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What are the Big 5 of Africa?

Why are they called the big five animals, the big five animals in pictures, big five animal facts, where to find the big five in africa, what are the best big five safari destinations, what are the best places to see all of the big 5, when is the best time to see the big five in africa, the african big five and wildlife conservation status, other popular five animal combinations, learn about the big 5 on safari in africa, guide to the big 5 animals of africa, receive photography and travel tips.

The Big 5 of Africa

What are the Big 5 animals of Africa and where to find them?

The Big Five animals of Africa , in short, ' The Big 5 '   include the African elephant , rhinoceros , lion , leopard , and Cape buffalo . These five big game animal species are found on the African continent in the Southern and Eastern parts of Africa. As the name suggests, they are not the heaviest or the 5 biggest safari animals.

If it was about the size or weight of the African animal , a gorilla or hippo could also easily fit in. A hippo is for example three times heavier than a Cape buffalo and a male gorilla and male lion can both weigh up to 225kg.

The Big Five game refers to the 5 African animals that big game hunters in the late 1800s, during Africa's colonial period, considered the most dangerous and difficult wild animals to track and hunt on foot. Hunting these African game animals got them the biggest prices and trophies. Dangerous, because of their behavior when they feel threatened or get injured. Sadly, this wildlife is still hunted today but luckily there are also a lot of conservation initiatives to protect these threatened species that are decreasing in population and struggling because of habitat loss.

Nowadays, the term 'Big Five' is more a commercial term used by safari companies to sell their 'African Big 5 Safari trips' and to describe the Top 5 safari animals to see on a game drive . This made them also the most famous large African animals to look for on a safari trip to Africa. Ticking off the Big 5 is therefore on many travelers’ bucket lists. However, there's much more wildlife worth seeing roam freely in their natural habitat, like the cheetah, a tall elegant giraffe, a spotted Hyena, or a pack of African wild dogs. Even smaller creatures, like Dung Beetles or all the colorful birdlife, play an important role in the ecosystems.

So, with this article, I also want to raise awareness about the fact that there's more to Africa than spotting the Big Five , which is a hunting term after all.

That is also the main reason for setting up the New Big Five project, an international initiative to create a new Big Five of wildlife: the Big Five of wildlife photography where it's about shooting with a camera instead of hunting with a gun. The aim of this project is to raise awareness about the crisis facing the world's wildlife from threats, including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, illegal wildlife trade, and climate change.

The Big 5 safari animals of Africa in one black and white photo collage.

The Big 5 animals in pictures: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant

1. African Elephant: a gentle giant

The African savanna elephant is the largest land mammal in the world and can reach up to 3 meters in height and can weigh up to 7 tons. The African forest elephant is 3 feet shorter. Elephants communicate across a large distance at a very low frequency through their feet and the soil that cannot be heard by humans. Elephants live in a herd that is led by the 'matriarch' female. The elephant is threatened by ivory poachers for their tusks.

big five animals on safari

 2. Rhino: most endangered species of the Big 5

The Rhinoceros is the most endangered species of the Big Five due to rhino poaching and illegal trade in rhino horns. There are two species of rhino in Africa: the White Rhino and the Black Rhino and five subspecies.

The names of the rhino don't have anything to do with color as both species are grey. The name of the 'white' rhino is a corruption of the Dutch word 'wijd' (wide), which refers to the wide mouth or square lip of the white rhino. A rhino can weigh up to 5000 pounds and its horns can grow up to 5 feet long. Rhinos have poor eyesight but excellent hearing and sense of smell.

masai mara rhino conservation

3. African Lion: courageous King of the jungle

An African lion is the largest predator on land. Preys of the lion include zebra, impala, giraffes, and other herbivores like wildebeest. A group of lions is called a pride and males are easily distinguished from females because of their large manes. The darker the lion's manes, the older he is.

A male lion is sometimes referred to as the king, but in reality, lions don't have a permanent social hierarchy. The dominant male in a lion pride can change at any time. The females hold the territory and stay with the pride in which they were born. They also do most of the hunting and take care of the cubs. Lions use their roar as a form of communication and can be heard up to 5 miles away.

big five animals on safari

4. Leopard: sneaky and excellent tree climber

The African leopard is the most solitary and elusive animal of the big 5, staying hidden during the day. They are the least seen of the Big 5 and on most occasions found alone. The leopard is nocturnal and mainly hunts at night. Their kills include zebra and antelopes like Thompson Gazelle. The elusive leopards hide their prey in a tree to prevent lions and hyenas from stealing it. A lion and a leopard both belong to the African big cats, but they can't get along. A lion will kill a leopard if it has the chance. A leopard is also a good swimmer and occasionally eats fish.

big five animals on safari

5. Cape Buffalo: most dangerous to humans

The African buffalo is very territorial and protective and is probably the most dangerous animal of the big five to humans. If this cow-like animal feels threatened it can become very aggressive and charge with astonishing speed. Buffaloes are mostly found in groups and large herds and spend a lot of their time grazing. Both male and female buffaloes have horns, but the males' horns curve and come together in the center, forming a big bony plate called a boss.

The primary predator of the buffalo is the lion. A buffalo will try to protect and rescue another member of the herd and they have even been seen killing a lion after the lion had killed a member of the group. Although the African buffalo and water buffalo resemble each other, they are not closely related.

big five animals on safari

The Big 5 animals live on the African continent. You can find all of the Big 5 in Southern Africa and East Africa. The African countries where you can see the Big Five are:

  • Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
  • South Africa

Not all of the above countries where the Big 5 live are ideal for a safari trip in terms of safety and existing numbers of the Big Five species.

Travel to Zimbabwe: spotting wildlife on safari in Zambezi National Park

The best countries to see all the big five on safari are South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda, and Namibia.

However, in Namibia, you can't find all of the Big 5 in one place. In Etosha National Park you can only see 4 of the African Big Five. You can't find the buffalo there, but it's the best place in Africa to see the black rhino. They often concentrate around a water hole where tourists can sit to observe these critically endangered animals.

In Uganda, you can't see rhinos in the wild, but you have a chance of seeing all the Big 5 when you visit them up close at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary where they roam freely but are protected by rangers 24/7. In Uganda, you can also see the endangered mountain Gorilla and our closest relative on a chimpanzee trekking or chimpanzee habituation.

Tree Climbing Lions in Uganda

South Africa is one of the most reliable Big Five safari destinations to spot all the Big 5 . South Africa even honored the importance of the Big 5 animals by putting each of the 5 animals on their bills.

The best chance of seeing the Big Five on a single safari or even on a single game drive is at the following places:

  • Kruger National Park and the surrounding Kruger Game Reserves . Kruger is one of the best places to go for a safari in South Africa for both beginner safari travelers and seasoned wildlife viewers. Jock Concession within Kruger NP or Sabi Sands Game Reserve and Thornybush, host luxurious safari lodges with an abundance of wildlife roaming around freely. Sabi Sands and Thornybush are also known for its high number of leopard sightings, but they are not the only reserve famous for that. Read more about the best Private Game Reserves and Concessions in Kruger to spot the Big Five Safari animals.
  • Shamwari Private Game Reserve is a great place to find the Big 5 in South Africa. A beautiful high-end reserve with luxurious lodges and an exclusive feeling. You're often the only safari vehicle at an animal sighting. Shamwari is also well-known for its wildlife conservation initiatives, like the born-free Foundation.
  • Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is a perfect place to find all of the Big Five in one day! You can combine your trip to the Ngorongoro Crater with for example the Serengeti , famous for its wildlife sightings including the great migration of wildebeest and zebra. Want to plan a safari to Tanzania? Read the best places to visit in Northern Tanzania .
  • Maasai Mara National Park and the Mara Conservancies are also one of the best places to find the Big 5, although seeing rhinos roaming freely is a challenge. Some conservancies have a rhino sanctuary, but these rhinos are protected by rangers 24/7. An example is the Enonkishu Conservancy on the northern boundary of the Maasai Mara Conservancies. Another great place in Kenya to see rhinos is at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Read everything you need to know about safari in the Masai Mara .

Of course, there are much more places and national parks to see the Big Five. Not all national parks have all of the Big Five and when they do have them, it can be harder to spot all of them on a single safari in Africa.

Spot the Big Five on a Safari Trip in South Africa

The high season for a safari in Africa is from July to October . It's the cooler dry winter which makes a Big 5 sighting easier because of the thin and dried-up vegetation. The lack of rain also means animals congregate around flowing rivers or larger lakes to drink. However, the shoulder seasons are also perfect to find the big 5 in Africa and it's less touristy.

Africa's Big Five are of great concern for wildlife conservationists due to trophy hunting, poaching, and habitat loss. Most of the Big 5 animals are listed as vulnerable or (critically) endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Hunting is sadly still allowed to some degree, but Africa now also has strict laws to protect and conserve many African animal species.

The black rhinoceros is classified as critically endangered and the southern white rhinoceros is near threatened. Mostly due to poaching because of the rhino horn. Two species of the African Big Cats , the African lion, and the African leopard are classified as vulnerable. The African savanna elephant is an endangered species, mainly because of the poaching crisis and habitat loss. The African buffalo is of the least concern of all the Big Five animals.

Contributing to wildlife conservation

The African Big 5 animals and other endangered species are widely protected in National Parks and government-run game reserves; partnering with the surrounding communities to reduce the human-wildlife conflict. Tourists contribute directly to big 5 wildlife conservation  by going on safari in Africa and paying park fees.

  As a nature and wildlife photographer, I also give back to wildlife conservation by donating 10% of each  Fine Art Wildlife Photo Print  sold in my webshop to the education of guides and rangers as a long-term goal to change the world and to protect our wildlife from extinction due to wildlife crimes and habitat loss. By buying a print in my webshop, you can make a difference too!

big five animals on safari

Apart from having the Big 5 in Africa, there are also other animal combinations formed that include 5 African animals. Africa also has the Shy Five and Little Five . It even named the Ugly Five , but that is very subjective.

Did you know I'm a qualified Field Guide (also known as a nature guide or safari guide )? I'm more than happy to take you on a photo safari to Africa with me where you will learn even more about the Big Five and all other flora and fauna. As a photographic tour leader and Dutch/English/German-speaking tour guide, I work closely together with local African tour operators and local drivers/guides. Get in touch to enquire about the possibilities.

I hope this article was helpful to learn more facts about the African Big 5 animals , including why they are called the Big Five, in what countries these Big 5 safari animals are found, and the best time of spotting them with a side note that there's more to Africa than spotting the Big Five.

Smaller creatures play an important role in the ecosystems as well. People who are going on a safari in Africa shouldn't be disappointed when they don't tick off the Big Five. Try to appreciate every single animal, big or small. Even trees, plants, and flowers. Every sighting is a gift of nature. Everything is connected and we should appreciate this more.

You would help me a lot by sharing this guide to the Big 5 in Africa on your social media or pinning it on Pinterest for later use.

Want to keep up to date with my travels? Follow me on Instagram @ourplanetinmylens. If you are inspired to go on a safari to Africa, you can find all of my writing about Africa and its countries in my Africa Travel Guide .

Pin the Guide about the Big 5 animals on Pinterest!

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Wildlife safari

The big five.

E E ven though you know that Africa and South Africa are so much more than the Big Five, the familiar images soon begin playing in your mind: lions roaring; elephants trumpeting; buffalos lurking in long grass; rhinos standing stately under a thorn tree; leopards prowling in the gathering darkness.

You’ve seen the Big Five in books and you’ve seen them on TV. But it’s time to come and see them for yourself.  The real thing.  In person.

And there’s no better place for this than South Africa, which offers the most exciting, memorable and exhilarating experience of your life – coming face to face with the Big Five.

Origin of the name

How did these five animals – the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard – come to be called the Big Five?

It was originally a hunting term used by the so-called ‘great white hunters’ in the hunting heyday of the 19th and early 20thcenturies, when professional hunters bagged as many trophies as possible in as short a time as possible.

Considered a rite of passage for seasoned travellers, everybody from American presidents to European royalty and heads of state came to Africa to shoot a large, dangerous animal.

The Big Five quickly became known as the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot, and the name stuck – although now ‘shooting’ is done through a camera lens.

T T he Lion

The lion is arguably the most sought-after of the Big Five because it is synonymous with an African safari. Charismatic, powerful and beautiful, everybody wants to see the appropriately named 'King of the Beasts'.

Once, hundreds of thousands of lions roamed the world, but today conservationists give approximate numbers of between 25 000 and 30 000 left, most in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, your chances of seeing lions are high, whether in our national parks or in private game reserves.

Lions are creatures of the savannah and open plains (you’ll rarely find them in a forest) and function in prides, usually numbering about five to 15, depending on the territory – although the Kruger National Park is known to have at least one big pride of up to 25 animals.

They are social family animals – related females rule, usually alongside a large dominant male that has won the pride in fierce competition with other males. Lionesses stay with the pride, while young males leave at two to three years of age. Males sometimes form coalitions to enhance their hunting success, but you’ll rarely see one with more than four lions.

big five animals on safari

L L ionesses start breeding at four years old, and typically give birth to a litter of three or four cubs after 14 to 15 weeks of gestation. Lionesses of the same pride often give birth at or near the same time as their ‘sisters’, which allows for communal suckling and round-the-clock care.

And don’t expect to see an old lion – they are defeated in battle, often die of their wounds or are no longer able to hunt. Lions are in their prime from five to nine years of age. Male lions, once they’ve taken over a pride, have to work hard to keep it. Younger males – with attitude – are always on the sidelines.

Some prides specialise in hunting certain animals and develop specialised skills for this prey of choice – young elephants, ostrich, wildebeest.

Lions have no natural enemies other than hunters, although lion cubs fall prey to nomadic male lions that kill them in attempting to take over a pride. Hyenas, leopards and wild dogs also kill lion cubs.

T T he Elephant

Perhaps it’s the African elephant that should be called ‘King of the Beasts’ – it is the world’s largest and heaviest land animal. Its ears alone measure up to 2m x 1.2m (roughly the size of the surface area of a double bed) and can weigh up to 20kg (44lb) each, while it can grow to a height of more than 3m.

Elephants abound in South Africa – you can see great herds of more than 100 in the Kruger National Park or smaller breeding herds in private reserves.

Elephants are highly social animals and females rule. A herd will typically have a matriarch with vast cultural knowledge that leads the herd, keeps it under control and chooses its direction and pace. Even when feeding (and an adult elephant, arguably nature’s most versatile vegetarian, can eat up to 300kg of grass, bark, branches and foliage a day), the herd rarely strays far from the matriarch.

big five animals on safari

Y Y oung bulls leave the herd when they become teenagers and either live alone, form bachelor herds or seek the company of old lone bulls that have long left the herd.

Your first sighting of a tiny baby elephant will be one of your most indelible memories. How do these small creatures, some not yet reaching up to their mother’s tummy, avoid being stepped on or crushed by the herd? Mother, sisters, aunts and cousins are always on the alert. Watch how mothers protect their babies by always putting themselves between danger and their offspring, and how the whole herd immediately goes into protective group defence mode when threatened.

If an elephant trumpets, you’ll certainly hear it, but the infrasonic tummy rumbles they use to communicate with one another are most often too low for the human ear to pick up – although research shows that these calls have an elephant range of up to several kilometres.

And just because elephants are huge, don’t think they are slow; if a herd takes fright, or needs to move on quickly, elephants can reach speeds up to 40km/h – faster than you can run.

Elephants love water. To see a herd drinking, playing, splashing, swimming and dunking in the water will be another of your favourite safari memories.

T T he Buffalo

Don’t be fooled by the docile appearance of the Cape buffalo (also known as the African buffalo). This mean, moody and magnificent animal is possibly the most dangerous of the Big Five, especially if you are on foot.

Robert Ruark, the American novelist, wrote that ‘a buffalo always looks at you as if you owe him money’. Come face to face with a buffalo (preferably from the safety of a vehicle), and you’ll see exactly what Ruark meant – the stare is cold, calculating and cunning.

Buffalos are social animals and move around in large herds – sometimes of many hundreds – chomping long grass as they collectively move and feed. In the dry season, you can often see a cloud of dust signalling an approaching herd.

Buffalos have to drink daily, and to witness a large herd approaching a waterhole – often in the early morning or late afternoon – is a memorable and noisy experience.

It’s quite easy to tell the males from the females. The males are blacker, bigger and have huge powerful horns that are joined in the middle to form a ‘boss’. When buffalos fight for rank and females (buffalos are non-territorial and don’t fight for territory like some others of the Big Five), the noise of the clashing and crashing of their bosses is awesome. It is estimated that the impact of their horns’ collision is equal to a car hitting a wall at 50km/h.

Females are smaller, more reddish-brown in colour, and their much narrower horns don’t meet in the middle. Calves are usually born in the rainy season, and although they can stand up on wobbly legs immediately, it takes several weeks until they can keep up adequately with the herd.

Although most of a buffalo’s senses are well developed, it’s their super-charged hearing that helps them find food and alerts them to danger. There’s usually a dominant male – or more if the herd is huge – that stays in the middle of the herd, as well as ‘pathfinders’, which may not be the biggest and best, but lead the herd and keep it together.

You may also see a group of old bulls together – caked in mud from wallowing.

These are known as ‘Dagha Boys’ after the ‘dagha’, or mud, the Zulus used to build their traditional huts.

big five animals on safari

I I t’s quite easy to tell the males from the females. The males are blacker, bigger and have huge powerful horns that are joined in the middle to form a ‘boss’. When buffalos fight for rank and females (buffalos are non-territorial and don’t fight for territory like some others of the Big Five), the noise of the clashing and crashing of their bosses is awesome. It is estimated that the impact of their horns’ collision is equal to a car hitting a wall at 50km/h.

T T he White Rhino

Your first impression will be of its bulk and size. And then you may wonder how such a prehistoric-looking animal has existed for so many millions of years. Although unfortunately, the brutality and intensity of present-day poaching is a serious threat to the continuing survival of the species.

The second-largest land mammal, the white rhino’s name has nothing to do with its colour. It was the early Dutch settlers who referred to the animal’s broad lips as ‘wyd’ (wide), misinterpreted later as ‘white’.

