Africa’s Big Five Safaris
Once mostly targeted by hunters, these large species are “awe-inspiring” sights for safari-goers.
Lions, leopards, elephants, African buffalo, and rhinoceroses are “what people think of when they think of Africa and wildlife,” says Natalia Borrego, a research associate at the University of Minnesota Lion Center.
The term, coined in the late 1800s during Africa’s colonial period, refers to what trophy hunters considered the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot.
These animals are still hunted today, but a shift toward tourism has also made seeing the Big Five an “awe-inspiring” goal for any safari-goer, Borrego says.
That’s especially true because all of these species are decreasing in population—lions in particular are struggling, having lost 94 percent of their original habitat. Only about 20,000 of the big cats remain in the wild.
Here’s are some fascinating facts about the Big Five.
This is the most elusive, and also the smallest, of the five. “I call them ninja cats because they’re just sneaky and they’re harder to spot,” Borrego says.
Speaking of spots, most leopards are light-colored, with distinctive dark spots that are called rosettes. Black leopards, which appear to be almost solid in color because their spots are hard to distinguish, are commonly called black panthers.
The solitary big cats haul large kills, such as zebra or antelope, into a tree to eat alone, in peace.
There’s another reason for leopards to stay aloft: They don’t exactly get along with their fellow Big Fiver, the African lion. If a lion has a chance to kill a leopard, it will. (Related: “A lioness killing a leopard floored these filmmakers.”)
Lions are the only social big cat, but don’t expect to see the king. There isn’t one.
These big cats are “not born into a rank,” Borrego says. “They are egalitarian, which means they don’t have a permanent social hierarchy.”
One male may be dominant over the others, but that can change at any time.
Lion society is also matrilineal, “so the females hold the territories,” and stay with the pride into which they’re born. (Related story: “In real life, Simba’s mom would be running the pride.”)
These hefty, cow-like animals often congregate by the thousands in the Serengeti; forming large groups is one defense against predators.
Male and female buffalo both have horns, but the males’ curve upward and fuse together in the center, forming a solid bony plate called a boss. It’s a helpful defense—as is being more than three times heavier than their lion adversaries.
That’s why a lion that attacks a buffalo is taking a huge risk of dying. Buffalo can be aggressive, and frequently come into conflict with humans outside of protected areas.
The biggest of the Big Five is the African savanna elephant, which can weigh up to seven tons. The African forest elephant, which is about three feet shorter and lives in the forests of the Congo Basin, was declared a separate species after genetic testing in 2010 showed big differences between the forest and savanna dwellers.
- TYPE: Mammals
- DIET: Herbivore
- GROUP NAME: Herd
- AVERAGE LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: Up to 70 years
- SIZE: Height at the shoulder: 8.2 to 13 feet
- WEIGHT: 2.5 to 7 tons
- POPULATION TREND: Increasing
- IUCN RED LIST STATUS: Vulnerable
Savanna elephants are large enough to change the landscape, pulling up trees to make grasslands, dispersing seeds, and overall increasing biodiversity.
Long sought after by poachers, elephants have a fragmented range throughout central and southern Africa.
There are two species—the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros—and five subspecies between them left in Africa. Those include the northern white rhino, the southern white rhino, the eastern black rhino, the southern central black rhino, and the southwestern black rhino.
All are huge, with a top weight of 5,000 pounds and horns that can grow up to five feet long.
Due largely to poaching for their horns, the western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011. The last male northern white rhino died in 2018, with only two females remaining—making that subspecies functionally extinct. (Learn about the different types of extinction.)
About 20,000 southern white rhinos remain, mostly in southern Africa. Conservation efforts have helped increase the population of the smaller, critically endangered black rhino, found mainly in East and southern Africa.
Africa is incredibly rich in wildlife, which is why several other “fives” have popped up over the years, such as the Little Five—including the leopard tortoise and the elephant shrew—the Shy Five, and the Ugly Five, which, to say the least, is a bit subjective. (Read why people find “ugly” animals cute.)
With over 2,000 bird species in Africa, can we also get a High Five?