The Big Five of Africa - the most often mentioned, relentlessly searched for and much-loved five large African mammals.
These five wild animals were originally termed 'the Big Five' by big game hunters who found them to be the most difficult and dangerous African animals to hunt on foot. These days the term 'Big Five' is frequently (if not excessively) used in the African safari industry, where sightings, encounters and photo opportunities of these heavyweights are highly sought-after.
What are Africa's Big Five animals?
You've probably heard the term, but do you know who the Big Five are? In no particular order of importance, the Big Five are; lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Given that these formidable five are constantly in the spotlight, here are some amazing facts about each of Africa's Big Five stars.
1. African Lions (Panthera leo)
Africa's apex predator and the second largest big cat in the world. Lions are not found in jungles. Instead, they can be found roaming the savannah grasslands and open plains of Africa.
Seven Interesting Facts about Lions:
They are the most social felines on earth. Lions are the only cats that live in groups (prides) and need a lot of contact with each other. Females share particularly strong bonds as they remain in the same pride for life and raise their cubs together, with cubs suckling from any of the lactating females.
These cats are loud: a lion’s roar can be heard up to 5 miles (8km) away, enabling them to communicate with each other over large distances. The males roar more loudly and more frequently, usually to declare territory, call stray members of the pride and ward off rivals. Females call their cubs with quiet roars and also roar for backup when under threat.
Lions greet each other by rubbing their heads against each other, exchanging scents that convey information about their intentions, moods and recent activities. This tactile form of greeting also serves to form and strengthen the bonds between lions.
African lions are now only found in 8% of their historic range. Wild lions are still found in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of southern and eastern Africa. Lions once inhabited Northern Africa, Southwest Asia, Europe and India, but of these areas they are now only found in the Gir Forest National Park in of northwestern India.
The females do the hunting, yet the males get the first helping, even when there are cubs in the pride.
They can see in the dark and most of the hunting is done at night, but they are not completely nocturnal. Lions are said to be crepuscular, which means that they are most active at twilight (just before sunrise or just after sunset). They are however opportunistic feeders that will hunt at any time.
- Lions spend most of their time sleeping - these big cats sleep up to 20 hours a day!
For more, see the 10 Interesting Facts about Lions on WWF.
Conservation Status of Lions:
- Lions have been listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 1996.
- Listed as Appendix II under CITES (2016): despite the declining population of only about 20 000 African lions left in the wild.
Best Places to see Lions in Africa
The best places to see lions in the wild include: Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands in South Africa, Northern Safari Circuit (Serengeti, Ngorongoro & Lake Manyara National Park) and Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, Masai Mara in Kenya, Okavango Delta & Savuti in Botswana, South Luangwa in Zambia and Etosha National Park in Namibia.
2. African Leopards (Panthera pardus)
The leopard may not be the biggest, but it is the strongest climber of the African big cats. Known for their power and grace leopards are stealthy nocturnal predators with excellent night vision.
Seven Interesting Leopard Facts:
Unlike lions, leopards are anti-social loners. These solitary cats avoid interacting with each other beyond mating and raising young cubs.
The largest cat species to climb trees regularly. Leopards can drag prey weighing up to three times their own body weight up into trees over 20 feet (6 meters) tall and they can also hunt from trees. Leopards even nap in trees!
These adaptable felines are found in the most diverse habitats of all the big cats, inhabiting both deserts and forests. Their ability to survive across a range of habitats has enabled leopard populations to survive in far flung parts of the world, including India, China, Central Asia and Africa.
Leopards don't roar, they bark and snarl. When happy they even purr.
The leopard preys on a wide variety of species, from insects, rodents and reptiles, to birds and mammals, including antelopes as large as elands, and even giraffes.
Leopards are not only comfortable in the water but are in fact strong swimmers that sometimes eat fish and even crabs.
- A leopard's spots are called rosettes as the clusters of dark spots resemble roses. Their light coats patched with dark rosettes provide excellent camouflage for these elusive hunters, especially in the dappled shade of trees.
- Updated to Vulnerable in 2016, from Near Threatened (NT) in 2008, and Least Concern (LC) in 2002.
- Many leopard sub-populations are endangered with an overall dramatic decrease in numbers due to human activities.
Best Places to see Leopards in Africa
One of the best places to see leopards in the wild is in Sabi Sands Game Reserve near Kruger Park in South Africa. Other top game parks for seeing leopards include Moremi in Botswana, South Luangwa in Zambia and the Serengeti Ecosystem straddling Kenya and Tanzania. For more details about how and where to see leopards in Africa see our post: How to spot a leopard on an African safari.
3. African Elephants (Loxodonta africana)
The largest terrestrial animal on the planet and a vegetarian to boot, elephants are known for their intelligence.
Seven Interesting Elephant Facts:
Elephants can get sunburnt! They throw sand on their backs and heads to prevent sunburn and keep insects off their skin. Their skins are incredibly tough, but they can also feel a tiny insect walking on their skin!
They have the longest gestation period of all land mammals at 22 months giving birth to calves weighing 120kg! Elephant cows give birth standing up with members of the herd forming a protective circle around her as her calf is born.
Baby elephants are born almost blind and some individuals suck their trunks for comfort, similar to the way young humans suck their thumbs.
Elephants love to swim and are able to swim for long distances using their trunks as makeshift snorkels. The trunk is an adapted nose used for grabbing, bathing, smelling, drinking and can pick up something as small as a grain of rice.
Elephants have very sensitive pads under their feet, making it possible for them to walk quietly despite their enormous weight. The underfoot pads act as shock absorbers.
The elephant's closest living relatives are the dugong and a rodent-like mammal called the hyrax (commonly known as the dassie).
Like humans, these social creatures respond to the death of a herd member in ritualized ways. Elephants often 'bury' the deceased and stay at the grave for a few days, even showing signs of mourning.
- African elephants were moved from Endangered in 1996 to Vulnerable in 2004, remaining Vulnerable to date
- Desperate efforts by many African countries at the 2016 species Conference to move all elephants onto the CITES Appendix I (threatened by extinction) failed when a two-thirds majority vote was not reached.
- Illegal hunting and ivory trade, loss of habitat and human activity see 30 000 - 40 000 elephants slaughtered every year severely jeopardising their chances for survival into the next generation.
Best Places to see Elephants in Africa
Best places for watching African elephants in the wild include Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Chobe Park in Botswana. Get the low-down on where to see African elephants in our post: 11 Best Places to See Elephants in Africa.
4. African Rhinos (black rhino - Diceros bicornis & white rhino - Ceratotherium simum)
Seven Interesting Rhino Facts:
All rhinos have three hoofed toes per foot making them "three-toed ungulates" that are most closely related to the horse, zebra and tapir. Rhinos run on their toes and are much faster than they look.
Rhinos are herbivorous and nocturnal, feeding at night and resting during the day.
Rhino horn is made of the protein keratin, and is basically just a compact mass of hair similar to our nails or a horse's hooves. The horn is not attached to the skull and if it breaks off it will grow back.
All five species of rhino are endangered with the Javan and Sumatran critically endangered. There are less than 50 Javan rhinos left in a reserve in Indonesia making it the rarest mammal on the planet. In 2014, an alarming 1,215 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa.
A group of rhinos is called a 'crash.' Their gestation period is 16 months and once the calf is born the mother rhino will nurture it for three years.
The Black rhino has a hooked lip designed to eat leaves and twigs off trees. Black rhinos can pick up small objects and even open gates and vehicle doors with their prehensile upper lips.
The white rhino has a broad flat mouth ideal for grazing. Neither the black or white rhino has front teeth, which is why they rely on their lips for eating.
More rhino facts on Saving Rhinos.
- Southern White Rhino - listed as Near Threatened since 1994. After a severe decline, the conservation efforts of the South African government and conservationists allowed the population to bounce back significantly.
- The Black Rhinos are listed as critically endangered with less than 5000. Listed as Appendix I under CITES
- Northern White Rhinos are believed to be extinct in the wild with the only 3 (one male and two females) left on the planet being kept in Kenya under 24/7 armed guard.
Best Places to see Rhinos in Africa
Top African countries for spotting rhinos include Namibia, Kenya, South Africa and Swaziland. More specifically three of the best places to see rhinos in the wild are Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana, Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
5. African Buffalos or Cape Buffalos (Syncerus caffer)
This is the least obvious and most often forgotten member of the Big Five, a formidable-looking herbivore.
Seven Interesting Buffalo Facts
Buffalos are said to have killed more hunters in Africa than any other animal. They still kill over 200 people every year earning them the reputation and nickname of 'Black Death' and 'Widow Maker'.
They are known to use attack as a method of defence and often circle back on their assailants. Buffalos apparently have excellent memories and will ambush hunters who they have encountered before.
The buffalo is the only species of wild cattle in Africa and is sometimes confused with American bison or wildebeest. Buffalos have never been domesticated due to their unpredictable and often aggressive natures.
To get much-needed minerals buffaloes will lick termite mounds and will also lick the mud, stuck to their coats from wallowing in mud pools, off each other in order to get the nutrients lacking from their diet.
Buffalo are not endangered with a healthy population of just under a million. They are still hunted for trophies and a hunting tourist will pay up to $10 000 for a buffalo.
Buffalos drink 40l of water a day so never wander too far away from a watering hole. Lions often lie in wait for them near the water and it will usually take several lions to bring a buffalo down.
Female buffalos have strong bonds and if one individual is attacked the entire herd will defend it, often killing lions and other predators in the process.
More about buffalos on BBC Nature.
- African buffalos have been listed as Least Concern (LC) since 2008 but the population is steadily decreasing due to loss of habitat and human activity.
Best Places to see Buffalos in Africa
Big Five Safaris in Africa
Big Five African game reserves have an edge over the wildlife areas missing one or more of these iconic species because safari-goers from across the planet are eager to spot the famous rhino, leopard, lion, buffalo and elephant combination. We have plenty of safaris to many of Africa's best Big Five game reserves, so contact us if you are searching for an incredible Big Five wildlife experience. Our consultants can also tailor-make a budget safari to Big Five African destinations for you!
Find your Big Five African Safari
You can browse our upcoming tours by popular departure cities to find Big Five Safaris that fit into your travel plans.
- To get to Kruger and Sabi Sands see our tours departing from Johannesburg
- Upcoming Cape Town tour departures for Big Five safaris in the Western Cape
- For Chobe and Hwange view tours departing from Victoria Falls
- To get to Etosha Park browse our Windhoek tour departures
- For Masai Mara and Serengeti see our Nairobi tour departures