This is a remarkable animal, weighing in at nearly 2 500kg (about 5 500lb) and often living up to 40 years of age. Because it is a grazer, eating thick, tough grass, it needs lots of water to digest its food, and needs to drink at least once daily. Sometimes you’ll see a rhino eating mud or soil, which acts as a dietary mineral supplement.

Its horn is used for fighting and defence and is not attached to the skull in any way.

big five animals on safari

F F emales live together in small groups, individuals breaking away when a determined bull decides to mate. Only one calf is born to a female at a time; the cow is very protective of her calf and will fight off an aggressive bull if necessary.

The calf always runs in front of its mother if they are fleeing from danger (a black rhino calf, on the other hand, will run behind its mother).

You’ll often find a white rhino resting in shade in the heat of the day or wallowing in mud. The dried mud acts as a sunscreen, a cooling agent and helps evict parasites that break off with the dried mud.

Look out for rhino middens beside the road. These are huge heaps of dung, used regularly by a particular male rhino to mark his territory. Females and non-dominant bulls also defecate on these middens, which act as markers and information signals to other rhinos.

Rhinos have poor eyesight but a fantastic sense of hearing and smell; watch a rhino’s ears – they constantly rotate in all directions as it works out what’s going on around it. And don’t think that because it’s so big and ungainly it’s a slow animal. If it’s running away (or chasing you), it can reach speeds of 40km/h.

The Black Rhino

The black rhino is smaller than its larger ‘white’ relative, is more solitary and elusive, and has a shorter head and beak-shaped lip that it uses for browsing leaves and twigs. Regarded as a more dangerous animal than the white rhino because of its volatile temperament, it is now one of the most endangered animals in Africa.

T T he Leopard

The one animal everybody wants to see – beautiful, charismatic, sexy and dramatic – and also the most elusive. The leopard is a solitary animal (unless mating, or a mother with cubs) and will, whether male or female, fiercely defend its own hunting territory from other leopards.

Considered to be one of the most successful, if not the most successful, of all African predators, the leopard is a master stalker. If you are lucky, particularly on a night drive (as leopards are nocturnal animals), you may see a leopard stalking its prey – silently, ruthlessly – before getting to within 5m of the prey and then launching itself with a powerful spring. Surprise is its chief means of attack.

Leopards often athletically drag their prey up into trees (sometimes the dead animal is as heavy as the leopard) to avoid having it pirated by other animals, particularly lions and hyenas.

Look out for thick overhanging branches of big old trees – you may well find a leopard snoozing there during the hottest part of the day, or snacking on its prey.

Leopards take great pains to advertise their territories by scent marking, scraping the ground and defecating in exposed spots. They try to avoid confrontation with other leopards (unless protecting their territory) because, as solitary hunters, they can’t afford to get injured.

big five animals on safari

L L eopards make great mothers and take excellent care of their offspring, moving them from one place of safety to another when the cubs are very small – just as well, because young cubs are vulnerable to other leopards, lions, hyenas and wild dogs. Take a look at the black markings behind the ears and white tip of a mother’s long tail – these are signals for small cubs to follow.

That long tail is also used as a rudder for balance when the leopard is climbing a tree or hunting. A leopard also has long whiskers that it uses as antennae to judge spaces between bushes and trees – an essential tool for an animal that hunts at night.

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big five animals on safari

big five animals on safari

Complete Guide to Africa’s Big Five (Facts, Tips, and More)

big five animals on safari

Seeing all members of the big five is the ultimate goal for thousands of safari tourists every year and that is for a very good reason. The big five is a group of five of the most well-known and characteristic animals in Africa and they are all fascinating, beautiful, and majestic in their own ways.

The five members of the Big Five are the Cape buffalo, the African elephant, the leopard, the lion, and the black rhinoceros.

The big five were initially named so for being the five most dangerous and prestigious animals in Africa to hunt on foot but today, they are mostly associated with safaris.

This post contains tons of facts and fascinating information about each member of Africa’s big five.

Cape Buffalo – Syncerus caffer

big five animals on safari

Said to be the most dangerous member of the big five and often referred to as Black Death , the Cape buffalo, sometimes called the African buffalo, is a very large, aggressive, and extremely strong mammal that is rumored to be responsible for around 200 human deaths per year. Many sources claim that this is more than any of the other big five animals. Most of these victims are big-game hunters who are hoping to bring home a trophy.

Cape buffalos are well-known for their aggressive and unpredictable personality but at a safe distance and under safe conditions, they are truly beautiful, fascinating, and awe-inspiring creatures.

Below is a list of facts about Cape buffalos followed by an in-depth description of the animal.

Cape Buffalo Facts

Cape buffalos can be seen in most of sub-Saharan Africa and can thrive in many types of habitat as long as they have a source of water nearby them at all times.

Female Cape buffalos (called cows) have a gestation period of 11 to 11.5 months after which they give birth to a single calf that weighs between 66 and 132 pounds (30 to 60 kg) but quickly grows to become one of the largest and strongest mammals of Africa

Cape buffalos are highly social creatures that are most often seen in herds. Herds of Cape buffalos usually consist of around 15 to 20 animals, most of which are females that are related to each other, some calves, and a smaller group of males.

Sometimes, Cape buffalos come together and form giant herds consisting of several thousand animals which is an incredible thing to see. But these giant herds are temporary and mostly occur during mating season or for long walks. During the dry season, it is rare to see these massive herds of Cape buffalos since their primary source of food which is grass becomes less bountiful, making it more difficult for the Cape buffalos to find areas that can support thousands of animals.

In the wild, Cape buffalos have a rather long lifespan of 20 years in Africa but the average life expectancy is just 11 years as they often fall victim to diseases or natural enemies.

Cape buffalos do not have many natural enemies. Not only are they very large and extremely strong animals but they are also very protective of each other and will often make sure that the young, old, or otherwise weaker members of their herd are kept safely behind the stronger ones in the event of an attack by predators. Because despite being large, strong, and dangerous, they do have some natural enemies and Cape buffalos are for instance often hunted by lions.

On their own, a lion will rarely be able to take down a Cape buffalo but since lions mostly hunt as groups (called prides), they can actually hunt and kill very large mammals including Cape buffalos. Lions will also often attempt to separate a weak Cape buffalo from its herd and then attack it once it has become sufficiently isolated from the rest of its herd.

In some areas of Africa, Cape buffalos actually make up a majority of lions’ food.

Cape buffalos are not at all easy targets for lions, however, and will almost always kill a lion if the lion is on its own. Hunting Cape buffalos is an extremely dangerous thing to do even for lions that hunt together and will often result in at least one, if not several, of the lions getting hurt.

Cape buffalos are categorized as Near Threatened according to IUCN and the number of Cape buffalos in the wild is declining at a rapid rate. There are currently thought to be around 400.000 Cape buffalos left in the wild in Africa.

If you want to learn more about Cape buffalos, you can head over to this page (link opens in a new tab) where you can see all our posts about them.

African Elephant – Loxodonta africana

big five animals on safari

The African elephant is the world’s largest land-living animal. They have massive bodies, thick legs, large tusks, and large ears. Everything on an African elephant is large, from the canine teeth which can weigh upwards of 9 pounds each (around 4 kg) to the heart which can weigh 62 pounds (around 28 kg).

African elephants are well-known by their very large ears (which are much larger than on their Indian cousins) which they use to cool themselves down and intimidate enemies, their massive tusks which are used for defense and digging for water, and their long trunks which they use for breaking leaves and branches off trees to eat.

African elephant facts

African elephants can be found in most sub-Saharan countries. They are very adaptable animals who can live in many different types of habitat including savanna, forest, grassland, shrubland, wetlands, and deserts.

African elephants are herbivores who eat plants exclusively. Where some other large African mammals such as Cape buffalos and White rhinoceros have very specific preferences when it comes to eating (they both eat grass almost exclusively), African elephants are not picky. African elephants will eat branches, bark, leaves, grass, fruits, berries, and almost anything else they can find. What each elephant eats depends largely on its habitat and what plants can be found in it.

Female African elephants have the longest gestation period of any mammal on the planet. As stated above, they will go for between 21 and 22 months before they give birth. Elephants almost always have just 1 calf at a time but they have been observed giving birth to twins on very rare occasions. About 1% of the time.

For the first few hours of their lives, newborn elephant calves have close to no control over their own body but after just a few hours, the little calves will begin to learn and practice walking. While they are very young, however, they are still just learning and are very clumsy. Especially the long trunk can cause trouble for the young calves as they simply have no idea what to do with it and will swing it around, either because they have little control over it or simply because they find it entertaining. Sometimes young elephant calves will even trip over their own trunk because it is hanging so close to the ground in front of them.

The lifespan of an African elephant in the wild is 70 years but they usually reach an age of between 50 and 65 years.

Many animals can live longer in captivity than in the wild if they are given good conditions and are taken proper care of. This is because natural killers such as predators are no longer a threat and diseases can be taken care of and treated.

This is not at all true for elephants whose lifespan in captivity is just 17 years. About one-fourth of what it is in the wild. It is not known with certainty why this is but it likely, at least in part, because elephants are not made for small, enclosed areas. No matter how large the elephant-area in a zoo is, it will be close to nothing compared to the wide, open areas of Africa which are where African elephants thrive.

The population of elephants is increasing in some parts of Africa but decreasing in others. The most significant increase in numbers seems to be happening in the southern parts of Africa and the most significant decrease in numbers is in central- or eastern Africa.

Overall, the population of elephants in Africa is currently increasing which is a great thing, not only for the elephants and the safari tourists but also for the entire ecosystem of African wildlife. There are currently around 415,000 African elephants in the wild.

Due to their massive size and unbelievable strength, African elephants do not have many natural predators, and especially fully grown elephants are not at high risk of being hunted by predators. It is, however, not uncommon for calves or young elephants that are not fully grown yet to be targeted by a group of predators.

Lions, hyenas, African wild dogs, and crocodiles are all threats to young elephants, and especially lions can be dangerous. Both lions, hyenas, and wild dogs hunt as groups but since lions are much larger than the others, they have a higher chance of success when hunting a young elephant. When hunting in groups, lions can actually sometimes hunt and kill animals that are 10 times larger than themselves so not even elephants are safe for the first period of their lives before they are fully grown.

If you want to learn more about African elephants, you can head over to this page (link opens in a new tab) where you can see all our posts about them.

Leopard – Panthera pardus

big five animals on safari

Leopards are the smallest of the big five but that is in no way a disadvantage for the elusive cat who has been referred to as Africa’s most efficient hunter many times. Leopards rely on stealth when they hunt and they will utilize their super-efficient cat-senses to sneak up on unsuspecting prey and then strike when it is within just a few feet from the target.

Like most big cats, leopards are nocturnal animals who are active and hunt almost exclusively at night. They are incredibly strong for their size and on top of that, they are excellent climbers. Leopards can carry dead prey that is several times larger and heavier than themselves high up into a tree where it can be kept safe from larger predators.

Leopard facts

Leopards can be seen all over sub-Saharan Africa. They are native to more than 35 countries in Africa. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, there are roughly 700,000 wild leopards left in Africa but the number is declining and for that reason, the conservation status of the big cat is Vulnerable according to IUCN. Part of the reason why the number of leopards in Africa is declining is that the number of prey animals is also decreasing, making it more difficult for the leopards to find territories with sufficient amounts of food.

Despite a relatively large population, they are not easy to find as they are extremely elusive animals that are exceptionally good at hiding and going unnoticed. A leopard will know that a person or another animal is near it long before the person or the other animal has any idea about the leopard’s presence.

Leopards are solitary creatures which means that they live on their own rather than in groups with other leopards.

Female leopards have a gestation period of 90 to 110 days after which they give birth to a litter of cubs. They will usually give birth to between 1 and 4 cubs but can sometimes have up to 6.

When a female leopard has cubs, she will stay with them and raise them on her own until they are around 2 years old at which point, they will have practiced and become proficient in vital skills such as hunting and climbing. Around the age of 2, the young leopards will leave their mother to go out and live on their own.

For those first 2 years of their lives, however, leopards live in a small group consisting of just their mother and their siblings. These groups of leopards are called leaps .

Leopards are the smallest of the big five but they are still very large and are also categorized as big cat s like lions, cheetahs, tigers, and jaguars.

Leopards can vary greatly in size and how large they get depends a lot on what sources of food are available to them in their territory. Leopards are carnivores and only eat meat but they are very adaptable and will hunt almost any animal depending on what is available in their territory.

Leopards usually weigh around 55 to 66 pounds (25 to 30 kg) with the males being slightly larger than the females. Male leopards, however, can weigh as little as 44 pounds, and the largest male leopard ever on record weighed an incredible 200 pounds. Female leopards are slightly smaller and can weigh 37 to 128 lb (17 to 58 kg).

Leopards preferred prey seems to be medium-sized antelopes such as impalas and springboks but they can hunt and eat over 100 different species of animals ranging from frogs and scorpions to young giraffes and zebras. Even fish and birds are often on the menu for leopards in areas where their preferred prey is not found in bountiful numbers.

Leopards are extremely strong animals and they do not have many natural enemies although large predators such as lions or hyenas can pose a threat to them as they usually stay in groups and can therefore easily take out a solitary leopard. These larger predators will usually not try to kill the leopard but rather force it to flee so they can steal its food. It is, however, not very uncommon that leopards are killed by larger predators.

African leopards in the wild have a lifespan of 17 years but will usually live for around 10 to 12. In captivity, they have a longer lifespan of 23 years under the right conditions.

If you want to learn more about leopards, you can head over to this page (link opens in a new tab) where you can see all our posts about them or this post which is full of fascinating facts and interesting information about leopards.

Lion – Panthera leo

big five animals on safari

Perhaps the most well-known and popular big African cat, the lion is a large, extremely strong, and fierce hunter that is well-deserving of its role as a member of the big five.

Lions are the largest of the big cats of Africa and when they hunt together, they are capable of taking down very large mammals such as Cape buffalos, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, and even young male or grown female elephants.

Lions are nocturnal and hunt at night since most of their prey is diurnal, which means they are resting or sleeping at night, allowing the lion to hunt them more easily while preserving more energy. When they hunt, lions will often surround their target and sneak up on it until they leap and attack from all angles.

Lions used to be widely distributed all over Africa but the overall population of lions in Africa is declining and according to the IUCN, it is now estimated that there are somewhere between 23,000 and 39,000 lions left in Africa.

Lions can be seen in most sub-Saharan African countries but the largest populations are found in just six countries in protected areas such as national parks and game reserves . The largest populations of lions are in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Female lions (called lionesses) give birth after a relatively short gestation period of just 3.5 to 4 months. They usually give birth to a litter of between 1 and 4 cubs but they can sometimes have up to 6 cubs.

Lions are highly social creatures and live in groups (called prides). A pride of lions has 15 members on average and consists of a small group of male lions, usually between 2 and 5, and a larger group of lionesses and their cubs.

Lion prides can vary greatly in size in different regions of Africa. The largest prides can sometimes have 30 or even more members. These large prides are mostly found in Kenya and Tanzania for example in the Serengeti National Park or the Masai Mara National Reserve. In the southern and western parts of Africa, the lion prides are usually significantly smaller with less than 15 members.

Lions thrive in habitats such as savanna, grassland, forest, and shrubland , as these usually have large populations of prey animals for the lions to hunt. Lions can also be seen in deserts where they will hunt small critters, lizards, birds, and similar.

Lions are actually not picky at all when it comes to hunting and eating but they seem to prefer medium-sized or large herbivores such as zebras, wildebeests, Cape buffalos, and other hoofed animals.

Lions will usually stick to around 5 to 7 different types of prey depending on their territory and what animals are there for the lions to hunt.

A lion’s diet usually consists of some of the following animals.

  • Cape buffalo
  • Sable antelope
  • Other medium-sized or large antelopes and other hoofed mammals.

In areas where antelopes and other hoofed animals are not found in bountiful numbers, lions will hunt and eat these:

  • Small critters
  • Crested porcupines

Lions are at the top of the food chain and do not have many natural predators. There are, however, some animals that can pose a threat to lions. These are mostly very large and strong mammals such as elephants and Cape buffalos but also smaller predators such as hyenas can cause trouble for lions when they stay in groups.

The lifespan of lions is 16 years for the males and 18 for the females but they usually live for 12 (males) and 15 years (females). If given good conditions and taken proper care of, lions can live for up to 30 years in captivity.

If you want to learn more about lions, you can head over to this page (link opens in a new tab) where you can see all our posts about them or this post which covers 20 fascinating lion facts.

Black Rhinoceros – Diceros bicornis

big five animals on safari

There are two species of rhinoceroses in Africa. The black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros and while they are often not distinguished between when people talk about the big five, the official member of the big five is the black rhinoceros.

Despite what their names might indicate, the color is actually not one of the differences between them as they are both grey. There are, however, some very significant differences between the two species of rhinoceros, for instance, that the white rhinoceros is almost twice as large as the black rhinoceros. Another one of the most easily distinguishable differences between the two species is that the black rhinoceros has a hooked upper lip (which can be seen in the photo above) and the white rhinoceros has a wider, more flat mouth.

Both the black and the white rhinoceros are very rare but the black rhinoceros is the most rare of the two.

Despite being almost half the size of its white cousin, the black rhinoceros is the official member of the big five. This is because of its behavior and personality which is usually much more aggressive and unpredictable than that of the white rhinoceros. For that reason, this section will be about the rhinoceros that is the official member of the big five, the black rhinoceros .

Black rhinoceros facts

The black rhinoceros used to be widely distributed all over sub-Saharan Africa but is now mostly found in small, scattered populations primarily in protected areas such as national parks and game reserves. The largest populations of black rhinoceros are found in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.

Despite an increasing population (according to IUCN), the conservation status of the black rhinoceros is currently critically endangered . According to IUCN, there are just 3,142 black rhinoceroses left in Africa.

The largest threats to black rhinoceroses are humans who threaten their existence primarily by claiming their habitat for agricultural purposes or similar but also poachers who hunt them for their horns.

