Introducing Africa’s legendary Big Five
By Philip Briggs | Updated November 18, 2021
The term Big Five was coined in the colonial era to describe the quintet of large mammals – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino – considered most dangerous by trophy hunters. Happily, hunting safaris are now largely a thing of the past, but it remains the case that spotting and photographing the Big Five is the primary goal of many a modern safarigoer. Here we introduce the spectacular creatures that comprise the Big Five, as well as provide an overview of their conservation status and some tips on where best to see them.
No safari would be complete without an encounter with Africa’s largest and most charismatic carnivore. Although it is often referred to as the King of the Jungle, this majestic big cat is essentially a creature of grassland, savanna, and other open habitats. The most sociable of felids, it lives in highly territorial prides that typically comprise 5 to 20 adults, subadults, and cubs. Most prides are presided over by a dominant male, but it is not unusual for two or more brothers to form a coalition, which gives them strength in numbers when challenged by usurpers.
Lions tend to be most active at night and in the cool of early morning, which is when you’re most like to see them playing, greeting, calling, hunting, and eating. As the day heats up, they usually retreat to thicker bush and snooze in the shade until the late afternoon, for which reason it is often worth returning to the location of a morning sighting to check for pre-dusk action.
Where to see lions: Lions once ranged across much of Africa, Europe and Asia. Today, with the exception of 600-odd individuals resident in India’s Gir National Park, they are confined to sub-Saharan Africa, where an increasingly fragmented population has plummeted from an estimated 500,000 in the 1950s to fewer than 40,000 individuals. Despite this, lions are listed as Vulnerable rather than Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and their fearless nature makes them conspicuous where they do occur. The most numerically important lion strongholds are the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem (Tanzania/Kenya), Selous-Niassa (Tanzania/Mozambique), and Greater Kruger (South Africa), each of which protects more than 1,000 individuals. Lions are likely to be seen in most other major safari destinations in eastern and southern Africa.
The leopard is the most widely distributed of the world’s 30-odd wild felids. It is far more numerous in Africa than the lion, but its furtive nocturnal habits make it a more prized sighting. A strikingly beautiful cat, it has a powerful build that is at once sleek and pugilistic, and a thick cream-gold coat studded with black rosettes (very different to the plain spots of the more lightly built cheetah).
Defiantly antisocial, the leopard is habitually solitary; if you see two together, it will almost certainly be a mother and cub, or a male and female begrudgingly tolerating each other’s company while they bow to the biological imperative to reproduce. The main weapon in a leopard’s hunting arsenal is its ability to creep stealthily to within a few meters of its intended prey before it pounces.
Where to see leopards: Africa is home to at least 90% of the estimated global population of 250,000 leopards (the rest live in the Middle East and southern Asia). Tolerant of most habitats other than true desert, leopards might be seen in almost any African safari destination, and they also still occur in many forests and mountains. In practice, leopards are likely to be seen only in a select few safari destinations where they are habituated to vehicles, notably Greater Kruger (South Africa), Lower Zambezi (Zambia), South Luangwa (Zambia), Serengeti (Tanzania) and Masai Mara (Kenya).
The African buffalo is a hefty black bovid that superficially resembles the Asian water buffalo, from which it most obviously differs in having flatter horns with a fused bone base. A gregarious creature, it typically moves in breeding herds of 50 to 100 animals, though in some areas you can still see aggregations of 1,000 or more. Look out too for small groups of elderly males that have been driven from the breeding herd; these veterans are known as dagga boys, after the IsiZulu word udaka, a reference to the mud in which they love to wallow!
The subspecies most likely to be seen on safari is the Cape buffalo, which inhabits moist grassland and savanna but also occurs in drier areas, so long as it is able to make a daily pilgrimage to drinking water. In Uganda, you might see reddish individuals, a result of hybridization with the forest subspecies associated with west/central Africa. Where Asian buffaloes tend to be placid, their African counterparts are notoriously unpredictable and prone to charge human pedestrians, hence their inclusion in the Big Five and nickname of Black Death.
Where to see African Buffaloes: Africa’s continental buffalo population still exceeds half a million, and you can be reasonably sure of encountering herds in almost all major national parks and other safari destinations. One notable exception is Etosha (Namibia), which lacks for natural perennial drinking water. Good places to see really large buffalo herds include Tsavo East (Kenya), Katavi (Tanzania), and northern Kruger (South Africa).
African Bush Elephant
The world’s largest terrestrial animal, the African elephant is one of the most charismatic creatures to walk the planet. What initially impresses is its sheer bulk: a large bull might have a shoulder height of 13ft, weigh 20,000lb, and sport 6ft long tusks. Spend time with elephants, however, and you’ll be equally taken by their keen intelligence, complex matriarchal social structure, and immense playfulness – especially in the water!
Elephants have several other unusual features, for instance, a gestation period of 2 months, versatile trunks that incorporate some 40,000 muscles, and the ability to communicate over long distances using low-frequency rumbles inaudible to the human ear.
Where to see African Elephants: Despite their Endangered status on the IUCN Red List and vulnerability to commercial ivory poachers, elephants remain considerably more numerous than lions or rhinos. The most important stronghold is Botswana, which supports roughly one-third of the continent’s 400,000-odd elephants, many of which congregate in Chobe National Park in the dry season. Other favorite places for elephant viewing include Amboseli (Kenya), Tarangire (Tanzania), Lower Zambezi (Zambia), Hwange (Zimbabwe), and Addo (South Africa).
The white rhino is Africa’s second bulkiest terrestrial animal, but it’s the fearsome reputation of the smaller and more aggressive black rhino that led to their inclusion in the Big Five. Both species are grey in color, despite their misleading names, but they have very different habits: the white rhino is a square-lipped grazer often seen in open grassland, whereas the black rhino is a hook-lipped browser that lurks in the dense thornbush.
Both species have experienced massive numerical declines since the mid-20th-century, mainly as a result of commercial poaching for their horns, which some Asian cultures believe to possess aphrodisiac qualities. Fortunately, white rhino numbers have increased greatly in South Africa in recent decades, and their status on the IUCN Red List now stands as Near Threatened. By contrast, the black rhino remains Critically Endangered.
Where to see Rhinos: Despite a concerning post-millennial increase in poaching, South Africa is home to 90% of the world’s 18,000 white rhinos and half the 6,000 remaining black rhinos. White rhinos are common in most state and private reserves in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and large numbers are also present in Greater Kruger. The best places in South Africa to look for the more elusive black rhino are Madikwe, Phinda, Kwandwe, and Shamwari. Outside of South Africa, you’re very likely to see rhinos in Etosha (Namibia), Matobo (Zimbabwe) Lake Nakuru (Kenya), Ziwa (Uganda) Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania), and the private reserve on Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau.