Black rhino and calf standing in grassland in Kenya

The Big Five of Africa

Aug 30, 2021

The Big Five – which is lions, leopards, rhinos, buffaloes and elephants – is a major drawcard among safari goers. We tell you how this term came about, where in Africa you can find the Big Five, and some fascinating details about each of the animals.

Africa has a treasure found nowhere else in the world: the Big Five! These mighty and famous animals – the lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and Cape Buffalo – are one of the continent’s biggest tourism magnets. Since, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to go on safari to see lions, elephants and the rest of the cohort?? 

The Big Five are truly fascinating creatures! Kazi, our Tanzania safari local leader, could easily entertain you for hours with stories about each of them! 😉 Read on to learn why they're called the Big Five, where are the best places to see them, and also some great titbits, like:

  • Which animal will take on a lion? 
  • Why is the hefty hippo not counted among the Big Five?
  • Which is the hardest animal to spot in the wild?
Yawning lion, one of the Big Five

Lions are the most famous member of the Big Five

What are the Big Five?

The Big Five animals are:

  • Lion
  • Elephant
  • Rhino
  • Leopard
  • Cape buffalo

Did you know that the Big Five aren’t actually the five biggest or heaviest African animals? Hippos are three times heavier than Cape buffaloes, for instance. So why are they called the Big Five ...?

Why are they called the Big Five?

The term Big Five was coined in the late nineteenth century by colonists in Africa to indicate the wild animals they considered the hardest and most dangerous to hunt on foot. These animals are considered so dangerous because of how ferocious they become when injured or cornered. This means the Big Five aren't the biggest or heaviest of Africa's game; giraffes, crocodiles and hippos would have to be in contention for the count if it was just about size and weight. You might like to think of the Big Five as being the Fear Factor of Africa! ;)

Mother and calf elephants

A mother and her calf in the open plains of the Serengeti

Where are the Big Five found?

The Big Five live in Africa. The regions that have all of the Big Five game are Southern and Eastern Africa. This is where you can go on safari and see all of the Big Five game in the wild.

What countries have the Big Five?

But we get that what you actually want to know is which countries you can visit to see the Big Five, right? Well, here's the list, in alphabetical order: Angola, Botswana, DRC, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Not all of these countries, however, are ideal for a safari. The reasons vary from safety and security to the numbers of each of the Big Five species. So let's discuss the best countries for an epic Big Five game safari ...

African leopard walking around a tree

The leopard is the hardest of the Big Five game to spot on safari

The best Big Five safari destinations

While there are several countries where you can go see the Big Five and have a great safari, we've put together an exclusive list of only the very best countries for this. These are countries where it's pretty safe for tourists, there are fantastic national parks to visit, and the Big Five can be found in abundance. We've also included a few odd details about each that we think you'll find helpful or interesting.

Botswana

This is one of the very best countries for a Big Five safari! Chobe National Park is one of the world's best game parks.

Kenya

A great African safari destination, and home to the famous Masai Mara National Reserve, where you can see the Great Wildlife Migration at certain times of the year.

Namibia

Etosha National Wildlife Park is a real bucket-list must. Its massive salt pan gets flooded every year, attracting countless game and birds. It doesn't, however, have buffaloes – for these you must head to the Caprivi Strip.

South Africa

There are so many wonderful game parks in South Africa, the most famous being Kruger National Park.

Tanzania

One of the very best countries for an African safari, if not the best! It's home to the famous Serengeti National Park, where you can see the Great Wildlife Migration. There's also the incomparable Ngorongoro Crater.

Uganda

Uganda is excellent for uncrowded safaris. You can't see rhinos in the wild, but you can visit them up close at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. These are the rarer black rhinos too, which is exciting. It also has gorilla treks.

Zambia

Kafue National Park is a real gem, and you can see pangolins here too. A bonus of a Big Five safari in Zambia is the opportunity to see the mighty Victoria Falls too!

Herd of Cape buffalo (Big Five) in plains with safari car and God rays

A herd of Cape buffaloes

So let’s look at the Big Five ...

We find that many people know which animals constitute the Big Five, but they’re surprised to learn how little they actually know about them. For instance, there are two kinds of African elephants, and only one is in the Big Five. And rhinos have very poor vision, relying on smell and sound to know what animals are around them.

1. Lions

Ever heard the lion referred to as the king of the jungle? It’s a funny name, since lions don’t live in jungles – they live in grassland, savannah, scrubland and hill country. It might also be surprising to learn that lions are the laziest of the big cats. They sleep and rest for 16 to 20 hours a day!

Lion

Look at those powerful limbs!

5 facts you didn't know about the lion

Here are five things we bet you didn't know about the lion:

  • Lions are happy to scavenge for food, often stealing what's been killed by hyenas, wild dogs, cheetahs or leopards.
  • They can survive for four or five days without water by absorbing the moisture in the stomachs of prey.
  • Lionesses hunt in a semicircle, with the weaker ones on the flanks bringing the prey into the centre for the stronger ones to take down.
  • The mane of the male lion helps to protect its neck during fights.
  • A lion's roar can be heard from up to 8 km away. They roar to locate other members of the pride.
Lioness and two cubs on grass

You don't have to be a mother to understand the look on this lioness's face

Does the lion have any predators?

The lion's biggest enemy, after humans, is the hyena. (Did you know that hyenas have stronger jaws than any other mammal??) Cape buffaloes have also been known to kill lions on occasion, usually if they feel threatened. It's mostly lion cubs who are in danger, as they're targeted by hyenas, leopards, jackals and even non-related male lions taking over leadership of their pride. In fact, lion cubs have a mortality rate of 60 to 70%.

Lions with illuminated eyes at night

In case you were forgetting that lions are serious predators ...

Do all lions climb trees?

No, very few lion populations climb or sleep in trees. In fact, only a handful populations in Uganda and Tanzania can be found to climb trees. Researchers aren't sure why exactly this is the case – so far they only have theories.

If you want to see climbing lions (and who doesn't?), we recommend heading to Lake Manyara National Park or Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, or to Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. At Follow Alice we lead safaris to all of these parks, so give us a shout if you want to learn more or book a trip!

Lioness sleeping on a tree branch

A tree-climbing lioness asleep on a branch

Where is the best place to see lions?

You can see lions throughout Southern and East Africa. Tanzania has the largest population of lions of any country, with an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 individuals. Of all its reserves, Serengeti National Park has the most lions, and you're pretty much guaranteed to see prides of lions on a safari there.

Lionesses walking in the grass, Big Five

Lionesses hunt together

2. Elephants

Did you know there are actually two kinds of African elephant? The bush elephant and the forest elephant. When you go on safari to see big game, you’re going to see bush elephants, also known as savannah elephants. (Forest elephants, which are smaller, live in the forests of West Africa and the Congo basin.)

Elephants are believed to be as smart as chimps and dolphins. 

Elephant calf in dry scrubland

Look at the way its tail pokes up while it runs! 😍

Fun facts about African bush elephants

Here are some fun facts about African bush elephants:

  • The African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest and heaviest land animal. You probably already knew that. ;) It's larger than both the forest and Asian elephants.
  • Their tusks start growing when they’re one to three years old, and never stop.
  • They can live for 60 to 70 years in the wild.
  • Adults eat about 230 kg (500 lb) of vegetation a day. Elephants are herbivores through and through.
  • Adults other than the parents also help to look after calves. 
  • The herds are often led by matriarchs, who have wickedly good memories, which helps them to know who’s a friend and who’s an enemy.
  • Baby elephants are the cutest. Yes, fact.
Elephant in grass with birds on its back, Big Five

Both male and female African bush elephants grow tusks

Where is the best place to see elephants?

African elephants live throughout sub-Saharan Africa, from South Africa as far north as Ethiopia. Botswana is believed to have more elephants than any other country, which makes it a great destination for viewing elephants in the wild. Some of the other countries that are popular among safari-goers and have large elephant populations are South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Namibia and Uganda.

Did you know?

Elephants don't have sweat or sebum glands, so they cover themselves in water or mud to keep cool. The cracks in their skin help them to retain moisture.

An elephant walking in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater

An elephant in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater

3. Rhino

The rhino – does anybody ever put in the effort to say rhinoceros anymore? – is a favourite animal to see on African safari. Its crazy heft alone makes it fascinating. Then there are those clunky feet, tiny eyes, and narrow, hair-tipped ears! And don't get us started on the calves – a baby rhino is just too cute!

Interesting rhino facts

Here are a handful interesting facts about rhinos:

  • Rhinos have pretty poor eyesight, but their hearing and sense of smell are excellent.
  • Their horns are made of thousands of compressed strands of keratin (similar to human fingernails). It's very hardy, but can be split during fights.
  • Rhinos literally scream if they're scared.
White rhinos eating grass, Big Five

White rhinos have wide mouths with 'square' lips to help them graze

White rhinos vs black rhinos

There are two kinds of African rhino: the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) and the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum). The easiest way to tell if it's a black or white rhino is to look at the shape of its mouth. Black rhinos have a pointed upper lip, used to pick leaves and fruit off trees and shrubs. White rhinos, on the other hand, have wider, square-lipped mouths used for grazing grass. White rhinos actually earned their name because English settlers to South Africa misinterpreted the Afrikaans word wyd, which means ‘wide’, to mean ‘white’.

Did you know that the black and white rhino are actually the same colour of grey??

white vs black rhino

A young black rhino (left) and a white rhino (right)

Here are two other interesting differences about white and black rhinos:

  • White rhinos are the bigger animal by far: adult males weigh 1,800 to 2,500 kg, while adult male black rhinos only weigh up to 1,350 kg.
  • Black rhinos have two long horns, while white rhinos have a long horn and a shorter one.
Black rhino in profile with bird on back

This rhino is a black rhino – look at those impressive horns!

Black rhinos are more dangerous

Technically speaking, it's the black rhino alone that's part of the Big Five, not the white rhino. This is because the animals dubbed the Big Five were the ones that were considered most dangerous to hunt on foot. Even though white rhinos can be twice the size of black rhinos, the latter is more aggressive. If, however, a white rhino and black rhino were to clash, the white rhino's superior size and strength would likely give it the victory.

Fun fact: baby black rhinos always run behind their mothers, while baby white rhinos run in front of their mothers!

Black rhino calf, one of the Big Five

This calf is easy to identify as a black rhino because of its hooked upper lip

Is the rhino endangered?

Unfortunately there aren't nearly as many rhinos as there once was thanks to humans. Widespread hunting and poaching has led to the black rhino becoming critically endangered. There are only about 5,500 left.

As to the white rhino, there are actually two kinds: the northern white rhino and the southern white rhino. The northern white rhino is extinct in the wild, and just two specimens live on a reserve in Kenya. The southern white rhino is the subspecies you can see on safari. Its numbers are around 18,000 and its status is "near threatened".

Visiting the parks and reserves that are home to rhinos is one way to help protect the future of these magnificent animals. There are also many fantastic international and local organisations that you could support. Examples include Save the Rhino, Helping Rhinos and The Rhino Orphanage.

young white rhino and blue birds

Rhinos have cup-shaped ears to help funnel sound into the inner ear

Where are the best places to see rhinos?

Rhinos aren't as populous as the other Big Five game, given that they're endangered (the black rhino) and threatened (the white rhino). In fact, it's because of the rhino alone that some African countries boasting great wildlife can't market themselves as having the Big Five. The table below shows you which countries you can visit to see white and black rhinos.

Countries where you can see black and white rhinos

Here are the countries where you can see rhinos.

Black AND white rhinos

  • Botswana
  • Kenya
  • Namibia
  • South Africa
  • Swaziland
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe

Black rhinos

  • Malawi
  • Tanzania

White rhinos

  • Uganda
Two rhinos (Big Five) in lush grass in Uganda

Rhinos can live up to 45 years

4. Leopard

Leopards are notoriously hard to spot on safari. They're by far the hardest of the Big Five to find. Not only do they like to mostly hang out in trees, but the spots and rosettes on their fur help them blend in with the leaves. Further, they're mostly solitary creatures, so you're looking for just one lone creature. If you do manage to spot a leopard on safari, you're one of the lucky ones! (Travelling with a really good safari guide – like our Kazi – improves you chances of seeing them, by the way. 😉 )

Leopard (Big Five) seen from the side

Leopards have legendary vision, but newborn cubs actually can't open their eyes for a few days

5 things you didn't know about the leopard

The African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) is a fascinating creature. Here are some facts you probably didn't know:

  • Leopards can see seven times better at night than humans. 👀 Nighttime is when they go hunting.
  • A group of leopards is called a leap of leopards. So poetic!
  • The tail of a leopard is almost as long as its body.
  • They can carry up to three times their own weight.
  • The reason they drag their prey up into trees is to keep hyenas and lions from trying to steal it.