The black rhinoceros is generally a solitary animal that spends most of its life on its own and mostly seeks out the other sex during mating season.

Female black rhinoceroses give birth to a single calf at a time and will stay with it until the calf is around 3 to 4 years old or until the female has another calf (which is usually also after 3 to 4 years). At this point, the calf will have learned and practiced the skills necessary to survive on its own and will leave its mother.

Sometimes, older female black rhinoceroses can adopt young calves that have either lost their mother or been abandoned by her.

The black rhinoceros thrive in areas that have a bountiful supply of various plants which make up the majority of the black rhinoceros’ diet. Black rhinoceroses have a broad menu and their diet can consist of upwards of 100 different plants. They mostly eat leaves, berries, branches, twigs, and fruits. They can even eat some poisonous or thorny plants.

The very characteristic hooked upper lip on black rhinoceroses works almost like a finger and is very useful for picking the various types of plants that they enjoy.

Black rhinoceroses can mostly be seen in savannas and shrublands but they can also live in deserts.

Due to their large size, extremely thick skin, and deadly horn, black rhinoceroses do not have many natural enemies but they can sometimes fall prey to large predators such as lions or crocodiles. Especially black rhinoceros calves or young adolescents that have just left their mother are at risk of being hunted by large predators.

If you want to learn more about rhinos, you can head over to this page (link opens in a new tab) where you can see all our posts about them.

Preparing for the Big Five

Now that you have learned everything you need to know about Africa’s big five, you are more than ready to go out and look for them.

Observing wildlife can be a thrilling and exciting experience and to improve the experience even further, I highly recommend coming prepared.

I have written some posts about my favorite safari guide books , and the best binoculars , and cameras containing all the information you need including step-by-step guides on how to adjust the gear to fit you perfectly, information about different specs , and some specific recommendations for different budgets.

African Wildlife Report

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The African Big Five: The Top 5 Animals to Spot on Safari

There are certainly a wide range of animals you can catch sight of during a safari in Africa (just check out my Safari Animal Bucket List to see how many!), but there are a handful that get the most adoration—the African Big 5—said to be the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. If you are traveling to halfway around the world for an African safari there is little doubt that you will want to spot these Big Five beauties, which include the African elephant, leopard, lion, Cape buffalo and the every so elusive rhino.

In case you’re curious to learn more about the animals that belong to the Big Five, or at least which safaris to look further into if you want to specifically spot one or more of them, I’ve given some insight of each one and their natural habitats below.

big five animals on safari

The African Big Five are the Top 5 Animals to Spot on Safari

What is the big five .

The term “Big Five” was originally coined to refer to the animals on African Safaris that were the hardest and most dangerous to sport hunt. These Big Five animals were African elephants, Cape Buffalo, Leopard, Lion and Rhino. They’re still considered the African Big 5 today, although thankfully these days it’s more in terms of being the most sought after animals to see on a safari rather than to hunt down.

Meet the Big 5

African elephant.

The African elephant is the largest animal that walks on Earth (with the Antarctic blue whale being the largest animal on Earth overall). Two subspecies of the African elephant exist, with 37 of the countries in Africa having at least one subspecies—Savannah elephant and Forest elephant—roaming around their soil. African elephant’s status is considered vulnerable, with especially the Forest elephant suffering from poaching for their ivory.

WHERE TO SPOT IN AFRICA

African elephants are quite widely spread around the African continent, and your sure to see dozens while on safari. But even so, they are far easier to spot in some places than in others. For your best bet to spot an elephant during a safari, visit a safari in Botswana or South Africa, Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, or Damaraland in Namibia.

African Elephant in Tanzania Africa

Cape Buffalo

Cape buffalo is a subspecies of the African buffalo, the one most commonly seen roaming about sub-Saharan Africa. They live in herds, with anywhere from 50 to 500 members, with any type of terrain being to their liking as long as there’s water nearby. During the rainy season, you may see a buffalo herd with thousands of members in Serengeti.

You can find cape buffalo in many areas across sub-Saharan Africa. However, just like with elephants, you’ll have a far easier time spotting a buffalo in some regions over others. Kruger National Park, Addo National Park and Hluhluwe Imfolozi game reserve are some of the best places to visit for a buffalo sighting, as well as of course Serengeti during the rainy season.

African Cape Buffalo on Safari in Tanzania

Found in northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, leopards are strong and stealthy big cat animals. They hunt predominantly by stalking their prey in the tall grass, but also feel comfortable and at home up in the trees or in the water.

Your best bets for a sighting of a leopard are in Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti, especially the latter’s Seronera Valley. You can also spot a leopard in other national parks and game reserves in Kenya, in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, and in South Africa’s Londolozi Private Game Reserve.

big five animals on safari

Another big cat, lions are the second largest cat in the world, living in various terrains in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike other cat animals out there, lions are social animals living in prides of around 30 lions. One pride consists specifically of 3 males, a dozen females related to them, and the young of the pride, with males and females having their distinctive roles in the pride.

Depending on your interests, there are various spots to see lions in Africa. If you want to see a pride of lions that have taken a liking to water, head to Okavango Delta; in Chobe National Park, on the other hand, you are most likely to see lions in predator mode; in Masai Mara there are plenty to see any time of year; the lions of Namib Desert are some of the most resilient ones out there; and Kruger National Park has long been considered one of the best places to see a lion in the wild, especially among all the parks in South Africa.

big five animals on safari

There are two species of this large animal on African soil: black rhino and white rhino, of which the black rhino is sadly listed as critically endangered species. Both of these rhinos are actually grey and have two horns (some rhino species outside of Africa only have one), for which they are sadly poached a lot.

For the largest population of white rhinos in Africa, head over to Kruger National Park in South Africa; meanwhile at Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania you can spot black rhinos. For a chance to see both species on one safari, you ought to try out the Mkhaya Game Reserve in Eswatini. A few other locations for spotting rhinos in Africa also exist, most notably Ol Pejeta Conservatory, Lake Nakuru National Park, and Kwandwe Game Reserve (where you may have a chance to see all of the Big Five!).

big five animals on safari

So, which of the Big Five Animals do you fancy seeing the most? Are you planning on choosing a tour specifically to see that specific animal or are you hoping to catch a sighting of all the Big Five on one safari? Many of us are likely dreaming of hopping into a vehicle and heading into a safari once in our lives, and what better experience to come out of it with than having seen the “king of the jungle” or the largest walking animal on Earth!

My Story & Experience:

Having a competitive nature, I was up for the challenge of spotting the Big Five Animals and it turns out that spotting these 5 was a pretty big one. Game on.

We had four days while on safari in Tanzania with  Shadows of Africa  to spot the Big Five. That was only 1.25 animals to identify per day.  Pretty good odds.

Our trip started out promising with witnessing an African Elephant on our first day of safari in  Tarengire National Park . Actually, there were a couple dozen elephants roaming the land. Looks like this whole spotting the Big Five thing was gonna be easy.  Famous last words.

On day two, we scored big time in  Serengeti National Park . It started with finding a male lion.  And  he was roaring. Do I get bonus points for the roar?

Also on this day there was the sighting of a Cape Buffalo toting a bird on his back. Plus, there was a cheetah. He was pretty far away, but I still saw him. So it counts.

It looked like I was winning this Big Five challenge against myself.  And  then day three came. There were a lot of repeats of what was already seen, but not the last animal on my Big Five hunt, the rhino.

Even on the last day of safari, in Ngorongoro Crater, we actually all felt pretty confident as we drove through the animal rich land.

Besides, if anyone could help spot us a rhino it would be our  Shadows of Africa  driver Timothy. I swear he can identify an animal a quarter mile away just by its shape and swagger. And he tried to find us a rhino. Really hard. He even had the CB turned on in case any other safari drivers spotted one first.

They did not.

There are only an estimated 21 rhinos in Ngorongoro Crater. That’s not a lot, considering the hundreds of wildebeest and zebra I had seen in the crater in the first half hour.

We drove to all the spots that the rhinos usually hung out, but came up empty. They had gone into the forest, a place we could only go on foot and there was no way I was stepping out of a jeep that was surrounded by lions, wildebeests and wart hogs. 

As the last day on safari came to an end, it became evident that the Big Five would be minus a Big One.

That’s okay, I’m coming back for you Mr. Rhino. Be ready.

UPDATE: I recently returned to Tanzania and finally spotted a rhino at Ngorongoro Crater!

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30 thoughts on “The African Big Five: The Top 5 Animals to Spot on Safari”

After all you have eaten and experienced, I am surprised you were not the first to jump out for your elusive big one. I discovered your site while making my bucket list after surviving open heart surgery. I truly enjoy reading your adventures. You really helped me make a great bucket list! Kathy

I did think about it for a second, but lions & hyenas really scare me ;) I am so happy to hear that my blog is helping you make a great bucket list after such a major surgery!! And I hope your checkmarks will be plentiful :)

I finally spotted a rhino later than month in South Africa!

Damn you and your rhino Raymond Walsh ;) I am beyond jealous!!

I saw a rock that looks like a rhino, does that count? :-p

LOL! I thought the rock looked like a tent and the piece of wood looked like a cow ;)

Guess you’ll have to visit at least a couple more times. The first time I traveled to Africa, some British tourists told me it was addictive. They were right. I’m headed back, this time, to Namibia where I should finally get the change to see a rhino. I can’t wait!!

Yes, I definitely need to go back to see that rhino (amongst other reasons too). Have a wonderful time in Namibia!

You definitely get bonus points for the roaring lion! I can’t wait to go see them for myself one day!

Wow! What a great experience. Not seeing a rino is a great reason to go back but it seems to me that, ANY, reason would be good enough.

I’d be happy to see four. Last time I went on safari I only saw three. I love that photo of the lion roaring – it’s brilliant!

Okay, now I feel better with only seeing four :)

Hi Annette, that’s such a pity! I went on a safari on the Maara and the same happened to me. I saw many of the big 5, but Mr Rhino didn’t make an appearance.

Great blog, by the way!

Damn Mr. Rhino!! I have to admit that the hunt was so much fun, but the failure not so much :)

Wow! What a great experience. so so lovely photos…

hope you get to see the rhino on your next safari travels. I had a hard time spotting one too and ended up seeing one at the Nairobi national park. Good Luck

Next time, I will not leave Africa until I spot one!

In the images the lion is mourning, small baby elephants try to break the branch of a tree and a buffalo standing all were captured by way of excellent photography.

Hey Annette, I am also planning a safari trip possibly at the end of this year but I was wondering if I set out on my own (trying to get someone to agree to come with..lol) how did you go about finding other possible bucket listers to go with you? Did you just reach out to people who followed your page? or got grouped up with them once you booked? Thanks!

Actually, I was invited to go on the safari by the tour company along with a couple of other bloggers. Though, I believe that if you contact the company they should be able to pair you with some others that will be on safari too. Good luck! Going on safari was amongst the best bucket list experiences I ever had.

Hope you get to come to Africa again sometime soon. If you do, you would love South Africa and the Kruger National Park. We go their every year from Johannesburg and on the first day’s trip into the Park this year, spotted all of the big five pulse most of the Ugly Five. Enjoy your travels.

I had never heard of the Ugly Five!! But, I need to spot the Marabou Stork on that list in addition to the rhino! I would love to go back one day soon.

Hi Annette! Amazing photos! Looks like you truly enjoyed and made the most out of your safari trip. Are you planning to visit again soon? If so, what are you looking forward to seeing? As for me, the next time I go on a safari trip I definitely want to see giraffes and maybe some primates too. Looking forward to reading about your next travel!

I really hope i get to go to a safari! This is so cool!

Hope you can visit the Safari someday.

I am a safari organiser for years and this is one of the most comprehensive safari guide, especially when you want to get the best of African safari. Perfect and pretty much useful for both beginners and pro safari goers. Way to go!

Thank you so much. I’m glad that this can help my readers.

Thanks for sharing amazing tips. The big five can also be found in Uganda when you Murchison falls national park and Ziwa rhino sanctuary while on your way to Murchison falls. Queen Elizabeth National Park is also another place where you can view lions, the tree-climbing lions in Kasenyi Plains.

Loved this post and the details on what to see and where (specifics like the pride of lions). Ps. you definitely get bonus points for the lion’s roar!!

I want to see leopards the most because they are just spectacular to look at and from your post I’ll be researching Kwandwe Game Reserve for a chance to spot all five.

I love the post and is very useful. Thanks so much

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Annette White the Owner of Bucket List Journey

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  • Sep 30, 2022

Everything you need to know about Africa’s Big 5 animals

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

Travelers who are planning to go on a safari in Africa may have come across the term ‘Big Five’ while doing their research; this refers to five African animal species, namely the Buffalo, Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhino.

When selecting where to go on a safari, you will notice that game reserves, or lodges and safari camps, will state whether they offer a Big Five Safari; if so, this means that there is the possibility of spotting these five animals in the wild.

Why are they called the Big Five?

Many moons ago, hunters in Africa dubbed the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot as ‘The Big Five.’ Although most safaris do not offer hunting activities anymore, the term ‘Big Five’ is still used in the tourism industry today and it is a phrase that has become widely recognised around the globe. This is because seeing a leopard dangling from a tree, a rhino and her calf sauntering past, or being three feet away from the majestic king of the jungle with not a single sound but the beating of your own heart, is a privilege second to none. Viewing these animals in the wild is such an exhilarating experience that may be difficult to grasp until it is your safari vehicle that is in the way of a large elephant bull flapping his ears and thrusting his tusks!

Africa's Big 5

The african elephant.

big five animals on safari

The African elephant is the largest animal roaming the earth and their most recognisable features are their long trunks, large ears, and fearsome tusks. Unfortunately, it is the latter attribute that has contributed to the massive decline of this species because of poachers who are driven by the illegal ivory trade. Another threat to their survival is a growing human population. As our numbers increase, the need for more land increases, which in turn decreases the land for the elephants. A lack of resources leads to elephants destroying agricultural land, which puts them at risk from human conflict. A huge part of African elephant conservation is collaborating with local communities to assist them with effectively managing conflict with the species.

Without these threats, elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild in multi-generational herds. These herds are led by a matriarch and made up of other females and their young. Pregnancy can last up to 22 months with elephants usually reproducing one calf every 3 to 4 years. Males and young bulls roam the land on their own or form small groups known as bachelor herds.

Elephants are herbivores and can be seen eating roots and fruits, grasses and bark, which they consume in abundance! They spend most of their day covering large distances while feasting along the way. They also love water so consider yourself lucky if you stumble across a herd bathing at a waterhole!

Travel tip : One of the best places to view African elephants is in Chobe National Park in Botswana, suitably referred to as ‘The Land of the Giants.’ This destination is home to Africa’s largest elephant population with individual herds reaching into the hundreds. Chobe, along with the Okavango Delta (also located in Botswana), are two fantastic safari destinations in Africa. If you are thinking of visiting Botswana, the best time to travel would be between May and October as the rains have stopped and water is abundant, creating excellent conditions for game viewing.

The African Leopard

big five animals on safari

The most elusive of the Big Five, the African leopard is considered the holy grail of safari sightings and you will not be disappointed. This cat has an exquisite coat that is yellowish-brown in colour, sometimes appearing gold, with black spots also known as rosettes decorated across its body. Milky green eyes are often captured behind a camera lens with a piercing stare that will send chills down your spine!

These are nocturnal animals, solitary by nature, and incredibly adaptable to different environments (location and habitat can influence the size and colour of a leopard). Males are noticeably larger than females, however it is rare that you will have the opportunity to compare the two genders unless territories have intersected (with males overlapping territories with females), or if they are mating.

A leopard is pregnant for approximately three and a half months, giving birth to between 1 and 3 cubs at a time. Generally, only 50% of the litter will survive, and those that do can live for about 15 years in the wild.

Sighting of leopards often occur in trees as they are known to hoist their meal into the treetops away from other predators or scavengers, such as hyena. Their diet consists of small to medium size prey, which can be anything from a guinea fowl to a small antelope. The strength required to drag an impala up a tree is immense and shows just how strong these animals are!

Like most cats, leopards communicate through scent, body language and behavior such as the marking of trees. With scent glands on their cheeks, they rub their faces on branches or pathways to make it clear whose territory it is, and they also communicate their mood with their tail. Growling, hissing or a rasping roar may be heard when leopards are communicating between their own or other species.

Unfortunately, leopards are listed as vulnerable on the global IUCN Red list due to habitat loss, trophy hunting and conflict with humans.

Travel Tip: One of the best places to see the African leopard is in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa, where highly skilled guides will pull out all of their knowledge and expertise to get those close-up encounters of this extraordinary wild cat of Africa.

The African Buffalo

big five animals on safari

If you have seen a buffalo in person, then you will understand why it is part of the Big Five. With a helmet of horns perched on their heads, buffalos can weigh between 300 to 835 kilograms and are about one to two meters in height. It is no surprise that the hunter once considered this to be a formidable opponent in the African bush, and the same goes for today’s travelers. If you happen to find yourself on a walking safari, coming across a herd of buffalo along the way is not something you take lightly, especially if they are in close range.

The Cape Buffalo is the most common out of the four subspecies and are often seen in large herds, predominantly made up of females and young, with males breaking away to form bachelor herds. Living in large herds protects the buffalo from predators, such as lions, who will single out an individual as a meal for their pride. This species can live 11 to 22 years in the wild and the females will reproduce every two years about. Considering they spend most of their time grazing, birthing season typically occurs after the rainy season when there is an abundance of grass.

Travel Tip: One of the best places to see buffalo is in the Kruger National Park where you will come across very large herds.

The African Rhino

big five animals on safari

The white and black rhino are two subspecies of the African rhino, with the former recognisable by its square lip and the latter a hooked lip. Both species have two horns and are just as prehistoric looking as each other! Despite a long lifespan of 35 to 40 years in the wild, few make it as long as this because they are being killed for their horns.

In Asia, it is believed that rhino horn, which is made of keratin, has the ability to cure cancer, hangovers and even impotence. This has resulted in a massacre of this species and the war is still being fought today to protect rhinos from the threat of extinction. Sadly, it has become a common sight finding a young calf standing alongside its dead mother who has had her face severed. With 16 months in gestation, the turn around time is just not long enough for the species to revive itself and that is why rhino conservation is at the forefront of African wildlife protection.

