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31 March 2020

Africa’s Big Five and where to see them

A Big Five safari to Africa will include sightings of lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant, and rhino! Here’s our guide to where you can see Africa’s Big Five on a safari:

The term ‘Big Five’ was coined by early game hunters in Africa, referring to a group of animals considered the most dangerous species to hunt on foot. Nowadays, the pastime of photography safaris has commandeered the expression, and spotting the Big Five in Africa is a serious highlight particularly for first-time safarists.

The Big Five animals are lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. Many travellers to Safari Africa dream of spotting all members of the Big Five during just one holiday. 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, the Sabi Sands and Phinda in South Africa, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and Akagera in Rwanda. However, please note that, as the Big Five are all wild and unpredictable animals, sightings can never be guaranteed!

Below, we provide a bit more information about every Big Five animal, as well as recommending our favourite places in Africa where you can spot each wildlife superstar:

1. Lion

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Our first member of the Big Five, the lion is arguably the most iconic of the big cats and without doubt the number one predator on the continent. Lions are most often found in territorial prides, consisting of either a single dominant male or a coalition (often two brothers) and a host of females with their cubs. On average, a pride contains 13 members, but it can grow to as many as 40 individuals! Young males are forced out of the pride by the dominant male or coalition when they reach 2–3 years of age, and they wander as nomads until they are big and strong enough to challenge a ruling male.

We are huge fans of encountering lions during a game drive through the Maasai Mara and Serengeti eco-system. You can’t beat spotting a pride of lion roaming among the long grasses during an afternoon safari. At dusk, the previously lazy lions start to wake up and get restless. They roar, they play, and eventually they prepare for the night ahead, which could involve a mighty hunt!

Our recommendation for the best place to spot lions is Namiri Plains. Luxurious yet down to earth, well structured yet very artistic, the camp even has a spa and a swimming pool yet it focuses on offering a phenomenal game-viewing experience, including thrilling big cat sightings and wildebeest Great Migration encounters.

Check out our complete guide on the "Best places to see lions in Africa".

2. Elephant

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The African elephant is the largest land-dwelling mammal, and it’s most certainly our favourite member of Africa’s Big Five. One ‘ele’ can weigh up to eight tons, the equivalent of about seven Mini Coopers! Although once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, elephant populations have been put under severe pressure over the last four decades due to poaching. Their ivory tusks are seen as a valuable commodity on the South-East Asian market, and as a result these majestic animals are at the forefront of a continual and widespread conservation effort.

As a tour company, we do what we can to try to protect these animals. For example, along with our clients, we support and sponsor ‘the YZ herd’, a group of over 200 rescued or orphaned elephants currently cared for at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi. YZ clients can even join a select group to visit the wildlife trust  – do let us know if this is something that interests you, as it’s a great start to a first-time safari! If you’re a more seasoned traveller, why not explore the land of elephants by staying a few nights in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park? Our top property in Hwange is Somalisa Camp, as it has an elephant pool at the end of the main area that’s frequented by a constant stream of elephant families.

Elephants are almost everyone’s favourite African animal, so we’ve listed the best destinations for seeing the gentle giants, ranging from Kenya’s big tuskers to Botswana’s big herds. Check out the complete guide here: Top places to see elephants in Africa.

3. Cape buffalo

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It’s well known that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous member of the Big Five. Buffalos are protective and territorial, and they place incredible strength behind those long and sharp horns. They also happen to be the most widespread and abundant of the Big Five. Mostly found in huge herds of up to a thousand individuals, including bulls, cows, and calves, the Cape buffalo generally seeks safety in numbers, even keeping the herd closely together in the event of an attack from their main predatory threat, lions.

However, older bulls are often solitary or found in pairs and threes because they are no longer strong or aggressive enough to compete with the younger bulls in the herd over breeding rights. These old bulls are termed ‘Daga Boys’ and are generally agitated and bad-tempered. When you first see buffalo, you might not understand why this cattle-like creature is so revered and feared, but watch a lone buffalo take on a pride of lion and you’ll soon give the buffalo every inch of credit it deserves. Katavi National Park, an extremely remote and rarely visited park in Tanzania’s western corner, is fantastic for watching lion–buffalo interactions, and our suggested property has to be Nomad’s Chada, a classic expeditionary camp in a million acres of mammals.

Check out our complete guide on the "Best places to see buffalo in Africa".

4. Leopard

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The leopard is the most elusive and mysterious of the Big Five, so a leopard sighting is the highlight of any safari! Both male and female leopards are solitary, except for when they mate. This can happen up to every three months when a female comes into heat, but once the coupling is over the male returns to his territory and isolation. When hunting, leopards rely on closely stalking their prey. This method often ends in an ambush, differing from the hunting technique of lions, who rely on a burst of energy and speed. Also, because they are solitary, leopards more often than not drag a kill up into a tree. There they can eat it and leave it for a number of days, undisturbed by irksome hyenas and even other predators, such as lions.

We are often asked where the best place is to spot leopards, a question that’s difficult to answer. The Sabi Sands might seem the obvious response, as this reserve markets itself as offering particularly frequent leopard sightings, in the context of some of the finest Big Five safaris from properties providing unparalleled levels of luxury. However, our experience of spotting leopards in Zambia’s South Luangwa has yet to be beaten. This national park has the highest density of leopard in the world, and no shortage of stunning camps, such as the new Puku Ridge and Robin Pope Safaris’ Nkwali.

Check out our complete guide on the "Best places to see leopard in Africa".

5. Black rhino

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The black rhino was once a widespread species, inhabiting vast areas from Southern Africa to East Africa. Unfortunately, similarly to the plight of the African elephant, poaching has played a significant role in the decimation of entire populations spanning vast wildlife sanctuaries, and with the demand for rhino horn in South-East Asia as strong as ever the black rhino remains under constant threat.

There are many safari areas across Africa that have four of the Big Five but lack the manpower and financial support to protect rhinos from poachers, and therefore do not have Big Five status. The rhinos that you do see in the wild are constantly monitored and have a huge network of protection surrounding them. Lots of applause goes to South Africa, which has reported a decline in the number of rhinos poached for a fifth year in a row. Our all-time favourite place to spot the hefty herbivores, as well as the Big Five while on safari, is SA’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve – just take a look at Londolozi’s uber-luxurious Founders and Varty properties!

As rhinos are the hardest of the Big Five to spot during a safari, due to their unstable and dwindling numbers, we’ve put together a list of places where you can see rhinos in the wild. Check out our complete guide here: Best places to see rhinos in Africa.

If you are interested in a safari that focuses on Africa’s Big Five wildlife and you’d like more information, feel free to contact us here. Alternatively, take a look at our guides below for more inspiration: