are extremely wonderful. And even better is the birthing season, which is incredible to witness.
The Cape Buffalo
The Cape Buffalo is a subspecies of the African bovine and its exact ancestry remains unknown. It can be instantly recognised by its characteristic horns and is often considered to be a very dangerous animal amongst the Big Five. Some reports reveal that the Cape Buffalo kill more humans each year than they do any other animal. They have the ability to ambush, charge and gore using their horns. However, the human deaths have almost always been hunters so as far as we understand, they attack when provoked or when they feel under threat. They need a constant water source and prefer large open spaces, making their movements more predictable than the other animals of the Big Five – so you will easily spot the buffalo at watering holes or grazing nearby.
The term “Big Five” was coined by old African hunters who hunted game in the African plains during the last two centuries. Back in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, these hunters were known as the “Great White Hunters”; this was a time when hunting was in its heyday and was not yet recognised as an unsustainable attack on the planet’s ecosystem. Back then, hunting was as much a sign of prestige as it was a practical skill and professional hunters would go hunting in the bid to win as many trophies as possible. There was a lot of pressure to be successful and there was even more pressure to make the most kills in a short space of time. And the Big Five – the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – were given the term “The Big Five” because of their extreme difficulty to hunt on foot.
In fact, their difficulty made them the most sought after animals for most hunters and they soon became a rite of passage for seasoned hunting pros. Hunting them down became a way to gain respect and admiration in the community, and this soon morphed into a sport for the rich and famous. Those who could afford to travel such as European royalty and aristocracy, American heads of state, world leaders and presidents all lined up to come and shoot the Big Five.
The popularity of hunting them down soon spread all over the world and it quickly became common knowledge that the Big Five were the most dangerous and difficult animals to hunt down. Today, the name remains for these African giants of the wild. However, instead of the desperate thirst to hunt, we now do everything we can to protect them and visitors come to shoot through their camera lens instead of a gun.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Chobe National Park, is home to breeding elephants in their thousands so if elephant tracking is at the top of your list, Botswana will make an ideal safari destination. Bordering the Caprivi Strip of Namibia and the Zambezi River, this is a beautiful park made up of woodlands and grassy plains and although you might struggle with seeing the rhino, four of the Big Five are often easily spotted here. Of course, it takes a little luck and some good timing to see the animals but with the continent’s largest elephant herds and a huge population of buffalo, there are some sightings guaranteed.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
The Okavango Delta is one of the most exciting destinations in Africa and Moremi Game Reserve is the place to go if you want to increase your chances of ticking off the Big Five. Rhinos, although small in their numbers, have recently been reintroduced here and there are abundant numbers of elephant, lions, leopards and buffalo at any time of year. If you’re interested in seeing elephants, the best time to go on safari is between August and October when large herds gather by the water sources.
Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Not only will the wide open grasslands give you a better chance of seeing safari animals in general, but the Serengeti National Park is famed for its healthy stock of wildlife including the Big Five. In addition to the park’s all year round wildlife numbers, the annual migration which happens – known as The Great Wildebeest Migration – is something not to be missed. During the migration from November to July, mammals will migrate in unison and in large herds. During this time, your chances of seeing lions hunting will increase, leopards are more visible due to the lack of trees, and the general possibility of spotting animals is higher.
Etosha National Park, Namibia
Etosha National Park is one of the most iconic destinations in Africa and it’s known as one of the best places to see big game on safari. The Big Five can all be seen here (although rhino sightings are not as prominent these days) and it is home to 114 mammal species and more than 340 bird species. We feature some fantastic camps including Little Ongava with the most spectacular panoramic views and Andersson’s Camp, a family friendly camp with a sensational waterhole and viewing deck.
Whether you’re going on safari for your honeymoon or about to embark on a family safari adventure, it’s always good to know a bit about the animals you’re trying to spot. Kids especially will find these facts extremely interesting so here are some cool or surprising facts about the Big Five that you may not know…
The African Lion
* Lions have a complex social structure
The African lion has a very complex social structure and hierarchy system, and a typical pride will have around 15 members (although there have been prides as large as 40). Within each pride, there are multiple female relatives and their offspring plus a few unrelated males to mate with. Female lions are also the better hunters and they do most of the hunting for the pride.
* There’s a correlation between age and the colour of their mane
This is great way of trying to tell the age of lions when you’re out on safari. Typically, the darker a lion’s mane, the older the lion is.
The African Elephant
* Elephants are sociable creatures
This particular trait really helps to humanise the African elephant. They love to socialise with their herd and they can sometimes be heard making grumbling noises. These noises are low frequency sounds that can actually be heard up to 6 miles away by their friends and family members.
* Elephants are peaceful animals….most of the time!
Kids love elephants. In fact so do adults. They’re a universally adored animal and that’s mostly down to what people hear about the elephant’s gentle and friendly nature. The elephant is generally a very peaceful animal but if they ever feel threatened or they are provoked, they also have the ability to lose their temper. And watch out because elephants can charge when they’re angry!
*Elephants are vegetarians
Elephants are vegetarians and feed on grass, leaves, tree bark and twigs, fruit and seed pods and one single elephant can eat up to 170kg of vegetation per day. Because of their high veg consumption, you’ll always be able to spot where an elephant herd has been
The African Leopard
* Leopards are natural loners
The African leopard is a solitary creature, meaning that it likes to live and hunt alone – unlike lions who move around in prides.
* Leopards can swim and climb
Leopards are land mammals but they’re also extremely good at swimming and they can also climb very well. When they are not hunting, they can often be seen resting high up in the trees and when hunting, they like to drag their kill up a tree to feed in complete privacy.
The White / Black Rhino
* Rhinos can be very clumsy by nature
Due to their poor vision, it’s not unlikely to see rhinos sometimes accidentally attacking still nature such as rocks, bushes or tree stumps because they think it’s another animal! Because they can’t rely on their vision, rhinos have a very good sense of hearing and they have a heightened sense of smell too.
* Rhinos are temperamental animals
You definitely do not want to get on the wrong side of a rhino. Whilst they are happy to keep themselves to themselves, they are known to have mood swings just like a human being and be tempted to charge if they are provoked in any way.
* They are extremely heavy!
Rhinos can weight 1000kg, which is around the same weight as a small city car (such as a Mini Cooper) and they are generally considered the second largest land mammal after the elephant.
The Cape Buffalo
* The Cape buffalo is considered to be very dangerous!
Whilst you might think the big predators such as lions and leopards are the ones to fear out of the Big Five, it’s actually the Cape buffalo that might terrify you the most. These animals are said to kill around 200 humans every single year – these being hunters though, so if you travel with a wise guide, you should be extremely safe.
For more information on seeing the Big 5 on safari get in touch and we’d be happy to help!