July 20

Meet The Big Five: Africa’s Animals


July 20, 2011

What are the Big Five?

No they’re not some new Mafia group, although going head-to-head with them would be just as – if not more – daunting. If you’ve been on a safari in Africa, you’ll have heard plenty about “The Big Five“.

It’s a phrase that was coined by white hunters back in the day, referring to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot and the degree of danger involved. It’s still used today but also by tourist and wildlife guides leading African wildlife safaris and more in reference to these Big Five being the continent’s greatest wild animals than treacherous to hunt.

1. Lion

2. African elephant

3. Rhinoceros – technically it’s the black rhino that forms part of the Big Five, but you’ll see in our video below that we’ve featured the white rhino. For more about the difference between the two, scroll down…

4. Leopard

5. Cape Buffalo

Watch our new Big Five video:

The animals had and still have their moment of fame, appearing on South African rand banknotes in 1990 and later releases. Different denominations feature a different Big Five animal.

Countries where you can spot members of the big five include South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

We’ve featured the Big Cats before – including the Big Five’s Lion and Leopard, as well as the Cheetah, which isn’t part of the Big Five, – but here’s more about the other members too:

1. Lion

• Family Felidae
• Mass ± 200 kg / ± 440 lbs
• Height ± 100 cm / ± 39 inches
• Walking speed 4 km/h / 2.4 mph
• Charging speed 80 km/h / 50 mph
• Potential longevity 20 years
• Gestation period 3.5 months

Read more here.

This big cat makes up Africa's Big Five

A lion cub scratches its back on the earth

2. African elephant

• Family – Elephantidae
• Mass 6000 – 7000 kg / 13000 – 15000 lbs
• Height 300 – 340 cm / 118 – 134 inches
• Walking speed 10 km/h / 6.2 mph
• Charging speed 40 km/h / 24.8 mph
• Potential longevity 65 – 70 years
• Gestation period 22 months
• Record length of tusks 3,5 m / 137 inches

The African elephant is the largest land mammal. They’re a matriarchal bunch, with an older cow leading the herd. Herds are usually family groups of up to 16. Several family groups may join when at watering sites forming large herds numbering several hundred. Their tusks are basically modified incisor teeth, used as weapons and to help acquire certain food, like the bark of trees. Their long trunks can hold up to 15 litres of water and is used to locate food by touch and smell, as an elephant cannot see down its trunk. If an elephant loses the use of its trunk it will die.

View of elephants from the Siduli Hide, near Vic Falls

The elephant is a sure sight on safari in Kruger

3. Rhinoceros

• Family Rhinocerotidae
• Mass 3500 kg / 7717 lbs
• Height 160 cm / 63 inches
• Speed 45 km/h / 28 mph
• Potential longevity 45 years
• Gestation period 18 months
• Record length of front horn 158 cm / 62 inches
• Record length of rear horn 56 cm / 22 inches

The herbivorous white rhino has a wide mouth perfectly adapted to a life of grazing. Its thick set body is covered by a tough leathery skin. The most distinctive feature of the rhino is the presence of 2 horns on the snout. These horns are composed of a protein which is similar to that of our own hair. Family groups of 2 – 5 individuals are protected by a dominant bull who defends his cows against other intruding bulls. A number of fixed latrine sites known as rhino middens demarcate a bull’s territory. The smaller black rhino has a hooked lip.

The black rhino is one of Africa's Big Five

Look out for white and black rhino on safari

4. Leopard

• Family Felidae
• Mass ± 60 kg / 132 lbs
• Height ± 60 cm / 23 inches
• Charging speed 80 km/h / 50mph
• Potential longevity 21 years
• Gestation period 3 1/2 months

Read more here.

Leopards are elusive creatures and nocturnal

They're cute, but don't try your luck with leopards

5. Buffalo

• Family Bovidae
• Mass 750 kg / 1653 lbs
• Height ± 160 cm / 63 inches
• Charging speed 55 km/h / 34 mph
• Potential longevity 20 – 25 years
• Gestation period 11 months
• Record span of horns 147 cm / 58 inches

Buffalo are large, cattle like animals. Once widely distributed in Southern Africa, the buffalo’s numbers have been greatly reduced by large-scale hunting and sickness such as Rinderpest and foot and mouth disease. Now restricted to the eastern regions of South Africa, they are abundant in the Kruger Park and are frequently seen wallowing in muddy pools or grazing in the vicinity of dams in the reserve.

The buffalo is highly gregarious and usually occurs in large herds, with the largest herd estimated to be in the region of 400. Bachelor groups and single animals are also often encountered. A dominance hierarchy occurs within buffalo herds. Although a favourite prey item of the lions, the large horns and powerful muscles of the buffalo make it a formidable adversary and it is frequently the lions who come off second best in such encounters.

The buffalo is a large, cattle like animal seen throughout Southern Africa

Buffalo in the Serengeti

The Kruger National Park is a great destination where you can be sure to spot the Big Five and more.

For more information about the Park, and tours and accommodation in the region, contact us. We can help you tailor make an African safari trip so you can tick these animals off the check list.


Africa, Wildlife

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About the author 

Tamlin Wightman

Tamlin has been exploring, writing about and photographing Africa ever since her first job as a photojournalist for Getaway Magazine. She's lived on an island, eaten with lions, sailed catamarans in the Indian Ocean, tracked wild dogs with Kinglsey Holgate, and white water rafted down the Zambezi and has kept just about every airplane ticket that has crossed her hands.

  • Stewart – There is such a thing as the Big 7 which includes whales and sharks! But we like to stick to the traditional safari Big 5.

  • Of course, Rhino Africa – I was thinking more of the “BIGGEST” of them all – the mosquito !!!! Perhaps, a wee bit tongue in cheek !!!

  • Rhino Africa booked us a safari and we saw all of the big 5. On the last day, we hadn’t seen a lion but our ranger spotted some spore and followed the tracks to a wonderful male lion. What a thrill. thanks Rhino africa.

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