It's incredibly rare, but every now and then a black African leopard is born. The spots are still there, but excessive melanin makes the fur black.

African-leopard-rolling-on-ground-1024x685.jpg

Like all cats, leopards have tiny hooks on their tongues that help them clean themselves

Where are the best places to see leopards in the wild?

Leopards are very adaptable and live throughout Africa, though they're rare in North and West Africa. Most people wanting to go on a Big five safari head to one of the countries in Southern or East Africa, and you can find leopards there.

African leopard walking at night

The spots on a leopard's torso are clustered together to form rosettes

5. Cape buffalo

Shame, the Cape Buffalo is the least popular of the Big Five. When we asked everyone at Follow Alice which of the Big Five they most want to see when on safari, every animal got a mention save the buffalo. It just doesn't have the myth and allure of its compatriots.

That said, the Cape buffalo made it into the Big Five list because hunters knew something important about it: it's ferocious! In fact, they considered the Cape buffalo to be the most dangerous of all the Big Five. Wounded buffalo have been known to actually ambush and pursue hunters.

Also, as our own Joel Ott points out, seeing an enormous herd of 700 or so buffaloes is something to be really excited about! It's the scale of the herds that's so mesmerising.

The Cape buffalo is considered the most dangerous of the Big Five game by hunters.

two Cape buffaloes

Cape buffaloes thrive in grassland habitats

Why are there often birds on the backs of buffaloes?

Different species of small birds (like cattle egrets and madenhackers) can often be seen perched on buffaloes' backs. Sometimes the birds are even sitting by their ears and eyes. This is a symbiotic relationship whereby the birds eat annoying vermin. Occasionally, however, a buffalo will give itself a vigorous shake if it grows tired of the hitchhikers' attentions.

Cape buffalo (Big Five) with madenhacker birds on its back

Cape buffaloes can often be seen with birds on their backs, like this fella sporting a few madenhackers

Other fun facts about Cape buffaloes

Here are some further interesting facts about the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer):

  • The Cape buffalo is four times stronger than an ox!
  • Cape buffaloes are so fierce that they occasionally kill lions when feeling threatened.
  • Male buffaloes are around 100 kg heavier on average than females, and can grow to 800 kg.
  • The Cape buffalo is the only species of the cattle and buffalo family (Bovinae) to naturally occur in Africa.
  • Their hide can be two inches thick in places.
  • A calf can stand within 10 minutes of being born.
Cape buffalo and oxpecker

An oxpecker eat insects from the crease above this buffalo's eye

Where's the best place to see Cape buffaloes?

It's not hard to find Cape buffaloes on an African safari. They live throughout Southern and East African, from South Africa all the way to southern Ethiopia.

Herd of Cape buffaloes in the sunset, Big Five

A herd of Cape buffaloes walk toward the setting sun in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania

Other popular animals to see on safari

An African safari isn’t just about seeing the Big Five, of course. Other animals high on the collective watchlist are hippos, cheetahs, wildebeests, zebras, all kinds of antelopes, giraffes, hyenas, crocodiles, jackals, warthogs and more. 

Some of the rarer finds, which are super exciting to see, include wild dogs, caracals, serval cats, and African wildcats. In fact, did you know that the rarest animals to see on safari are the aardvark, honey badger, aardwolf, serval cats and pangolins?

Honey badgers, servals and aardvarks are among the rarest animals to spot on safari. 

Yawning cheetah sitting in grass

While not one of the Big Five, we think you'll agree that everyone hopes to see a cheetah on safari!

Want to go on safari?

We can help there. 😉 We run safaris in both Tanzania and Uganda. Check out our epic Tanzania safari itinerary, which includes visiting the famous Serengeti National Park. Or if you'd like to go on a world-class safari and trek to see mountain gorillas, take a look at our exciting Uganda itinerary. Africa is waiting for you!! 🌎

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