Travel tip: Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve is the oldest proclaimed game reserve in Africa, and the very place that saved the white rhino from the brink of extinction. Today, it is home to one of the largest populations of white rhino in the world. Visiting this reserve in Zululand, South Africa is a very special experience as it is the birthplace of white rhino conservation. (Our article ‘Operation Rhino’ will provide more information on the history of this reserve)

The African Lion

big five animals on safari

The mighty ‘King of the Jungle’ is in a league of its own and definitely deserves a spot on Africa’s Big Five list being the largest carnivore in Africa! This is a highly sociable species that live in prides that can range from anything between 10 and 40 pride members, which are made up of females, their young, and dominant males. The males are easily distinguishable by their manes that are regally wrapped around their head and chest, and their iconic roar will evoke and emotion that will reverberate through your soul!

Ironically these fearsome beasts can sleep up to twenty hours a day and are more active at night when they are known to hunt.

Lions will take down medium to large prey, and this can be anything from a young warthog to a large buffalo. Although they have very few threats of their own in the wild, and as with most of the Big Five, human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss have had them listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Travel tip: The Timbavati region in South Africa, which borders the Kruger National Park, is one of the only places in the world where you can still see white lions in the wild. Private reserves will generally have smaller numbers of lions than places such as the Kruger National Park where exceptionally large lion prides are sighted.

How much does a safari cost to see the Big 5 in Africa?

Going on a Big Five Safari in Africa will vary in cost depending on which location or country you are visiting. The most affordable option would be South Africa as the Rand to Dollar, Pound or Euro exchange rate is excellent and you get a lot for your money. Please click on the link for more information on the cost of a budget, middle-range and luxury safari in South Africa .

Bucket-list safari destinations such as Botswana and Tanzania will work out to be more costly, especially around the migration period. Etosha National Park, one of the largest national parks in Africa, situated in Namibia also offers excellent value for money with the Namibian Dollar being equivalent to the Rand.

For a quote and itinerary on your chosen safari destination please email us at [email protected]

References:

"African Elephant" World Wildlife Fund, Retrieved from African Elephant | Species | WWF (worldwildlife.org)

"Africa Elephant" Kruger Park, Retrieved from African Elephant - Kruger National Park - South Africa (krugerpark.co.za)

"African Leopard" South African National Biodiversity Institute, Retrieved from African leopard - SANBI

(sanbi.org)

"African Buffalo" African Wildlife Foundation, Retrieved from African Buffalo | African Wildlife Foundation (awf.org)

"Rhinoceros" African Wildlife Foundation, Retrieved from Rhinoceros | African Wildlife Foundation (awf.org)

"African Lion" Kruger Park, Retrieved from Lion - Leo Panthera - African Lion (krugerpark.co.za)

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TravelAwaits

Our mission is to serve the 50+ traveler who's ready to cross a few items off their bucket list.

The Big Five, Small Five, Shy Five, And Ugly Five: What Are They And Where To Find Them

big five animals on safari

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All good vacations involve lists such as pre-planning checklists, what-to-pack lists, or perhaps the list you leave behind reminding your neighbor or house-sitter to water the plants and feed the cat. Going on safari in Africa, though, will present you with a whole new range of lists. A good kind of list! Assuming you have got through all those to-do lists at home and actually arrived at your safari destination, prepare yourself for a new kind of list. I’m talking about wildlife checklists, either those handy printed lists some lodges leave in your room, or perhaps just mental lists you have in your head of all the fabulous creatures you are hoping to see. Some of the animals on these lists you will be familiar with, but there may be others that you have quite possibly never even heard of. Read on to prepare yourself!

An elephant in a river.

African Bush Camps

The Big Five

If you’re planning an African safari or already have one under your belt, you’ll more than likely have heard the term Big Five, one of the most widely used phrases in the safari business. The term Big Five was originally coined by game hunters, who discovered that these animals were some of the hardest and most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Today, the phrase has come to represent some of the most sought-after safari animal sightings.

The Big Five are the elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino, and I’ve written about them in more detail here .

A lion in the brush.

Whilst most people coming to Africa on safari have the Big Five on their radar, the continent has much more than just those majestic five animals to see. In fact, with hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds calling this continent home, it’s no wonder that some alternative lists of fives have been created!

Next time you are on safari, keep your eye out for Small Five (whose names mimic the Big Five, but whose size is much, much smaller), the Shy Five (who are pretty jolly hard to find given their introverted ways), and the Ugly Five (who frankly, can really only be loved by their mothers!).

The Small Five

While these five animals are not particularly shy, they’re often hard to spot because they are just so small!

Elephant Shrew

Arguably the cutest of the little five, the elephant shrew doesn’t bear much resemblance to its namesake, the elephant, except for its long, mobile snout. Measuring just over 9 inches, the elephant shrew is lightning fast and incredibly agile. There are 15 species of elephant shrew, all with large eyes and ears and powerful back legs, which propel them after their insect prey with a series of super speedy bounds. Elephant shrews are highly territorial animals, usually maintaining a network of trails around their “patch,” which they scent-mark and keep clear of debris on their regular high-speed patrols. Ironically, scientists have discovered that elephant shrews actually share distant evolutionary ancestry with elephants, so perhaps their name is a good fit after all.

An ant lion on a twig.

SokoloFF / Shutterstock

With a name like ant lion, you’d be forgiven for expecting these insects to be large and fierce. They’re not at all! Ant lions are small, winged insects, similar in appearance to dragonflies or lacewings. They get their name from their larvae, whose sickle-like jaws would be rather fearsome if you were an ant! Ant lion larvae build tiny, conical, sandy pit traps into which their unsuspecting prey fall. At the bottom of each trap lurks the larvae, and any ant that tumbles over the edge slips down into its waiting jaws. Once it has sucked the vital fluids from its prey, the ant lion larvae flicks the lifeless exoskeleton out of the pit and buries itself again to lie in wait for its next victim.

A slow-moving leopard tortoise.

Leopard Tortoise

The leopard tortoise’s name conjures up an image of a stalking feline, but to be honest, these slow-moving reptiles’ movements are neither stealthy nor masterful. The leopard part of the name really comes from the black-spots-on-yellow-background pattern on their shells. In truth, these are gentle creatures who snack on plants, with the occasional nibble on a piece of bone for a bit of extra calcium. Whilst it may be slow, the leopard tortoise’s shell gives it tank-like protection, so it has little to fear from predators; though with their slow speed, fire does present a more serious hazard, and it’s not uncommon to find burnt out leopard tortoise shells when out walking in the bush. While many tortoise hatchlings fall prey to a wide variety of predators, those that survive to adulthood can plod on for 50 years or more.

Red-billed buffalo weavers.

GUDKOV ANDREY / Shutterstock

Buffalo Weaver

There are two main kinds of buffalo weavers: red-billed and white-billed, distinguished from each other by, surprise, surprise, the color of their bills. These are rather sociable creatures and build large, untidy, colony-type nests that house numerous birds, a bit like an apartment block. These noisy birds have little in common with their bovine namesakes, aside from their sociable behavior and black coloration. Unlike the vegetarian buffalo, aside from the occasional seeds, buffalo weavers like to dine on grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, and other similarly appetizing insects.

A rhino beetle on a leaf.

NH / Shutterstock

Rhino Beetle

Rhino beetles get their name from their striking curved horns (sported only by the males). While they may not bear much resemblance to real rhinos, they are nonetheless quite impressive, at least as far as insects go! These are large, robust insects endowed with prodigious strength. Scientists have calculated that a rhino beetle can carry a load 850 times its weight, making it arguably the strongest animal in the world! The males’ horns are, like those of their namesake, used for territorial combat. These are tough little guys, fierce-looking but totally harmless to humans, being neither biters nor stingers. They aren’t terribly efficient flyers, either, due to their size. The only time rhino beetles tend to fight is over the attention of the ladies.

The Shy Five

When looking for the Shy Five, bear in mind, they’re called the shy for a reason! If you’re a very lucky safari-goer, you might just catch a glimpse, but I can guarantee they will be doing their best not to meet you! A couple of places renowned for sightings of these species include South Africa’s Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and Samara Game Reserve .

A porcupine roaming at night.

Konkamoya Lodge

Cute but prickly, a porcupine’s entire back is covered in sharp, black and white quills that can reach up to 20 inches in length. If threatened, a porcupine will quite simply turn its back on danger and raise its quills, even if the threat is a leopard! A porcupine’s quills are quite loosely attached, and it’s not uncommon to find them embedded in the face of any creature who was unwise enough to try to have a porcupine for dinner (a porcupine’s quills do grow back over time). Being nocturnal, you are most likely to spot one rootling around while you’re out on a night drive.

A bat-eared fox.

Bat-Eared Fox

As its name suggests, the bat-eared fox has unusually large ears in proportion to its head and body, quite like those of a bat! Bat-eared foxes are predominantly found in areas where there are plenty of termites and beetles to feast upon. These mainly nocturnal creatures are masters of disguise, and if they feel in danger, they will simply lie down in tall grass or thick bush, where they are perfectly camouflaged. Another reason they’re hard to see is that they’re small, really small, usually only about 12 inches tall and weighing in at 6 to 10 pounds.

An aardvark at night.

Aardvarks are one of the Shy Five’s cutest members, with their long noses and sweet upright ears. With long, tapering tails, arched backs, and coarse grey-brown hair, there’s something sort of kangaroo-like about aardvarks. Being nocturnal, they spend hot African afternoons resting in a tight ball in their cool underground burrows, coming out at night to hunt for termites and other insects.

Three meerkats.

Jackie Cilliers

Meerkats are predominantly desert animals, living in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, much of the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and South Africa. Given the trademark standing poses of habituated meerkat troops, some might question their presence on the Shy Five list. Still, with their extraordinarily well-honed senses and their natural environment, meerkats can and will disappear long before any human can think of getting near!

An aardwolf emerging from a hole.

Thomas Retterath / Shutterstock

Aardwolves are nocturnal, solitary foragers, only coming together to mate and rear young. Their name means “earth wolf” in Afrikaans and stems from their supposed dog-like features and diet of termites. Aardwolves are small, usually measuring only about 17 inches in height. They are, in fact, a species of hyena but, unlike their cousins who feature on the Ugly Five list below, their diet consists of termites. An aardwolf can eat up to 300,000 termites in a night!

The Ugly Five

While they might not be the supermodels of the African bush, the creatures on this list certainly make up for it by being interesting and having a certain charm. Allow me to introduce you to some of Africa’s less glamorous animals.

A warthog in the brush.

Royal Zambezi Lodge

When your name includes the word “wart,” you’re destined to be on this list. With bags under the eyes, double sets of tusks, and coarsely haired bodies, warthogs are found throughout Southern Africa, usually in family groups, often rummaging around close to camps or wallowing in the mud at waterholes. While they may be delightful to watch, trotting around, tail in the air like a radio antenna, or kneeling on the ground snuffling about for food, don’t be fooled by their cuteness. They can be vicious if challenged, and their tusks can inflict a serious, potentially lethal, wound.

Three wildebeest looking at the camera.

Wildebeest look like they were made up of the leftovers after all the other safari animals were complete. They may have the head of an ox, the mane of a horse, and the horns of a buffalo, but really, they’re an antelope. Wildebeest are characterized by long black manes, shaggy beards of hair hanging from their throats and necks, and short, curved horns. Ugly or not, if you’re lucky enough to see a migrating herd of wildebeest, which can number into the thousands, it’s a pretty spectacular sight!

As scavengers, the vultures’ role in cleaning up the carcasses of dead animals leaves a bit to be desired, and they do get a bit of a bad rap, mostly because of their rather bloodthirsty, scavenging habits. See a flock of vultures circling high up above the African bush, and you can be sure there’s a kill below.

Two Maribou Storks.

Dan Giveon / Shutterstock

Marabou Stork

There is no sugar-coating it — the marabou stork is an eye-sore, with its scabby pink face, featherless head, and bulbous throat sac. Another of their less endearing traits is their habit of excreting over themselves in an attempt to keep themselves cool, giving their legs a permanent, sickly tinge of greyish white. These birds are carnivores, eating anything from dead animal carcasses to fish and even other birds. They also feed on carcasses alongside other scavengers, such as vultures and hyenas. The marabou’s appearance and somewhat unbecoming habits have earned it the nickname of “the undertaker bird.”

Hyenas and vultures eating an animal.

Sarah Kingdom

Hyenas are my favorite of the African animals, but even I have to admit that while baby hyenas definitely have a touch of cuteness about them, it doesn’t take long for them to grow up and lose that appeal! With their sloped backs, somewhat aggressive looks, and distinctive eerie laugh, the hyena easily fits into this list of misfits and ugly animals.

So now you know who they all are, you can add them to your “Things to Spot” list next time you are on safari.

Related Reading:

  • The Ultimate Guide To Planning Your First African Safari
  • 9 Things To Know Before Booking A Long Safari
  • 12 Stunning Birds To Spot While On Safari
  • 7 Fantastic Animals To See On Safari And The Best Places To Find Them
  • 5 More Once-In-A-Lifetime Animal Experiences In Africa

Image of Sarah Kingdom

Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, before moving to Africa at the age of 21, Sarah Kingdom is a mountain climber and guide, traveler, yoga teacher, trail runner, and mother of two. When she is not climbing or traveling she lives on a cattle ranch in central Zambia. She guides and runs trips regularly in India, Nepal, Tibet, Russia, and Ethiopia, taking climbers up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro numerous times a year.

15 Animals to See on an African Safari

big five animals on safari

The word "Africa" is an evocative one that usually goes hand-in-hand with mental images of vast savanna plains dotted with exotic game. The majority of overseas visitors to Africa will go on  safari and, in doing so, discover that there is nothing more magical than a close encounter with the continent's incredible wildlife. Most of the species one sees on safari are unique to Africa, and many of them are instantly recognizable. In this article, we look at 15 of the continent's most iconic animals, including those that make up the African Big Five . 

TripSavvy / Felicia Martinez

To see a lion in its natural habitat is one of the most humbling, impressive sights an African safari can offer. However, while witnessing a kill is the ultimate prize, you're more likely to see one sleeping than in active pursuit of dinner. Lions spend up to 20 hours a day at rest and are most active at dusk and dawn. They are the most social of all wild cat species, living in prides consisting of between five and 10 adult lions. Tragically, lions are threatened by human expansion throughout Africa, with experts prophesying that populations could fall by as much as five percent in the next 20 years.

Best Places to See Lions: Head to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the border of South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana; or to Tanzania's Serengeti National Park during the wildebeest migration. 

There is nothing quite like the first time you see an  African elephant  in the wild. As the largest living terrestrial animal on Earth, their size alone is overwhelming; but many visitors also find themselves drawn by the elephants' tangible aura of wisdom. Elephants are found in various sub-Saharan habitats, including forests, deserts, and savanna. They are herbivorous, processing up to 600 pounds of vegetation per day. Although most elephants are peaceful by nature, they can be dangerous if provoked; however, they are far more at risk from humans than we are from them. 

Best Places to See Elephants: Vast elephant herds roam Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana. 

As the tallest animal on Earth, you'd think that giraffes would be easy to spot on safari. However, their distinctive brown and white markings serve as excellent camouflage, and it's not unusual for giraffes to materialize out of the bush just a few feet away. There are nine subspecies found across sub-Saharan Africa, all of which boast blue tongues, stubby horn-like protrusions on their heads, and of course, outrageously long necks. To drink without losing consciousness, the giraffe's neck contains unique veins and valves that regulate the flow of blood to its head. 

Best Places to See Giraffes: Spot large herds of Masai giraffe in the Serengeti, or head to Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda to see the endangered Rothschild's giraffe. 

The elusive  African leopard  is a subspecies of leopard found only in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite its wide range, leopards are among the most difficult of all safari animals to see, as they are both nocturnal and exceptionally wary of humans. Leopards use trees as observation platforms and for protection, and that is where they are most often spotted during daylight hours. They are solitary animals with exceptional predatory skills, including the ability to climb, swim, and drag prey weighing up to three times their body weight up into the trees. Leopards are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. 

Best Places to See Leopards: South Africa's Sabi Sands Game Reserve and South Luangwa National Park in Zambia are famous for leopard sightings. 

White Rhino

Thomas Halle/ Getty Images

The easiest way to tell Africa's two rhino species apart is by the shape of their bottom lip: wide and square for white rhinos and pointed for black rhinos. The name "white" rhino comes from a mistranslation of the Dutch word for "wide." Although the survival of both species is threatened by widespread poaching, white rhinos are more numerous and therefore easier to spot, especially in Southern Africa, where they prefer grassland and savanna habitats. White rhinos are the largest of five extant rhino species. Adult males averaging around 5,100 pounds are also one of the world's heaviest land mammals.

Best Places to See White Rhinos: Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park and Kruger National Park in South Africa offer a good chance of spotting white rhinos.

Black Rhino

Manuel ROMARIS/Getty Images

Once found across Southern and East Africa, the black rhino is now considered critically endangered, with fewer than 5,000 individuals left in the wild and three subspecies already classified as extinct. Adult black rhinos have no natural predators, and their population collapse is predominantly due to poaching. They are killed for their horns, made of keratin, and exported to Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Unlike white rhinos, which can sometimes be seen living in herds, black rhinos are generally solitary (although the bond between mother and calf is strong). They favor thick scrub and bushland.

Best Places to See Black Rhinos: Etosha National Park in Namibia is a rhino conservation success story with a thriving black rhino population. Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy is another renowned sanctuary for black rhinos.

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

The cheetah is the most slender of Africa's big cats, a magnificent animal known for its incredible speed. They are capable of short bursts of up to 70 miles per hour, making them the world's fastest land animal. However, cheetahs often have their kills stolen by other, more powerful predators despite their speed. They are a vulnerable species with only around 7,100 individuals left in the wild, including a tiny population of approximately 40 individuals in Iran. Cheetahs are found throughout Southern and East Africa in wide-open spaces that allow them to reach their top speed while pursuing prey. 

