The big five animals of Africa are African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Leopard, Lion, and Rhinoceros
These five types of animals were named ‘the big five’ by big game hunters from African’s colonial era, as they were considered the most difficult and dangerous African beasts to hunt on foot. These days, of course, any shooting of Africa’s big five tends to be more about choosing the right lens (photo safari anyone?)!
Jump to a section: African Elephant | Cape Buffalo | Leopard | Lion | Rhinoceros | Big five quotes | Best places to see the big five | Other wildlife ‘5s’
Read on below for a more in-depth look at each of the big 5 animals:
1. African Elephant
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest and heaviest land animal in the world, weighing up to 6 tonnes, and eating massive amounts of food each day.
Their distinguishing features include the dexterous trunk, large ears that cool the body when flapped, and elongated incisors in the form of tusks. There are actually two species of African elephant – the African bush elephant and the smaller African forest elephant. Both are herbivores that live in large groups, whilst the African bush elephant is the larger of the two species, and typically the species referred to as a member of the big five animals.
A bull elephant can be dangerous, as can herds or mothers with young elephants. Keep your distance from them, and if in a vehicle ensure that you have the means to drive away forwards – elephants can run faster than a car can reverse. An elephant flapping its ears, kicking up dust, and/or trumpeting is probably about to charge.
Group name: Herd
Size: Up to 3.3 meters tall, weighing 6,000kg.
Speed: Up to 40 km per hour.
Diet: Elephants are vegetarians, eating up to 160kg per day, made up of savannah grasses, bushes, small plants, fruit, twigs, tree bark, and roots. Read more about what elephants eat.
Range & Habitat: African Elephants are found across sub-Saharan Africa – from Mali in the north, through the central and west African forests, down to South Africa. They are adaptable animals, capable of surviving in many habitats, from lush wetlands to arid African deserts. Despite this, both species of African elephants are considered endangered species, and on the list of Africa’s most endangered animals.
Best places to see African elephants: Addo Elephant Park, South Africa, Chobe National Park, Botswana, Etosha National Park, Namibia, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
2. Cape Buffalo
Weighing in at not too far short of a ton, the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) has a reputation for being bad-tempered and dangerous. Whilst a solitary African buffalo is one of the most unpredictable safari animals (and dangerous, hence their inclusion in the term big five animals), they are usually a docile beast when in a herd… aside from their tendency to stampede en masse when alarmed.
Herds have clearly defined home ranges, the size of which is determined by the amount of food and water available.
Group name: Herd
Size: Up to 1.8 meters tall, and 800kg in weight.
Speed: They can run at speeds of up 57 kilometers per hour.
Diet: Cape buffalos are strictly herbivores and eat a wide variety of grasses, leaves, and other plants.
Habitat & Rage: Cape buffalo thrive in all sub-Saharan grasslands with access to water – from dry savanna to lowland floodplains.
Best places to see African Buffalo: Chobe National Park, Botswana, Katavi National Park, Tanzania, Kruger National Park, South Africa, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia.
Slightly smaller than their lion cousins, African leopards (Panthera pardus) are less rare than you might think, but rely on their animal camouflage and being active at night to stay hidden. Leopards are solitary, independent creatures, and rarely seen together except during mating, or a mother with cubs. As such they are totally self-reliant, and expert hunters – sometimes killing prey up to twice their size. During the daytime they often lounge around in trees and come to the ground after dark to hunt, taking their prey up into a tree to eat at their leisure.
Group name: Leap
Size: 1 meter high, weighing up to 100 kg.
Speed: 56 kilometers per hour.
Diet: Leopards are opportunistic carnivores and hunt a wide range of prey such as jackals, antelopes, gazelles, African monkeys, duiker, eland, impala, wildebeest, and more.
Range & Habitat: African leopards live in more places than any other types of big cat in Africa, and are comfortable in almost any habitat, including deserts, rainforests, woodlands, grassland savannas, mountain, scrub, and swamps. Leopards are one of the few big game species found outside national parks.
Best places to see Leopard: Londolozi Game Reserve, South Africa, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
The African lion is the largest and most sociable of Africa’s cats, and one of Africa’s most dangerous animals. At up to 225kg, the lion (Panthera leo) really is the king of the savanna (it’s not a jungle animal!). Living in prides of up to 40 lions, it’s the lionesses who do all the hunting, usually sharing with the males of a pride. Lions are very territorial, and the females generally spend most of their lives within their home ranges.
If you encounter an African lion on foot don’t turn and run (easier said than done), as a running target that looks like prey will probably be viewed as such. Instead, try to make yourself look big, and back away gradually.
Group name: Pride
Size: 1.2 meters, weighing up to 225kg.
Speed: At a maximum speed of 80 kilometers per hour, the lion is the second fastest land animal in Africa.
Diet: African lions are apex predators and generally hunt the larger animals in their surroundings – buffalo, rhino, zebra, giraffe, and antelopes. Learn more about what lions eat.
Range & Habitat: Lions tend to prefer grassland, savanna, dense scrub, and open woodland. They are found across sub-Saharan African national parks, and also in a small part of north-east India.
