Safaris and safari destinations are often touted as offering ‘the Big 5 experience’. But if you’ve never been on a safari before, you might not know the answer to ‘what are the Big 5 in Africa’. That’s what this short guide is here to clear up!
What Are The Big 5 in Africa – The Basics
Put simply, the Big 5 (also written as the Big Five) are a group of animals that help to define the premier national parks and game reserves in Africa. The creatures included were not chosen for their popularity or rareness, although many are now on the endangered list, making sighting them in the wild an all the more thrilling experience.
Instead, the term Big 5 dates back to the days before conservation, when Africa’s wildlife was often seen as a pest to farming and human populations. Hunters would go out to control their number, in what we would today consider trophy hunting.
The animals that made it onto the list of the Big 5 are therefore those animals which are the most dangerous to target on foot. While this may have little relevance to most of us in the modern day, the term lives on as a sign of prestige and also good management of protected areas.
Keen to discover what are the Big 5 in Africa? You’re now just seconds away from finding the answer.
With no particular order to the Big 5 listing, it makes sense to work our way through the list alphabetically, starting with buffalo, or more correctly the Cape buffalo.
Though they may look like wild cows, buffalo are always ready for a fight. As a result, they are one of the most dangerous animals on the African plains even today. Charging at the slightest provocation, you certainly don’t want two tons of nothing but muscle coming at you at 30 miles per hour!
Technically, the Big 5 billing only refers to the bush elephant found on the plains of east and south Africa, with its cousin the forest elephant left out. Few safari goers can resist the allure of seeing a herd of elephants and their young sweeping almost silently through the grasses or to hope for an encounter with a lone bull with massive tusks.
Their ability to move unheard through endless savannah was one of the reasons they were so hard to hunt, alongside their aggressive streak with cornered or protecting young calves.
Not to be confused with the similarly patterned cheetah, leopards spend much of their day lounging in trees. Incredible climbers, they even drag their prey – including large species of antelope – up into forks in a tree’s branches to keep it away from hyenas and other scavengers.
The fact leopards are mostly active at night makes them particularly hard to track without dedicated night safaris which use powerful torches to light up the blackness. For the hunters of yesteryear, they also had the tendency to play dead only to jump up and attack back hours later still covered in blood.
Thankfully neither leopard or lion are considered endangered, like elephant. They are considered vulnerable, which means their populations are followed closely wherever they are in Africa.
Usually found resting in the shade beneath trees rather than in them, it remains a fact that a Maasai boy isn’t considered a man until he successfully fights a lion.
From the point of view of a safari, seeing a pride of lions blending into the golden grasses of late summer can only be bettered by witnessing the relatively rare spectacle of a successful hunt. Only around one in five chases leads to a kill. It’s almost twice that for a leopard.
Although lions are still prevalent across much of the continent, it’s worth exploring the possibility of witnessing special populations in the natural habitats, such as the tree-climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park as part of a 9 day Uganda safari or the white lions of parts of South Africa.
Rounding up our summary in answering the question what are the Big 5 in Africa is the rhinoceros. The most seriously endangered of any of the Big 5, surviving populations are fiercely protected.
Historically, the inclusion of rhinos on the Big 5 was limited to the black rhino. Now, bulkier white rhinos are also often included. They have become so rare because of poaching, that any sighting of them is highly prized.
Where to Find the Big 5 in Africa
Individually, it’s likely you’ll encounter one of the Big 5 species on a safari to any of Africa’s hundreds of national parks and other protected areas, with Cape buffalo are the easiest to sight. For example, in Uganda alone leopard can be seen in Kidepo National Park and elephant at Murchison Falls National Park. For almost guaranteed rhino sightings while on foot, head to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
It’s a much trickier proposition if you want to tick off all the Big 5 in one destination – but it is still possible.
The Future of the Big 5 in Africa
Some conservationists have suggested a change to the Big 5 list to take the emphasis away from the current list and replacing them with other creatures that need the limelight, such as the mountain gorilla. With just a few hundred individuals worldwide, a gorilla trekking tour is the highlight of many visits to Uganda, for instance.
Others have created the Little 5, a list of smaller creatures which share part of the name of Africa’s Big 5. So next time you head to Africa, be on the lookout for the buffalo weaver bird, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion and rhino beetle!
Safaris with the Big 5
For many, seeing the Big 5 is the achievement of a lifelong ambition. With travel to Africa getting easier all the time, you don’t have to wait that long to know for yourself what are the Big 5 in Africa!