Best Places to See Cheetahs: The Maasai Mara National Reserve provides the ideal habitat for cheetahs. Alternatively, track rehabilitated cheetah on foot at  Okonjima Game Reserve in Namibia. 

African buffalo have a robust build and distinctive fused horns. They are grazers, typically moving in herds, with no natural predators except lions and crocodiles. Unlike other species of wild buffalo, the African buffalo has never been successfully tamed, thanks to its naturally aggressive and unpredictable nature. Although seeing a buffalo herd ranging across the savanna is undoubtedly an unforgettable sight, it's crucial to treat these animals with respect. They are responsible for multiple human fatalities every year and are considered one of the continent's most dangerous species. 

Best Places to See Buffalo: Katavi National Park in Tanzania is famous for its enormous buffalo herds. Chobe National Park is another good bet. 

Hippopotamus

Hippos are a common sight in Southern and East Africa's rivers, swamps, and lakes. Often found in groups of up to 100 individuals, hippos spend most of their life in water, only leaving their aquatic homes to graze on the riverbanks at dusk. They have several fascinating adaptations, including webbed feet, large canine tusks, and the ability to secrete a kind of natural sunscreen. Male hippos are territorial and, like buffalo, can be exceptionally aggressive when provoked. Similarly, take care never to get between a hippo mother and her calf. 

Best Places to See Hippos:  Zambia's  Luangwa Valley  is home to the world's largest concentration of hippos. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is also full of them. 

Nile Crocodile

After the saltwater crocodile, Nile crocodiles are the world's largest living reptile, with the biggest on record exceeding 20 feet in length. In sub-Saharan Africa, they are found in various aquatic habitats, including lakes, rivers, and deltas. Crocodiles are well camouflaged in the water and are most often spotted sunning themselves on the riverbank. They have been around for millions of years, and with heavily armored skin and powerful jaws, they certainly look prehistoric. Nile crocodiles are perfect predators, employing ambush tactics to take their prey unawares. 

Best Place to See Crocodiles: Watch herds of wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara River during East Africa's annual migration to see Nile crocodiles in action. 

There are three species of zebra in Africa; the plains zebra most commonly seen throughout East and Southern Africa , and the rarer mountain and Grévy's zebras. Although they may look like domestic horses, zebras are almost impossible to tame; their distinctive stripe patterns are unique to each individual as a human's fingerprints. Zebras live on grass, and in some areas, form great migratory herds to seek out the best grazing grounds. They often create a mutually beneficial relationship with another African species during the migration, the wildebeest . 

Best Places to See Zebra: For sheer numbers, you can't beat the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara during migration season. To see the endangered Grévy's zebra, head to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya. 

Thomas Retterath/Getty Images

Easily recognizable by their tan, black, and white fur, African wild dogs are the largest (and one of the rarest) canids in Africa. They are highly social animals, living in packs led by an alpha male and female and communicating with a series of high-pitched twittering sounds. Wild dogs hunt as a team, chasing their prey until it collapses from exhaustion. Unlike other social carnivores, weaned pups are allowed to eat first at the kill to give them the best chance of survival. Nevertheless, African wild dogs are endangered, with populations declining due to habitat fragmentation, human conflict, and diseases spread by domestic dogs.

Best Places to See Wild Dogs: Top destinations for spotting wild dogs include Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa, and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

The most common large carnivore on the African continent, the Hyaenidae family comprises four species of hyena: spotted, brown, striped, and aardwolf. Though their mighty jaws and strong digestive tract are ideally suited for scavenging, hyenas only feed on carrion and other refuse for 30 percent of their meals; for the other 70 percent, they prey on animals of all different sizes and shapes, including wildebeest, antelope, birds, and snakes. Hyena clans can consist of up to 100 members, and individuals will communicate with each other through wailing, screaming, and "laughing." Hyenas (particularly spotted) live in a range of habitats throughout sub-Saharan Africa, from savannas and grasslands to subdeserts and mountains.

Best Places to See Hyena: You can find hyenas in many national parks in Africa, including Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Namibia's Cape Cross Seal Reserve , and Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. For your best chance at seeing them, plan to sign up for a night safari.

This antelope species can be subdivided into the greater kudu and the lesser kudu subspecies, both of which can be identified by their white vertical stripes, spots, and chevron pattern between their eyes. Greater kudus are most prevalent throughout southern Africa's lowland Bushveld but can also be found throughout East Africa—particularly Kenya and the Horn of Africa region; similarly, lesser kudus tend to prefer the dense thornbush around East Africa. Males, characterized by elongated horns that can grow up to 6 feet in length, can typically be seen alone or with other bachelors, though you may find them with females during mating season. On the other hand, female kudus live in small herds with their offspring.

Best Places to See Kudu: Greater kudus are best seen in Kenya's Tsavo National Park and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Warthogs thrive in savanna woodland, grasslands, and marshes, taking up natural burrows and abandoned aardvark holes. With the use of their strong neck muscles and padded knees, warthogs will spend the day foraging for food, digging through soil to uncover tubers, roots, berries, and grass. Sows can be found in matriarchal groups comprising up to 40 female warthogs and piglets, while boars prefer to live alone or with other bachelors.

Best Places to See Warthog: Warthogs live all over sub-Saharan Africa but are most common in the eastern and southern parts of the continent. If you want to spot them on safari, consider planning a trip to Kruger National Park , Masai Mara , or South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

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Africa Freak

Why are they called the big 5 animals & other FAQs

Mosaic of the big five safari animals

The “Big Five” is probably the most popular phrase in the African safari jargon.

More often than not, the first thing a safari newbie will tell you is: “I want to see the big five animals”. Almost as if it was the only thing “worthwhile” in the bush.

Or people will return from a safari saying, “I saw the big five”.

While this is the most popular term in the safari industry, it has a bitter history and makes the African savannah seem a very simple place.

So what makes them so “special”? And are they even the biggest?

In Africa, the big five safari animals are magnificent sightings . There are many fascinating things to know about these mighty mammals, so let’s find out more below.

What Are the Big Five Animals?

Male white rhino in evening light

Can you name the big five animals?

The big five are the African elephant ( Loxodonta africana ), the African buffalo (also known as the Cape buffalo; Syncerus caffer ), the rhinoceros (Black rhino = Diceros bicornis ; White rhino = Ceratotherium simum ), the lion ( Panthera leo ), and the elusive leopard ( Panthera pardus ).

And no : they’re not defined as “big” because of their size. Otherwise, creatures such as the hippopotamus or super-tall giraffe would have made it on the list.

Why Are They Called the Big Five?

Historically, the big five got their fame because they were the most sought-after hunting trophies . And not just because their heads appeared most impressive after a visit to the taxidermist.

Simply put, the big five were the most dangerous African animals to hunt on foot . They’re very difficult to maneuver around and are highly unpredictable.

Most importantly, these five are the only animals that charge and fight back against guns .

So, as colonialists and aristocrats went around Africa with their gangs of servants, killing all five became the ultimate African hunting experience (even though the servants got killed first when an animal charged).

Why is There Still a Big Five Today?

Lone elephant in the savanna in Tanzania

Many people don’t know about that history. They just hear the words safari and big five. Today, people idolize the term as much as ever , just for different reasons. Put simply, the big five sell safaris .

The term is extensively used in safari promotions and marketing . Expressions such as “Big 5 country” or “Home to the Big 5” have become common practices to attract tourists.

As the number of private game reserves has increased in the last 20 years, they are using the big five more and more.

It’s gotten to such an extent that people tend to ONLY want to see the Big 5 while often neglecting Mother Nature’s other hidden treasures.

It’s a pity as there’s far more beyond the big five animals to appreciate on a safari.

How the Big Five Simplifies the Safari Experience

If it’s your first safari, then it’s difficult to escape the desire to tick these five animals off your list . Almost everyone wants to say they went to Africa and saw the big five.

But what does that actually mean? That you get a glimpse of a leopard or rhino from 50 meters away?

Almost all private game reserves claim to have the big five. However, they might only have two elephants, one rhino, one lion pride, a leopard that is never seen, and a small buffalo herd.

In fact, that’s a pretty common scenario, especially for fenced private game reserves in South Africa .

In comparison, most of Africa’s BEST safari destinations DO NOT have the big five .  

Chobe National Park has 100 000 elephants but no rhinos.

You can generally spot four of the five in Serengeti National Park or Masai Mara  (black rhinos are seldom seen), but there are over 1 million wildebeest and zebras .

The Okavango Delta doesn’t have them all, nor does Samburu , Tarangire National Park or South Luangwa , Hwange , and many of Africa’s best safari destinations .

Thinking Beyond the African Big Five Animals

Spotted hyena walking through shallow water, with flamingos in the background

The best safari experiences aren’t planned . If you are only interested in five animals, then you’ll miss out on most of what makes Africa so special.

Safaris are about surprises . Intimate moments witnessed just by you, scenes of both drama and charm that carry you away.

You can see a cheetah chasing an impala across the savannah, loved-up zebra couples grooming each other, or lions meeting hippos at a waterhole.

You can capture the big five in photos. But the best part of a big five safari will be your personal moments with the animal kingdom.

That’s not a distant glimpse of a sleeping cat but coming face to face with thousands of wildebeest .

Seeing a rhino in the distance may sound exciting to some, yet it’s nothing compared to following spotted hyenas or wild dogs on a hunt.

Characteristics of the Big Five Animals

Now that you know which animals form the big five, let’s have a look at some fun facts and characteristics of each.

The African elephant

African elephant in fading light, Amboseli

The African elephant is one of the most beautiful animals on Earth. It is also the largest land mammal on the planet , reaching weights of up to 6000 kg and heights of up to three meters.

Yet, the elephant is a fast runner . In fact, it is speedy enough to outrun most people ( > 40 km/h at full charge). Unless you’re Usain Bolt, of course. 🙂

African elephants are incredibly intelligent creatures and have amazing memory capabilities. These large creatures tend to stay together in matriarchal groups , consisting of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and aunts.

Above that, they have an average lifespan of 70 years , so their great memory is quite necessary.

They are unmistakable with their imposing long “nose” (trunk), enlarged ears, and their precious “jewels” (tusks), which can grow up to around 2.5 meters. Regrettably, their tusks are often poached as trophies.

Did you notice they had ears in the shape of the African continent?

A fun fact about these giant mammals is that they have the ability to communicate over long distances at a low frequency, not audible to humans.

The best part is that they don’t use their big floppy ears for this communication, but rather their feet !

The African buffalo

Lone African buffalo bull in marshy area, surrounded by yellow-billed storks

This is the most dangerous of them all, extremely feared by hunters. Cape buffaloes live in herds, but you’ll occasionally come across a solitary bull.

When on its own, the bull can be extremely aggressive when approached. They’re better left alone.

The African buffalo can weigh up to 1000 kg and is one of Simba’s favorite steaks!

Yet, they won’t go down without putting up a fight. Buffaloes protect and try to rescue another member of the herd if a lion catches them. They’re even known to murder a lion that’s killed a group member.

The rhinoceros

Rare black rhinoceros in Etosha, Namibia

There are two types of rhinos in Africa: the black rhino with its distinctive prehensile lip (which makes it a browser), and the white rhino (not white at all), a typical grazer.

You’re probably wondering why it’s called a white rhino despite being gray or yellowish brown. The white rhino’s name comes from the Dutch word “wijd” — which means wide .

People used this word to describe the rhino’s squared lip . The word has nothing to do with its color. The black rhino, in contrast, has a more pointed upper lip.

Rhinos are also heavy creatures, weighing between 1000 kg (for the black species) and up to 2000 kg (white rhino). As with elephants, rhinos are widely poached for their horn — which can grow up to 1.5 meters long.

Hunters and poachers take their horns away as trophies — to make knife handles, for instance — or are sometimes used in powders (as an “aphrodisiac”).

In certain Asian cultures, people believe that rhino horn has various medicinal purposes , though this is completely false.

Their highly sought-after horns, unfortunately, make them the most endangered members of the African big five.

With poachers continuously employing more advanced methods to hunt these horns, it is very rare for a rhino to survive outside the safety of nature reserves and national parks .

Huge male lion portrait, in black and white

This is Africa’s “King of the Jungle”. An animal of rare beauty, undoubtedly the most famous of them all.

The lion is a skillful hunter with incredible power and speed. Its eyesight is like no other, and it also has excellent hearing and a great sense of smell.

They’re apex predators and can hunt animals much larger than them. These include giraffes, impala, zebra, and the blue wildebeest .

Male lions are very recognizable with their long and imposing mane. Typically, a darker mane means that the male lion is older.

Lions are also highly social animals . In the pride, male lions eat first, yet it is the females that do “most” (if not all) the chasing and hunting.

Once the male has satisfied its appetite, the lionesses join the feast, while lion cubs have to content themselves with any leftovers.

The leopard

African leopard resting on a tree

My personal favorite.

There are several interesting facts about leopards . Did you know that not a single leopard spot is exactly the same?

In fact, many biologists use the spot patterns on their face and neck to distinguish them from one another. To be honest, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Well, perhaps I’d need a LOT of practice!

While on a safari, the leopard is always my top animal on the checklist. It has all the characteristics I love: it is graceful , an expert climber , and has extraordinary hunting capabilities .

They use their strong climbing abilities to drag prey into the trees, away from lions and hyenas. But they’re not only experts with trees. Occasionally, leopards will even swim and hunt small prey like fish or crabs.

In contrast with the lion, the leopard is very solitary and shy — and they’re nocturnal animals . This makes it even more rewarding and lucky if you “spot” them during the day.

They’re an absolute treat for the eyes.

Big 5 Africa: Video

Practical Tips for Choosing a Safari Destination (With or Without the Big Five)

There is no denying that the hunter’s relic is a marketer’s masterpiece . Alternative catchphrases don’t spring to mind. So while the big five is an outdated concept in one sense, it remains essential to the African safari industry.

When choosing a safari destination, our recommendation is to evoke the origins of the word “safari” instead. This is a Swahili word meaning “long journey” .

A long journey implies something unpredictable , moving the expectation away from five animals to a personal experience in the wild. After all, who wants the same five photos as everybody else?

By viewing a safari as a journey — rather than a “hunt” to see the big five — you can celebrate the individuality of the experience and destination.

You’ll make an African safari a subjective experience rather than an objective fact.

When you’re researching destinations, here are some considerations to make.

  • Read reviews : Especially of private game reserves, as this will give you a good idea of what you’re actually likely to spot.
  • Look at what makes the reserve or park unique : Rather than checking if it has the same standard five sights, see what other animals are unique to that region or park.
  • Look up the size of the park : Larger wilderness areas usually have more diverse habitats and can sustain both greater numbers and greater diversity of wildlife. The more variety and animals in the park, the higher your chance of seeing the big five and more wondrous animals.
  • Check whether it is a fenced park : Most national parks are not, but small, private game reserves need fences to stop the only rhino or elephant from leaving.
  • Consider the quantity of wildlife : Encountering two elephants is beautiful but pretty standard in Africa. Seeing more than 200 on a single game drive is mind-blowing.

Looking Beyond the Big 5 African Animals

Springbok in golden sunset, Africa

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of why this group of mighty animals is called the big five.

And, with some big five animal facts out of the way, you can move on to exploring more of the wondrous species in the African wilderness.

Other excellent wild animals to look forward to on your African safari include the striped zebra , the semiaquatic hippo , the leaping springbok , and so much more.

They’re equally as fascinating as the coveted Big 5, and you should not overlook them simply because they don’t form part of this commercialized term.

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SafarisAfricana

The Big Five South Africa

The best places to see the big 5 in south africa.

Looking for where to see the big five in South Africa ? Then read on below, where we’ve asked travel experts and bloggers from around the world to share their tips on the best places in South Africa to spot the big five animals.

South Africa offers a fantastically accessible way to see some great wildlife in a country that’s tourist-friendly and great value. Not only that, but there are plenty of national parks and private game reserves that are home to the big five, meaning you can see them all on one safari – or, if you’re exceptionally lucky, on just one game drive !

Not sure what the big five animals are? The short story is that the African Elephant , Cape Buffalo ,  Leopard , Lion , and Rhinoceros were named ‘the big five’ by hunters, as they were considered the most difficult and dangerous African beasts to kill whilst hunting on foot. Find out all about the big five animals here .

So below we list the nine best places in South Africa to see the big five animals. If you’ve been on safari in South Africa and seen the big five we’d love to hear from you – leave us a comment and let us know where you went and what you saw!

Jump to section: Addo Elephant Park | Aquila Game Reserve |  Klaserie Private Nature Reserve | Kruger National Park | Madikwe Game Reserve  | Pilanesberg National Park | | Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve  | Pumba Private Game Reserve  |  Samara Private Game Reserve | Sabi Sands Game Reserve |  Timbavati Game Reserve | Map

Addo Elephant Park

Eastern cape.

Contributed Péricles Rosa from by 7 Continents 1 Passport

If you’re looking for the best places to see the big five in South Africa, you can’t miss Addo!

Addo Elephant Park is the third-largest national park in South Africa and the world’s first “Big 7” conservation area , home to the traditional Big 5, and also the great white shark and southern right whale.

Located in a malaria-free safari area 40km from the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the park is a sanctuary for a multitude of wildlife, including more than 600 elephants, 400 Cape buffaloes, black rhinos, lions, spotted hyenas, leopards, zebras, 400 species of birds, a great variety of antelopes and the unique flightless dung beetle .

Addo has a 64 km road network with two tarred big loops and other small gravel roads; a main camp featuring a swimming pool (only for overnight visitors), restaurant, gift shop, picnic area, and a wide range of accommodation options.

I visited Addo in the beginning of September 2018, while traveling along the Garden Route , and loved it.

The greatest thing about Addo is that you can get very close to the animals. We drove near zebras and elephants without disturbing them. In fact, more than once we were completely surrounded by many elephants of all sizes and ages.

I didn’t see lions, but I spotted herds of kudus , red hartebeest (a first for me), warthogs, dung beetles, a cape buffalo , and even a black-backed jackal and caracal .

Addo not only provides guided game drives , but also hop-on guides (guiding services for visitors in the comfort of your own vehicles). Advanced booking is required.