Best places to see Lion: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa, Kruger National Park, South Africa, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Once widespread through sub-Saharan Africa, the rhino has been hunted to the brink of extinction, and is probably the hardest of the big five to spot in the wild.
There are two species of rhinoceros in Africa – the critically endangered black rhino (Diceros bicornis) and the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum). Whilst white rhinos have made a comeback through conservation efforts across the continent, black rhinos are still very much one of Africa’s endangered animals. The fundamental differences between the white rhino and black rhino are not color, but rather size, temperament, food preference, and mouth shape. White rhinos have a flat, wide mouth, and their name comes from a mispronunciation of the Afrikaans word wide – “wijd”.
Both black rhinos and white rhinos tend to be wary of humans, but occasionally charge vehicles that get too close. If you’re on foot, then their bad eyesight should work in your favour – if they do charge you the apparent life-saving technique involves letting them get as close as possible, then stepping aside at the last second.
Group name: Crash
Size: 1.9 meters high and weighing up to 2,300kg
Speed: 50 kilometers per hour
Diet: All species of rhino are herbivores, grazing on a wide variety of fruits, stems, twigs, grasses, and leaves.
Range & Habitat: White rhinos are found throughout Asia and sub-Saharan Africa in habitats ranging from dense rainforests and swamps to grassy plains.
Best places to see Rhinoceros: Tends to be in Southern Africa –Etosha National Park, Namibia, Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park, South Africa, Kruger National Park, South Africa, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya, Mkomazi National Park, Tanzania.
Best places to see all of the big five animals
Whilst we’ve highlighted national parks above to see each of the members of the big five animals, 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! However, it is possible, as there are a number of hotspots in southern and east Africa that are rich in variety and can support an extremely dense wildlife population. Our top picks to see all of the big five together are:
- Chobe National Park, Botswana
- Etosha National Park in Namibia
- Kruger National Park in South Africa
- Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa
- Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
- Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
- Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
- South Luangwa National Park in Zambia
5 great quotes about each of the big five animals
“They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you never forget an elephant.”
“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.”
“If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people only more so.”
“He who mounts a wild elephant goes where the elephant goes.”
“Do not try to fight a lion if you are not one yourself.”
“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”
“Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
“Lions make leopards tame.”
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight.”
Solomon Lina, “Mbube”
“At the top of the mountain we are all snow leopards.“
Hunter S. Thompson
“The leopard does not change his spots.”
King James Bible
“This world without a leopard…I mean, who would want to be here?!“
“Leopard is an animal design, and my designs come from nature.“
“A leopard feels at home with leopard.“
Cows run away from the storm while the buffalo charges toward it – and gets through it quicker. Whenever I’m confronted with a tough challenge, I do not prolong the torment, I become the buffalo.
The buffalo is a surprisingly stupid animal.
So is the savage buffalo, especially delighting in dark places, where he can wallow in the mud and slake his thirst without much trouble
John Hanning Speke
At the rate science proceeds, rockets and missiles will one day seem like buffalo – slow, endangered grazers in the black pasture of outer space.
The coat of the buffalo never pinches under the arm, never puckers at the shoulders; it is always the same, yet never old fashioned nor out of date.
A charging black rhinoceros is nothing to mess with. When it is headed straight toward you, it is the ultimate exercise in sphincter control.
It is one thing to be amazed at gorgon or a griffin, creatures which do not exist; but it is quite another and much higher thing to be amazed at a rhinoceros or a giraffe, creatures which do exist and look as if they don’t.
The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there’s a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants.
The rhinoceros stood about five hundred yards away, not a twentieth-century animal at all, but an odd, grim straggler from the Stone Age.
A rhinoceros is as ugly as a human being, and it too is going to die, but at least it never thinks that it is beautiful.
Peter S. Beagle
Other wildlife ‘fives’
Have you seen the big five animals and are are looking for a new wildlife challenge – other animals to hunt for your photo safari? For safari aficionados up for ticking all the ‘I’ve seen’ boxes, have you heard about the other groups of 5 animals?
I like the big five very much, but alittle bit surprised. The hippo i big than lion and leopard why is it not on the list. We heard that hippos are one of the animals which kills more people than elephants and rihnos
Hippos mainly live in the water, the Big Five live on land.
Hi Martin, the name is not everything! Hippos weren’t in the group of animals hunted for their skin or heads, so didn’t make the big five list ;)
The Big five are the animals that i love so much but they left the TIGER and its deserves to be on of them… if one could make them pets i’d long had one.
Unfortunately tigers are not native to Africa.
The big five is found all over Kenya and other parts of Africa.
Big five are found in Africa most distinctive in Tanzania, am proud of it.
My best animals are the big five
In my opinion the “Big Five” and all other wild animals wherever they are in the world should not be hunted down by big game hunters or poachers and the cowards who carry out these atrocities should themselves be hunted down and prosecuted to the fullest by the governments of those countries in which those activities occur.
Absolutely agree Eric – big game hunting is not something I can say I’m a fan of…
very useful to my resarch…
Glad to hear it Ryan ;)