Don’t forget to bring along binoculars, cameras and wildlife reference books.

elephant on road at addo elephant park

Elephant takes a stroll at Addo

Aquila Private Game Reserve

Western cape.

Contributed by Manpreet,   HelloManpreet.com

Approximately 2 hours drive outside of Cape Town, is the Aquila Private Game Reserve. We recommend hiring a car for the day and the drive from Cape Town is stunning and you’ll get a moment to stop and take photos of baboons that frequently side along the highway railings.

The game reserve does also have a hotel pick up bus service, but it’s fairly expensive compared to car rental.

The game reserve itself boasts a lovely hotel and spa for overnight visitors, and for those doing full or half-day safaris, buffet meals are provided before the safari.

We were staying at the infamous Taj Hotel in Cape Town and had booked Aquila for a half-day safari. Starting at about 12 pm and finishing at 3 pm. Be sure to take some swimming gear as the outdoor pool is accessible for all visitors before and after the safari with a beautiful view of the game reserve.

You will absolutely love the tour guides who take you around the reserve, they get just as excited to see the animals as you would on your first trip.

Amazingly, the reserve provides training to other reserves around South Africa in ways to protect Rhinos from poachers.

Aquila hosts the Big 5, the lion, rhino, leopard, elephants, and the buffalo. These five were on the brink of going extinct in the Western Cape and the original founders of Aquila wanted to set out finding land to provide these 5 to continue to live on in this part of the world.

elephant at aquila - big five in south africa!

One of the big five at Aquila

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Kwa zulu natal.

Contributed by Erin Mushaway at SolSalute

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the oldest game reserve in South Africa, founded with the goal to conserving and repopulating Africa’s rhinos. It’s not only possible to see all of the Big 5 here, but it is the best place in South Africa to see rhinos. Don’t miss a visit to the Centenary Capture Centre to learn about their conservation work.

While home to all Big 5, cats can be difficult to see here. However, if you do spot you may be rewarded with a rare sighting of lions lounging in the trees. In the heat of the summer, the lions  are known to climb trees in search of relief from the humid hot days.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is near South Africa’s eastern coast in Kwa-Zulu Natal. While it deserves at least two or three days to explore in-depth, it’s a very easy day trip from nearby St. Lucia. A number of tour operators offer guided game drives departing from this beachside town near South Africa’s wetlands.

If you do decide to stay within the park and dedicate the time it deserves, there are two lodgings within the park to choose from. Hilltop in Hluhluwe is more comfortable, with a restaurant, larger curios shop, and even Wi-Fi. We stayed at Mpila in Imfolozi, which is a bit more rustic and only offers self-catering. However, enjoying our dinner on our tent’s deck while a hyena paced back and forth next to us was a priceless experience.

Rhino at Hluhluwe Imfolozi

Rhinos enjoying a mud bath at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi

Klaserie Private Nature Reserve

Greater kruger area, limpopo.

Contributed by Anna, Would Be Traveller

Klaserie Private Nature Reserve covers 60,000 hectares and forms part of the greater Kruger National Park. That means the Big 5 are free to roam in and out of the reserve’s land as they please. You’ll find everything from buffalo, elephants, and rhino to lions and leopards (as long as they’re not hiding!) But what makes Klaserie extra special, is the opportunity to see rare species including African painted dogs and cheetah too.

Klaserie is 40km to the east of Hoedspruit, making it an easy addition to any  2 week South Africa itinerary . The landscape is beautiful, with open plains, forests, and plenty of waterholes and the Klaserie River, from which it’s easy to spot animals drinking.

As a private nature reserve, only a certain number of cars are allowed on the land at any one time. You can, therefore, enjoy your safari in relative peace and quiet, which makes for intimate sightings and reduces the impact on animals.

The accommodation on offer is wonderful. You can choose between authentic camps and luxury lodges, including Africa on Foot, which specialises in walking safaris, and nThambo Tree Camp, which boasts canvas-walled tents perched on stilts, giving you beautiful views as you rest.

rhino eating grass at Klaserie Private Nature Reserve

Sighting of a browsing rhino

Kruger National Park

Limpopo and mpumalanga.

Contributed by Nicole from Nicole LaBarge Travel Blog

Kruger National Park is one of the most popular safari parks and the best place to see the big five in South Africa.  Kruger is located five hours east of Johannesburg and is the most exciting African safari destination.

Kruger has a high density of wild animals and is one of the best places to see the Big 5 – lions, rhinos, elephants, buffaloes, and the elusive leopard.  We were able to see a leopard up in a tree with its kill.  Leopards often eat their kill up a tree otherwise it may lose the meal to another animal such as a hyena.  It has even been documented that a leopard has lifted prey twice its size up into a tree.

We spent a lot of time watching this leopard in the tree and even though we were close, I was still using my  binoculars  to look at the leopard and watch it.  Whilst it is great when you can see the wildlife up close, binoculars can really help with spotting animals that are farther away.  They can really improve your African wildlife experience.

We stayed in Nelspruit near Kruger instead of staying inside the park.  Nelspruit is mainly famous due to its proximity to Kruger National Park but it is also a great city to visit on its own.  From the botanical gardens to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee center you will find plenty to do there.

Leopard lying in tree at Kruger

A stunning leopard relaxing at Kruger National Park

Madikwe Game Reserve

North west province.

Contributed by Cameron, The World Pursuit Madikwe is a tremendous private game reserve that provides all visitors a truly unforgettable safari. While many think of going to Kruger, Madikwe is the far less crowded option with just as good of game viewing. Madikwe Game Reserve is the fifth largest game reserve in South Africa and a big five reserve. The game reserve has nearly 60 species of mammals and a population of over 10,000!

One just one game drive it’s possible to see a lion, hyena, elephant, rhino, leopard, and everything in between. Being here truly feels like being out in the wild. There are no paved roads and nothing touristy feeling about Madikwe Game Reserve unlike some other parks in South Africa. The big draw of Madikwe is all the incredible wildlife you can see on the reserve. You can expect to find all of the classic safari animals such plus some you may have never heard of. The best part is it’s only a four-hour drive away from Johannesburg in the northern part of South Africa. Making it easy to get to from the city.

A great place to stay is Jaci’s Lodge and Jaci’s Tree Lodge. It’s an amazing lodge and we could not think of a better place to go on safari. It’s romantic and the perfect place for an  African safari honeymoon  as well.

Madiwke game drive with elephants

Elephant encounter on a Madikwe game drive

Pilanesberg National Park

Contributed by Mariza, Hoponworld

Located less than 3 hours drive from Joburg, Pilanesberg Nature Reserve is a tranquil escape from the bustling streets of urban life and one of the best places in South Africa to spot the Big 5.

Set in a volcanic crater formed more than 1.2 billion years ago, Pilanesberg boasts a fascinating and varied landscape full of plant and animal life. With more than 7000 animal species and well over 300 birdlife, it’s not surprising that Pilanesberg is a must-visit place in South Africa . Besides getting a closer look at the diverse ecological riches, there is, of course, also a chance to see rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and lions roaming in the African bush.

Self-driving is a fun way to explore the reserve, but joining a guided safari tour is an excellent alternative if you’d rather sit back and enjoy the views. Of course, if you’re looking for a unique experience, consider taking a hot air balloon ride to admire the stunning scenery from above!

It is possible to explore the Pilanesberg on a day trip, but staying a bit longer is highly encouraged. There’s no shortage of accommodation options catering to all kinds of budgets and preferences within the reserve. These range from safari tents to luxury lodges and everything in between!

Oh, and travel tip — You’ll need to pay an entrance fee to access Pilanesberg, but it will be totally worth it! (South African residents: ZAR80 per adult, International travelers: ZAR110 per adult, Vehicle: ZAR40).

african buffalo

A lone, mean buffalo at Pilanesberg.

Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve

Contributed by Paula, Paula Pins The Planet

It is a blessing to see the big 5, something most people only dream about. While your safaris in South Africa would be far from incomplete without seeing all 5, it can be very challenging to see some of these elusive magnificent animals. One way to guarantee to see as many animals as possible is to visit a Private Game Reserve. You may think this is cheating, but far from it. This isn’t a zoo or a fenced area for hunters. The Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve is a safe, protected home for Africa’s big 5 and many other animals. A guided tour can get you up close to many animals and explanations of the species, their habits and their life in the wild.

Your tour at Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve will start at the lodge with an introduction to your expert guide (who answers all of your questions). You can choose a 2-hour game drive or a 2-hour horseback safari. You’ll be amazed at how many animals you will encounter throughout your 2-hour adventure, and how much you will learn about them. The cats are kept in a separate area from the rest of the animals, for obvious reasons, but the remaining animals have free roam of the reserve, mixing, mingling, congregating, and grazing.

You will be able to see the big 5, giraffes, zebras, hippos, antelopes, wildebeest, and maybe even a honey badger ! One of the best aspects of visiting the Reserve is how much you will learn from the friendly and knowledgeable guides. These people know and love the animals and their passion for preservation is wonderful.

The Reserve is in Plettenberg Bay, on the Garden Route in the Western Cape Provence. You can stay in the lodge, or easily find accommodations in the town.

plettenberg bay game reserve

Two lions on a Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve safari drive

Pumba Private Game Reserve

Contributed by Claire, Stoked to Travel

Pumba Private Game Reserve is located in the Eastern Cape, just 20 minutes from Grahamstown and 1h20 from Port Elizabeth, which is also the nearest place to fly into.

As with other private game reserves in South Africa, you’re less likely to see herds or packs of animals but instead, you have a higher chance of a closer encounter with one of the Big Five. The unique thing about Pumba is that it is home to only the second-known population of the rare white lion in the whole of Southern Africa! Getting up close to one of these rare lions is a very special feeling, and the guides at Pumba radio each other frequently so you have a pretty high chance of seeing one. On our stay in Pumba, we had a seriously incredible experience – we saw a territorial male golden lion chase a male white lion over the savannah. We were within 100m of the action and at one point, we were racing alongside them in our jeep. A once in a lifetime moment!

Although Pumba makes for an excellent day trip from Port Elizabeth, it’s certainly a special place to stay for a few nights and there is a fantastic luxury 5* lodge with stunning views across the reserve. It also works well to add it on to the end of a  Garden Route itinerary  finishing in Port Elizabeth.

Lion in Pumba

A lion enjoying the shade at Pumba

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Greater kruger area, mpunalanga.

Contributed by Pamela, The Directionally Challenged Traveler

Sabi Sands is one of the most famous private game reserves in South Africa due to its game viewing possibilities. Neighbor to Kruger National Park, the wildlife roams freely between the two in their natural environment. Sabi Sands has a reliable source of water for the animals, so there are always animals to be spotted. Leopards, the most elusive of the Big Five are regularly spotted among the trees in Sabi Sands.

The guides at the lodges are passionate and knowledgeable about the animals and how to track them. One thing that sets Sabi Sands apart is the communication that goes into trying to find the Big Five for each guest. For example, if a ranger spots a leopard on one day, they will let the other rangers know where it was spotted, if it fed or looked hungry, and what direction it was going. This helps the other ranger track the leopard’s movement. Since so many people make the journey to South Africa to see these animals, it’s great to know the staff goes the extra mile to make it happen.

There are over 20 lodges within the Sabi Sands Game Reserve making it easy to find one that fits your style and budget. Staying in the Lion Sands River Lodge provides a view of the Sabie River and the potential for hippopotamuses, water buffalo, and elephants to visit.

Leopard on night safari at Sabi Sands

Leopard spotted on a Sabi Sands night safari

Samara Private Game Reserve

Great karoo, eastern cape.

Contributed by Lauren Melnick, Wanderlust Movement

Samara is a Big 5 luxury private game reserve in the Eastern Cape. Only 2.5 hours from Port Elizabeth, the 67,000 acres of malaria-free wilderness in the Great Karoo is the perfect setting for a unique safari adventure.

Besides the opportunity to see the Big 5, one of Samara’s unique experiences is tracking cheetahs on foot. Your guide will use radio collars to find the big cats , and once it’s safe to get out of the game drive vehicle, you’ll get the chance to follow them from a distance!

It’s the ultimate safari experience for big cat lovers or wildlife photographers who want to capture these incredible creatures in their natural habitat. All game drives include a sundowner and high tea at the Manor.

Travelling to  South Africa for your honeymoon? Book Samara’s Star Bed! You’ll get to curl up with your partner in a remote, secluded location with spectacular views over the mountainous landscape and the Milky Way above.

If sleeping outside is too much for your comfort zone, Samara has two luxurious lodges on the property.

Please note that you can only take part in the Big 5 game drives and the cheetah experience if you are guests at the lodge. The rates per night include a full-board meal plan, two game drives daily and guided bush walks.

two cheetah cubs at Samara

OK, not one of the big 5, but stunning none-the-less! Cheetah at Samara

Thanda Private Game Reserve

Contributed by Daniella from No Hurry To Get Home

Thanda Game Reserve  is one of the best places to go in search of the every-alluring Big Five, especially if you’re up for a more private experience that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in South Africa. Thanda is spread over a 14000-hectare reserve that’s completely privately owned, so you’ll rarely find yourself sharing a wildlife viewing with other cars!

Set just a three-hour drive from Durban, Thanda is one of the best places to spot the Big 5 in the KwaZulu Natal area, especially if you’re keen to go on a safari that’s more on the luxury side. Moreover, Thanda has a deep commitment to wildlife conversation and the Zulu culture, and how they’re both intertwined with one another, so you can expect your game drives to have culturally-immersive aspects as well! Plus, if you’re keen to learn about the reserve’s amazing conservation efforts, you can always join the team in various activities like rhino and cheetah tracking.

There are different types of camps in Thanda Game Reserve, all owned and operated by the reserve itself. If you’re on a budget, you can go for a stay at Thanda Tented Camp, which is an extremely romantic camping experience. If you want something a little bit more luxurious, you can opt to book at Thanda Safari Lodge instead!

elephant at thanda private game reserve

An elephant marches through Thanda

Timbavati Game Reserve

Contributed by sustainable travel bloggers Oksana & Max from Drink Tea & Travel

Located in the Great Kruger Area,  Timbavati Game Reserve  is an excellent place to see the Big Five. Unlike in Kruger National Park, certified jeeps in Timbavati can go off-road and get as close as 6 meters away from the animals and since the low density of lodges and camps in Timbavati ensures that each section of the park is serviced by no more than 3-4 camps and lodges, so there are never more than a few cars at each sighting.

While we were on our safari in Timbavati, not only did we get up close and personal with the Big Five but we also got to see lots of giraffes, zebras, impalas, and wildebeest. As well as unique rare animals, like wild dogs, honey badgers, and a rare white lion.

Formed in the 1950s, the Timbavati Game Reserve is an unfenced privately owned wilderness area on the western boundary of Kruger National Park. This means that animals can travel freely between the areas.

We stayed at Umlani Bushcamp while visiting Timbavati, a comfortable bushcamp built from natural materials in a traditional African style. We can highly recommend them to anyone visiting the area for their commitment to sustainability and social initiatives.

timbavati big five lions

Lions lounging and feeding at Timbavati Game Reserve

South Africa’s best big 5 locations mapped

That’s our list of the best places to see the big five in South Africa. Have you experienced the big five in any of these places? Or have any suggestions of other places to add to the list? Let us know in the comments section below!

Discover more of our wildlife posts…

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Have you seen the big five animals and are are looking for a new wildlife challenge?  For safari aficionados up for ticking all the ‘I’ve seen’ boxes, have you heard about the other groups of 5 animals?

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Africa’s best game reserves

  • Chobe National Park, Botswana
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  • Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
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  • Okavango Delta, Botswana
  • Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

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The Maasai Mara National Reserve

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  • Mara Conservation

The term “Big Five” was traditionally used by big-game hunters to refer to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot in Africa. Now, the term is widely used by safari operators and wildlife enthusiasts to describe the five most iconic and impressive animals of African wildlife. A safari in Maasai Mara offers the greatest opportunity to see all the ‘Big Five’

African Lion (Panthera leo)

lion mara

As the most social of all big cats, the African Lion is a true symbol of Kenyan wildlife. They live in prides, which usually include up to three males, a dozen or so females, and their young. Lions are predators, feeding mostly on large ungulates. In the Maasai Mara, they are often seen lounging during the day or hunting at dusk.

Visiting Maasai Mara offers a fantastic opportunity to witness these majestic creatures in their natural environment. You might observe them resting under a tree, socializing, caring for their cubs, and if you’re fortunate, hunting. These are sights that can leave you with a deep appreciation for the complex social structure and behaviors of lions.

Habitat and Lifestyle

Hunting and diet, reproduction and life cycle, threats and conservation.

In the Maasai Mara, lions are typically found in grasslands, where their tawny color acts as an excellent camouflage. They’re most active during the night or at dawn and dusk – they spend up to 20 hours of the day resting or sleeping! They live in prides, which consist of related females and their cubs, along with a smaller number of males. Solitary males, or coalitions of males, roam and try to take over existing prides by challenging and fighting the resident males.

Lions are apex predators and play a critical role in controlling the population of other animals, particularly large herbivores like wildebeests and zebras, which are their primary prey in the Maasai Mara. Despite their reputation, lions are not the most successful of hunters, as their hunts have a success rate of only around 25-30%. Often, it’s the lionesses who do most of the hunting, working together in teams to corner and take down prey.

Lionesses usually give birth to 1-4 cubs after a gestation period of about 110 days. Cubs are born blind and don’t open their eyes until about a week after birth. Male lions reach maturity at about 3 years of age and often leave the pride to form their own or take over another. The average lifespan of a lion in the wild is around 10-14 years.

Lions in the Maasai Mara, like elsewhere in Africa, face numerous threats. These include habitat loss and fragmentation, conflicts with humans (usually in retaliation for livestock predation), and a reduction in their prey due to hunting by humans. The presence of Maasai Mara National Reserve helps protect these majestic creatures by providing them with a protected area where they can live and hunt.

African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

elephant mara

The African Elephant is the largest land mammal. They have distinct features, such as long tusks, large ears that they use to radiate excess heat, and a trunk with over 40,000 muscles for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, and grabbing. They are generally peaceful herbivores, but can be dangerous when they feel threatened.

Seeing elephants in the Maasai Mara, whether they’re gently grazing, bathing in a waterhole, or moving in a line led by the matriarch, is an unforgettable experience that highlights the importance of conservation efforts.

Habitat & Lifestyle

Social structure & behavior, reproduction & life cycle, threats & conservation.

Elephants in the Maasai Mara can typically be found in the reserve’s grasslands, forests, and wetlands. They live in herds, which are typically matriarchal, led by the oldest and often largest female. The matriarch’s knowledge and memory, particularly about water sources and potential dangers, are crucial for the herd’s survival. Adult males usually live solitary lives or form loose associations with other males.

Elephants are herbivores, consuming up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of food per day. They eat a variety of plant matter, including grass, leaves, bark, roots, and fruits. In Maasai Mara, they have plenty of food sources available, which help sustain their large size.

Elephants are highly social creatures. They communicate through a variety of vocalizations, including low-frequency rumbles that can travel over long distances, as well as physical touch. Young elephants are cared for by their mothers and other females in the herd, and males leave the herd when they reach adolescence.

Female elephants have a gestation period of 22 months, which is the longest of any land animal. When a calf is born, it is cared for by the entire herd. Elephants have a long lifespan, often living into their 60s or 70s in the wild.

African Elephants are under threat from poaching, primarily for their ivory tusks. Additionally, habitat loss due to human activities is a significant concern. The Maasai Mara National Reserve provides a protected habitat where elephants can live and roam freely, but challenges remain, including human-elephant conflicts on the boundaries of the protected areas. Conservation efforts are ongoing, including anti-poaching initiatives and community engagement strategies to protect this magnificent species.

Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Buffalo in Mara

Cape Buffaloes are large, ox-like animals that have a reputation for being dangerous to humans, more so than any other African animal. They are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They are very social and live in large herds, usually around water sources where they can drink daily. Despite their reputation, they are herbivores, feeding primarily on grass.

Viewing these impressive creatures in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, you may get a sense of their strong social bonds and the important role they play in the ecosystem.

Human Interaction

Cape Buffalo thrive in the grasslands, savannah, woodlands, and even the swampy regions of the Maasai Mara. They are one of the most successful grazers in Africa. They are highly social and live in large herds, often in close proximity to water sources as they need to drink daily.

Herds can range from a dozen to hundreds of individuals, typically made up of females, their offspring, and a few males. Larger, dominant males often lead the herd, with hierarchy determined through displays of aggression and fighting. Cape Buffaloes are known for their strong herd instinct and protective nature. If a member is under threat, the entire herd will rush to defend it.

Cape Buffaloes are herbivores, primarily grazing on grass, but they also browse on shrubs when grass is scarce. They tend to feed mostly in the early morning and late afternoon.

The mating season doesn’t have a fixed time and can occur at any time of the year. After a gestation period of about 11.5 months, a single calf is born. The calf stays with its mother within the herd for the first year. The life expectancy of Cape Buffaloes is around 20 years in the wild.

Despite their size and formidable reputation, Cape Buffaloes face threats from habitat loss and diseases like bovine tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth disease. Predation is another threat, especially for young or sick individuals, with lions and large crocodiles being the main predators.

Although they might appear docile, Cape Buffaloes are often considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa to humans, particularly if a person comes between a mother and her calf or encounters a wounded or solitary individual.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus)

leopard2 mara

Leopards are renowned for their agility and strength. They are solitary, nocturnal creatures that prefer to live and hunt in dense bush where their camouflaged coat helps them to blend in. They are known for their ability to climb trees, where they often hoist their kills. In Maasai Mara, you might see them during the early morning or at dusk when they’re most active.

Seeing a leopard in the wild, especially in Maasai Mara, can be an extraordinary experience due to their elusive nature. The opportunity to watch a leopard moving stealthily, or lounging on a tree branch, offers a glimpse into the life of one of Africa’s most magnificent and graceful big cats.

Hunting & Diet

Leopards are highly adaptable and inhabit a wide range of habitats within the Maasai Mara, including grasslands, woodlands, and riverine forests. Their spotted coat provides excellent camouflage, helping them blend into their surroundings while hunting and while resting in trees. They’re generally nocturnal and spend much of the day resting.

Leopards are skilled hunters, and their diet is wide-ranging. They’re capable of taking down prey much larger than themselves, but they’ll also eat smaller fare like birds, rodents, and even insects. Leopards are known for their ability to climb trees, which they often use to store their kills away from scavengers and other predators.

Leopards are solitary animals, with males and females primarily coming together to mate. They are territorial and mark their territory with urine and claw marks on trees. Each leopard has its home range, which overlaps with the ranges of neighboring leopards, especially the opposite sex.

Female leopards give birth to a litter of 2-3 cubs after a gestation period of about 90-105 days. Cubs stay with their mothers for about 18-24 months, learning critical hunting and survival skills. The average life span of a leopard is 12–17 years.

Leopards face threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict, and illegal wildlife trade, including poaching for their beautiful coats and other body parts. Efforts are underway to conserve their population and protect their habitats. Maasai Mara provides a protected habitat where these beautiful creatures can thrive.

rhino2 mara

Specifically, the Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) can be found in Kenya. They are smaller than the White Rhinoceros but are actually more aggressive. They have two horns and are known for their pointed, prehensile upper lip, which they use for feeding on leaves from trees and shrubs. Black rhinos are critically endangered due to poaching for their horns, and seeing them can be a rare and unforgettable experience.

Spotting a Black Rhino in the Maasai Mara is a privileged experience. Their presence in this protected area is a testament to the ongoing conservation efforts aimed at saving this unique and irreplaceable creature from extinction.

Black Rhinoceroses are usually found in several habitats, including grasslands, dense forests, and wetlands. They are primarily solitary creatures, with the strongest social bond occurring between a mother and her calf. Black Rhinos in Maasai Mara tend to be elusive and can often be found hiding in thick bush during the day.

Black Rhinos are browsers rather than grazers. They have a pointed, prehensile upper lip that they use for feeding on leaves from trees and shrubs, unlike the white rhinoceros which has a broad lip for grazing.

While they are largely solitary, black rhinos do occasionally form small groups, called crashes, particularly in areas where a number of them come together at a shared resource like a waterhole. Black Rhinos are known to be more aggressive than their white counterparts, and can charge without much provocation.

Female Black Rhinos reach sexual maturity at around 5-7 years, and males a few years later. After a gestation period of approximately 15-16 months, a single calf is usually born, which can follow its mother around just three days after birth. The calf will stay with its mother for 2-3 years until the mother gives birth to another. Their lifespan in the wild is 35-50 years, and in managed care settings extends to 45 years.

Black Rhinos are critically endangered due to poaching for their horns, which are highly prized in certain cultures for their supposed medicinal properties and as a status symbol. There has been considerable effort to protect and conserve the Black Rhino population, including anti-poaching initiatives and stringent monitoring of individuals. In some areas, their horns are proactively removed to make them less attractive to poachers. Despite these efforts, the Black Rhino population remains dangerously low.

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Best Places To See the Big 5 on Safari in Africa

Best Places To See the Big 5 on Safari in Africa

Ariadne is an Africa expert. She and her husband form a team who author many guidebooks to African countries.

Going on safari in Africa has become closely associated with seeing the Big Five. Have you ever wondered what that is all about and where you should go? The term ‘Big Five’ originated in the early days of game hunting. Lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino were the most dangerous animals to hunt and were therefore considered the most valuable trophies. Today, with most visitors armed with cameras, the Big Five are still perhaps the most exciting encounter on a safari. Below are some of the best places to see the Big Five in Africa.

9,555 African Safaris

1. Sabi Sand Game Reserve – South Africa

Leopard portrait at Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa

Spotting the Big Five doesn’t get easier than in Sabi Sand Game Reserve . This cluster of jointly managed private reserves has open borders with Kruger and forms part of the same ecosystem, but animals tend to be more relaxed. Furthermore, unlike in Kruger, guided drives in open vehicles are permitted to head off-road, which makes for fantastic close-up viewing. The real star of Sabi Sands is the leopard. Nowhere else is this usually shy creature so habituated. Most guests are treated to sightings of leopards as they go about their daily routine: a male patrolling or hunting, a female nursing cubs, possibly even a mating pair in action.

  • When to visit Sabi Sands : There is no bad time to visit Sabi Sands, but wildlife viewing is best in the dry winter months from May to September.
  • Where to stay: There are many lodges spread over the different reserves of Sabi Sand. All offer a similar experience inclusive of meals and activities. The standard of decor, service and guiding is superb. There are no camping or budget accommodations in Sabi Sands.

92 Sabi Sands Safaris

2. Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania

Elephant together with a buffalo at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater offers incredible wildlife viewing. Although animals can move in and out of the crater, climbing the steep caldera walls requires some effort, so much of the wildlife is resident inside. This includes a healthy population of black rhino. These shy creatures are rarely seen in East Africa, but the crater is one of the few places where they are easy to find. The other four members of the Big Five are prolific as well, although leopard sightings are hit-and-miss, and less likely inside the crater than on the forested rim. The good news is that these elusive cats are quite common in the Seronera area of Serengeti National Park, the next stop after Ngorongoro on most northern Tanzanian safari itineraries.

  • When to visit Ngorongoro Crater : Wildlife viewing is always good in the crater, but marginally better in the Dry season when the grass is short and animals are easier to spot. The calving season of the wildebeest is from January to February and the best time to avoid the crowds is in the low season months, April and May.
  • Where to stay: Several upmarket lodges are perched on the crater rim offering great views over the crater floor. There is a campsite on the rim as well, but be warned, it gets very cold here at night. Several lodges and hotels in the gateway town of Karatu are also used for visits to the crater. There are no accommodations within the crater, itself.

2,838 Ngorongoro Safaris

3. Masai Mara National Reserve – Kenya

Lion pride with cubs resting at Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya

The Masai Mara is home to all of the Big Five but is most famous for big cats. You’ll be tripping over lions and cheetahs as they are remarkably common, and leopards are regularly seen too. Black rhinos are also present, but unless you’re fortunate enough to stay in the remote Mara Triangle in the far west, your chances of seeing one are slim. However, Lake Nakuru National Park, a popular stop-over en route to the Masai Mara, is home to both black and white rhino (but no elephants). White rhinos are commonly seen in small family groups grazing around the lake, especially from mid-morning and in the late afternoon.

  • When to visit Masai Mara : Wildlife viewing is good throughout the year. To catch the wildebeest migration, you should aim to be here between late August and early October.
  • Where to stay: There is no shortage of accommodations inside and just outside the reserve. All budgets and styles are catered for. There are several campsites as well.

1,366 Masai Mara Safaris

4. Kruger National Park – South Africa

White Rhinos drinking at Kruger National Park, South Africa

Whether you’re on a guided tour or self-driving, Kruger National Park is a great choice for a Big Five safari. The park is the size of a small country, and the wide variety of habitats it protects is reflected by the varied wildlife. Identifying all the different antelope species in Kruger can be an enjoyable challenge. In terms of the Big Five, lion, buffalo and elephant are easily found in southern Kruger, which is also one of the best places to see white rhino. With time on your hands and a bit of luck, you might spot a leopard too. Make sure to be out and about at dawn and dusk to increase your chances of seeing this shy cat which is active at night.

  • When to visit Kruger : Wildlife viewing in Kruger is best from May to September. These are the dry winter months when animals don’t stray far from waterholes and rivers. During the wet summer months, the bush gets very thick and animals are more difficult to spot.
  • Where to stay: Well-equipped, basic rest camps offering campsites and huts can be found throughout Kruger. Several private concessions within the park offer a luxurious and more exclusive alternative.

443 Kruger Safaris

5. Madikwe Game Reserve – South Africa

White rhinoceros in Madikwe Game Reserve

Madikwe is arguably the top African safari pick for those who want a good chance of spotting most of the Big Five in a malaria-free destination. Forged from formerly unproductive ranchland in 1991, this exceptional park protects a 750km² /290mi² tract of semi-arid savannah in North West province, some four to five hours’ drive from Johannesburg. Shortly after being created, it was stocked with 8,000 individual animals comprising 28 species, including all the Big Five. Today, you’re very likely to see lion, elephant and white rhino over the course of a few days in Madikwe, and there’s a fair chance of buffalo and leopard. Madikwe is also known as one of the best places to look for the endangered African wild dog, while other wildlife includes cheetah, giraffe, zebra and a wide variety of antelope. An unusual feature of Madikwe is that it is a state-owned property that functions more like a private reserve insofar as it is closed to self-drive safaris and day visits. 

  • When to visit Madikwe : There is no bad time to visit Madikwe, as the expert guides are good at finding animals at any time of year. However, optimum wildlife viewing is over the dry winter months of May to September, when animals stick close to perennial water sources. 
  • Where to stay: Madikwe is serviced by several small upmarket lodges that specialize in all-inclusive packages with guided game drives taking place in open 4x4s. There are no budget accommodations or camping facilities.

22 Madikwe Safaris

6. Okavango Delta – Botswana

Mokoro trip over the Okavango delta, Botswana

The Okavango is one of Africa’s most iconic wildlife destinations. The Delta is home to all of the Big Five, although rhino (both black and white) can be hard to find; Moremi Game Reserve offers the best chance, or visit Khama Rhino Sanctuary, a half-day’s drive away as an add-on. Buffalo and elephant thrive in the wetlands, and you should see some big cats as well. The most productive activity for spotting typical safari animals, including the Big Five, is a game drive. But you should put aside time to do a guided walk and for exploring the Delta’s channels by mokoro (traditional dugout canoe). Gliding silently through waterlilies, dodging the odd hippo and scanning the shore for animals coming to drink, is an experience that will stay with you long after your trip.

  • When to visit Okavango : The best time for wildlife viewing is from July to October.
  • Where to stay: There are dozens of luxury lodges in the Okavango. Camping is popular too.

261 Okavango Delta Tours

7. Ol Pejeta Conservancy – Kenya

Lion cubs in Ol Pejeta Conservancy

High on the Laikipia Plateau, just north of Kenya’s Central Highlands, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a fine place to see the Big Five just a few hours north of Nairobi. Seeing lions on a guided game drive is always possible, but the conservancy also offers a fine lion-tracking excursion, which really increases your chances. Rhinos are also commonly seen, both roaming free out on the grasslands, and in the enclosures for the last two remaining northern white rhinos on the planet. Leopards inhabit the dense thickets and riverine woodlands, while elephants and buffalo are also common. Some of the nearby private and community conservancies, including Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, are more exclusive, but are also known for their Big Five possibilities.

  • When to visit Ol Pejeta : The June to September Dry season promises the best weather for visiting Ol Pejeta with clear skies and mild temperatures the norm. It’s usually dry from December to February, but hotter and more humid. The best birding is from November to April, when migratory species are present.
  • Where to stay: Ol Pejeta Conservancy has a good range of lodges and tented camps, as well as a campsite for budget travelers. Unlike most other Laikipia conservancies, you don’t need to be staying overnight to visit Ol Pejeta.

90 Ol Pejeta Safaris

8. Akagera National Park – Rwanda

Buffalo at Akagera National Park, Rwanda

While Rwanda is well known for its mountain gorillas, it is also home to the Big Five and many other savannah-dwelling animals. The place to go on a classic safari in Rwanda is Akagera National Park . Wildlife here was heavily depleted by warfare and poaching, but since 2010 it has made an impressive comeback. The reintroduction of black rhinos and lions in 2017, followed by white rhinos in 2021, means that Akagera offers a truly off-the-beaten-track opportunity to see the Big Five in Africa.

  • When to visit Akagera : The Dry season, from June to September, is the best time to visit.
  • Where to stay: There is a luxury tented camp, a seasonal bush camp and a mid-range lodge inside the park. There are also several campsites without facilities available to self-sufficient travelers.

98 Akagera Safaris

9. Murchison Falls National Park – Uganda

Hippos in the Victoria Nile below Murchison Falls, Uganda

Murchison Falls National Park is as much worth visiting for its spectacular scenery as for its wildlife. It is bisected by the Victoria Nile River. A boat trip to the base of the waterfall for which the park is named is not to be missed. The river is home to hundreds of hippos and crocodiles and, in the afternoon, you’re likely to see buffalo and elephants on the shore. Murchison Falls is not a complete Big Five destination as there are no rhinos, but many visitors stop in at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary en route for an exciting rhino tracking experience.

  • When to visit Murchison Falls : December to February is best for general wildlife viewing but be prepared for hot weather at that time.
  • Where to stay: There is a good choice of upmarket and mid-range lodges inside the park and budget accommodations are available just outside. There are several campsites too.

451 Murchison Falls Safaris

10. Phinda Game Reserve – South Africa

Cheetah with cubs at Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa

Phinda is one of South Africa’s top private Big Five game reserves. You have a choice of four stunning accommodations spread out over the reserve’s different habitats: Rock, Mountain, Forest and Vlei (wetland) Lodge. The guiding is superb and you’ll easily see four of the Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo and white rhino) as well as some Zululand specials, such as the graceful nyala and the shy red duiker. Although there are plenty of leopards around, you’d be lucky to see one. As compensation, Phinda’s flagship species is the cheetah and sightings of this graceful big cat tend to be incredible.

  • When to visit Phinda : Phinda’s wildlife viewing is always great but animals are slightly easier to find in the Dry season from May to September.
  • Where to stay: There are four luxury lodges in Phinda.

Phinda Safaris

11. Majete Wildlife Reserve – Malawi

Elephant herd at Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi

Majete Wildlife Reserve is one of Africa’s modern environmental success stories. Prior to 2003, the park was almost completely hunted out. Since then, under the management of African Parks, nearly 5,000 individual animals, including all of the Big Five, have been reintroduced. Elephants have bred so successfully that a surplus of 200 individuals were relocated to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Although sightings require a bit of patience, Majete offers a totally unspoiled experience, far away from the crowds. A ‘behind the scenes’ tour, offering insight into what it takes to run a Big Five reserve, is recommended.

  • When to visit Majete : You can visit anytime, but July to October is best for wildlife viewing.
  • Where to stay: There are two mid-range lodges to choose from (one inside and one just outside the game reserve). Top of the range is an exclusive luxury lodge that operates in its own private concession. Campers are taken care of in a well-equipped community campsite.

Majete Safaris

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5-Day Budget Safari

$1,678 to $1,733 pp (USD)

Tanzania: Private tour Mid-range Lodge & Tented Camp

You Visit: Arusha (Start) , Tarangire NP, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti NP, Lake Manyara NP, Arusha (End)

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big five animals on safari

5-Day Fly-in for Mid-Range Safari in Serengeti & Crater

$2,112 pp (USD)

You Visit: Arusha (Start) , Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Crater, Arusha (End)

Amshar Serengeti Adventures

5.0 /5  –  73 Reviews

big five animals on safari

4-Day Serengeti National Park & Ngorongoro Crater

$1,620 pp (USD)

Tanzania: Private tour Luxury Tented Camp & Hotel

Promised Land Tours

5.0 /5  –  13 Reviews

big five animals on safari

I visited 5 of the best safari parks in Africa. The trip was filled with surprises, and there are a few things I wish I'd known before leaving.

  • I visited five of Kenya's best safari parks to see some of  Africa's most famous animals in the wild.
  • There were many aspects of the safari that surprised me despite the research I did before my trip.
  • I was surprised by many things, including how long I spent sitting in safari cars. 

Seeing some of Africa's most famous animals in the wild has been on my bucket list for years. With adventure travel on the rise, I decided to take the plunge and make the 20+ hour flight to Africa to visit some of Kenya's best safari parks.

Masai Mara is arguably the most famous for big-cat sightings, but Amboseli National Park , Crescent Island Game Sanctuary, Nairobi National Park, and Hell's Gate National Park are also must-see reserves teeming with wildlife.

I did lots of research beforehand but found I was unprepared for many things I experienced while on safari — and there are things I'll definitely do differently the next time I go.

From what I should have worn to what seeing the animals was really like, here's what surprised me most about going on safari in Kenya.

I sat in the safari vehicle for about 8 hours every day

Between a morning and afternoon game drive, I spent about eight hours in the car daily. It was shocking to see the low number of daily steps on my Oura ring.

I started doing yoga at the end of the night to loosen up my hips. My airplane pillow also helped me stay comfortable, especially during the seven-hour drives to other parks.

My shoes were off for most of the drives

In hindsight, I should have worn sandals on my drives. Most safari vehicles have small windows and a top that lifts up, and you're frequently standing on the chairs to get a better view.

We took off our shoes when we got into the car so we were ready to hop up on the chairs at a moment's notice.

I had lots of early mornings and bedtimes.

The best times for safaris are in the mornings and at dusk, and sometimes, we had 4 a.m. start times. The lack of sleep , paired with the heat, made me eager to get to bed early.

I'm not a morning person, but I preferred the early drives for the animal activity (and incredible sunrises) we saw. We used the less-ideal safari hours during the day to nap, do other activities in the area, or drive to other parks.

Many animals can be difficult to spot due to distance or camouflage

We had our fair share of close-up sightings, but many of the animals we wanted to see were far away and sometimes not immediately obvious to the naked eye.

We ditched our iPhones and used binoculars and someone's camera viewfinder to get a closer look.

A pair of binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens are essential for getting the best view (and pictures) possible.

There were long periods of time with minimal animal sightings

Safari drives can be frustrating because you can't control what animals you'll see, how far away they are, and how long the sighting will last. But being patient can be rewarding.

During one dusk drive, we spent three hours searching for a pride of lions without any luck. Finally, as the sun set in the last half hour, we stumbled upon three female lions napping, a leopard, and giraffes.

Many of the animals are sleeping during the day

I expected to see animals moving around or hunting, but many were resting during the day. It was only when dusk approached that they started to slowly stake out a spot by the grazing herds.

If I go on safari again, I'll book a night drive so I can see how the lions and other animals act during their peak hours of activity.

My view was largely out of my control

Whenever a less common animal like a lion or cheetah is spotted, a traffic jam of safari vehicles speed over and line up, vying for the best view.

What you see — and sometimes, if you see anything at all — can depend on your driver and what vantage point they can get.

Your view can also depend on your position in the car. I spent a lot of time scrambling around to catch a sighting (and a photo, if I was lucky).

Prey is plentiful, but seeing any action is unlikely

Gazelles and impalas were everywhere, so it was surprising to learn that the lions might not eat for days.

Our driver told us the best thing he's seen on safari was a cheetah hunting a gazelle, and then a pride of lions swooping in to steal his meal. However, these kinds of sightings are rare.

Predators need to consider everything from the direction the wind is blowing to the length of the grass when trying to sneak up on their prey. Many hunts are unsuccessful, so seeing one in person is unlikely.

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I visited five safari parks in Kenya. Lara Walsh

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A lion emerging from some bushes.

Maasai Mara & beyond: 5 must-see safari parks in Kenya

As a key stop on the Great Migration, the Maasai Mara is one of Africa's biggest draws. But go beyond and you can find quieter parks for budget-friendly ways to spot big cats and more.

Few visitors to Kenya can resist the siren call of its top wildlife-watching area, the Maasai Mara. Its sweeping grasslands ­— blonde and close-cropped in the dry season, green and earthy after rain — stretch for hundreds of miles. Famous for big cats and the drama of the Great Migration, this is the kind of place where a budding interest in all things safari can develop into an addiction.

During the Great Migration, which visits Kenya between July and September, vast herds of wildebeest and zebras hover nervously on the riverbanks, waiting to cross. Their fear is well-placed: crocodiles lurk in the water, ready to snap. For visitors, witnessing such scenes can be life-changing. But with wildlife in residence all year, the Mara is compelling off-season, too. And, as a bonus, once the milling migrants have finally dispersed, prices tend to plummet.

Partly council-managed, partly community-owned, the Mara is several parks in one. While some camps charge a fortune for an all-inclusive, fly-in experience in a private conservancy, affordable alternatives also exist. If you can stretch to a group tour or a rented 4x4 vehicle, with or without a driver, head west to the delightful and relatively crowd-free Mara Triangle. Here, it’s possible to pitch a tent at a public campsite and let the wilderness work its magic.

The villages of Sekenani or Talek also make good-value bases. Located just outside the main reserve, they’re cheap to reach by matatu (public minibus) or shared taxi from Narok, which is on bus routes from the capital Nairobi. The low-cost camps and guesthouses in these villages organise group drives into the reserve. While many of them deliver an excellent experience, there’s an elephant in the room: the Narok side of the Mara is on the brink of overtourism, with some drivers speeding, jostling on the river banks and bending the official rules about crowding predators. The Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association is a good place to find a trustworthy guide who will avoid this practice.

Three people enjoying the sunset in Meru National Park.

Alternatives beyond the Mara

In Kenya’s state-run parks, close-to-nature accommodation comes cheap and shares the same territory as the high-end lodges.

1. Nairo bi Best for: a quick warm-up

No other African capital is as blessed with wilderness as Nairobi; its eponymous national park lies on its doorstep and is also an ecological education and research hub, with an exemplary record in protecting rhinos. You can see giraffes, hyenas and even lions here. The Kenya Wildlife Service has no accommodation in the park, but it’s easy to plan day trips from the many low-cost hotels — either in central Nairobi or out of town.How to do it: Park entry is US$43 (£35) per day. Swara Acacia has half-board doubles from US$94 (£75).

2. Tsavo West Best for: lions

Tsavo West National Park is half way between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya’s deep south, and elephants, leopards and rhinos can be found here. But it’s the lions that everyone wants to see — descendants of maneless males that once terrorised a group of construction workers.How to do it: Park entry is US$52 (£42) per day. Kenya Wildlife Service campsites cost US$20 (£16) per person. Bandas (self-catering cottages) from US$50 (£40) per person.

A lion footprint in the dirt in Meru National Park.

3. Amboseli Best for: elephants

Mount Kilimanjaro looms above the acacia-dotted grasslands of Amboseli, a national park south of Nairobi. Since 1972 the park has been home to the Amboseli Elephant Research Project — the world’s longest-running study of elephant behaviour in the wild. How to do it: Park entry is US$70 (£55) per day. Kenya Wildlife Service campsites cost US$30 (£24) per person. Bandas cost from US$90 (£71) per person.

4. Meru Best for scenery

If you’re keen to get away from the crowds, try Meru. It’s one of the country’s most under-rated national parks, around a five-hour drive northeast of Nairobi. Cooled by gushing streams, it’s a stronghold for hippos and other animals endemic to East Africa such as long-necked gerenuk antelopes.How to do it: Park entry is US$52 (£42) per day. Kenya Wildlife Service campsites cost US$20 (£16) per person. Bandas cost from US$80 (£64) per person.

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5 Of The Biggest Animals To Ever Live On Earth

Earth was once home to giant animals, and some are still around today. here are five of the biggest animals to ever live on earth..

3 Giant hornless rhinos (Paraceratherium)

Scientists are aware of about 1.5 million animal species, but it’s believed that there are almost nine million total — leaving many yet to be discovered. Some are incredibly small, like the bumblebee bat , which is a little over an inch long and weighs less than a penny.

Others are enormous, such as the colossal squid , which weigh over 1,000 pounds and reach lengths of over 45 feet. But, millions of years ago, gigantic animals were much more common than they are today. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest.

 1. Deinosuchus

This ancient alligator ancestor was a monster of a reptile, reaching 35 feet long and up to and weighing between 5,000 and 11,000 pounds. As the largest North American predator at the time, they lived during the Cretaceous Period, more than 75 million years ago. 

Research shows that they preyed on dinosaurs , which isn’t surprising given that the Deinosuchus was twice as heavy as the T. Rex . Scientists believe they could have lived to the age of fifty , growing for the first 35 years of life. Although larger than today’s alligators and crocodiles, the Deinosuchus had a similar appearance to its modern-day relatives.

Read More: 5 Of The Deadliest Animals Around The World

 2. Josephoartigasia Monesi

The capybara is currently the world’s largest rodent and can reach up to 130 pounds. But over three million years ago, the largest rodent to ever live weighed an average of 2,600 pounds. J. monesi lived in estuaries or deltas that were forested in what is modern-day Uruguay. 

Fossil remains revealed large front teeth, which scientists believe were used as a tool , similar to how elephants use their tusks. These incisors would have been useful defending against predators and digging for food. Because their molars were small, it’s believed they ate soft vegetation. And although their teeth weren’t good for chewing tough food, their bite was powerful — three times stronger than a tiger.

Read More: 5 Weird and Wild Animals You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

 3. Megatherium Americanum

During the Pliocene and Pleistocene Epochs lived a humongous sloth that grew to 20 feet long and weighed up to 8,000 pounds. Found in the woodlands and grasslands of South America, these sloths were almost exclusively herbivores, standing on their back legs to reach leaves that were high up. 

And although they mostly survived on vegetation, it’s hypothesized that they were carnivorous when an opportunity presented itself. They belonged to the suborder, Xenarthra — which includes modern day sloths, armadillos and anteaters. However, unlike the sloths of today that use their claws to climb trees, M. americanum used its large claws to dig holes and tunnels in the ground.

Read More: Did Prehistoric Mammals Live With Dinosaurs, and What Were They Like?

 4. Paraceratherium

Over 30 million years ago lived a giant, hornless rhino that weighed more than four modern day elephants — about 30 tons. Though it reached 26 feet long and stood about 18 feet high, Paraceratherium had a small skull. Its long neck and legs allowed it to eat leaves and branches off trees. 

Though it did not have horns like modern-day rinos, Paraceratherium teeth were quite unusual. They had two pairs of incisors, with the lower ones pointing slightly forward and the upper ones leaning downward. It’s theorized that this enabled them to steadily hold branches in their mouth while eating from them. They remain the largest land mammal to ever exist.

Read More: Javan Rhinos: The Race to Save One of Earth's Rarest Large Mammals

 5. Blue Whale

Although all these other giant creatures are extinct, there’s one that still exists. The blue whale is the largest animal to ever live. At almost 100 feet long and up to 200 tons, these animals outsize all others. 

A 2021 study led by ecologist and marine biologist Matthew Savoca found that they can consume between 20 and 50 million calories per day — the equivalent of 30,000 Big Macs. Blue whales feed on small crustaceans called krill. The whales swallow massive amounts of krill in one mouthful — filtering out the water while retaining their prey. It’s a breathtaking sight to see when these majestic animals come to the surface of the water. 

Read More: For the First Time, Scientists Record the Slow Beat of a Blue Whale's Heart

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COMMENTS

  1. The Big Five Animals Of Africa: Big 5 Info, Pics & Quotes ️

    The big five animals of Africa are African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Leopard, Lion and Rhinoceros. Find info, pics and quote about each of the big 5. ... the ultimate thrill is to see all five animals on one safari. It's not easy - not least because even if all five animals are present in an area they can still be very difficult to see ...

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    African Safari Animals: The Big 5, Little 5, Ugly 5 & More! Who are the Big 5 Animals? Africa's Big 5 Animals are Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Rhinoceroses (black and white) and African Buffalo (also known as the Cape Buffalo). Often revered as the 'must-see' animals on any African Safari, the name Big 5 actually has more sinister origins.

  5. What are the Big 5 safari animals of Africa and where to find them?

    The Big Five animals in pictures. The Big 5 safari animals of Africa in one black and white photo collage. The Big Five of Africa by Kim Paffen (kimpaffen.com) Big Five animal facts 1. African Elephant: a gentle giant. The African savanna elephant is the largest land mammal in the world and can reach up to 3 meters in height and can weigh up to ...

  6. Africa's Big Five • Animals To Spot On Safari

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    The Big Five quickly became known as the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot, and the name stuck - although now 'shooting' is done through a camera lens. T T he Lion The lion is arguably the most sought-after of the Big Five because it is synonymous with an African safari.

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    Lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and Cape buffalo—trophy hunters of the 19th century dubbed these African animals the Big Five for their difficulty to vanquish. Modern safari-goers still delight in capturing these charismatic creatures—in photographs and indelible memories. Learn more about these headliners of the African savanna, then ...

  11. Complete Guide to Africa's Big Five (Facts, Tips, and More)

    The five members of the Big Five are the Cape buffalo, the African elephant, the leopard, the lion, and the black rhinoceros. The big five were initially named so for being the five most dangerous and prestigious animals in Africa to hunt on foot but today, they are mostly associated with safaris. This post contains tons of facts and ...

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    The term "Big Five" was originally coined to refer to the animals on African Safaris that were the hardest and most dangerous to sport hunt. These Big Five animals were African elephants, Cape Buffalo, Leopard, Lion and Rhino. They're still considered the African Big 5 today, although thankfully these days it's more in terms of being ...

  13. Africa's Big 5 Animals: Everything You Need To Know

    Updated: Nov 3, 2022. Travelers who are planning to go on a safari in Africa may have come across the term 'Big Five' while doing their research; this refers to five African animal species, namely the Buffalo, Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhino. When selecting where to go on a safari, you will notice that game reserves, or lodges and safari ...

  14. Big five game

    The big five. In Africa, the Big five game animals are the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo. The term was coined by big-game hunters to refer to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot, but is now more widely used by game viewing tourists and safari tour operators. They are examples of charismatic megafauna, featuring prominently in popular culture ...

  15. Where To Find The Big Five, Small Five, Shy Five, And Ugly Five

    The Big Five are the elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino, and I've written about them in more detail here. African Bush Camps. Whilst most people coming to Africa on safari have the Big Five on their radar, the continent has much more than just those majestic five animals to see.

  16. Africa's Top 15 Safari Animals and Where to Find Them

    Although most elephants are peaceful by nature, they can be dangerous if provoked; however, they are far more at risk from humans than we are from them. Best Places to See Elephants: Vast elephant herds roam Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana. Continue to 3 of 15 below. 03 of 15.

  17. Africa's Big Five on Safari Holiday

    The Big Five animals are lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. Many travelers to Safari Africa dream of spotting all members of the Big Five during just one safari vacation. If you wish to do this, we recommend going on safari within one of the following wildlife areas - the Serengeti in Tanzania, the Maasai Mara in Kenya ...

  18. Why Are They Called the Big 5 Animals & Other FAQs

    The "Big Five" is probably the most popular phrase in the African safari jargon. More often than not, the first thing a safari newbie will tell you is: "I want to see the big five animals". Almost as if it was the only thing "worthwhile" in the bush. Or people will return from a safari saying, "I saw the big five".

  19. Big Five South Africa: Best Places In South Africa For Big 5

    Kruger is located five hours east of Johannesburg and is the most exciting African safari destination. Kruger has a high density of wild animals and is one of the best places to see the Big 5 - lions, rhinos, elephants, buffaloes, and the elusive leopard. We were able to see a leopard up in a tree with its kill.

  20. The Big 5

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  21. Best Places To See the Big 5 on Safari in Africa

    6. Okavango Delta - Botswana. The Okavango is one of Africa's most iconic wildlife destinations. The Delta is home to all of the Big Five, although rhino (both black and white) can be hard to find; Moremi Game Reserve offers the best chance, or visit Khama Rhino Sanctuary, a half-day's drive away as an add-on.

  22. How to Shoot Africa's Big Five Safari Animals (with a Camera)

    1. Get the gear ready the night before to be sure you are well prepared. 2. Get up early so that you can be shooting in the first light when the big five are active. Plan your day around your shot ...

  23. When and Where to See the Big 5 in Africa

    The Big 5 are Africa's undisputed super stars and the reason tourists set out eagerly on dawn and dusk game-viewing excursions. There can be no argument that giraffe and zebra are prettier creatures than buffalo, or that cheetah can be easier to find than leopard, but seeing any of the Big 5 living wild and free in their natural habitats remains an unforgettable thrill at the top of most ...

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    Safari Extensions. Safari extensions are a powerful way to add new features to Safari. They are built in Xcode with web technologies, such as HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript and powerful native APIs. Now you can distribute and sell them through the App Store on Mac, iPhone and iPad. Meet Safari Web Extensions on iOS.

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