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African Safaris: Sighting the BIG 5

At one time, safaris were mostly marketed to big game hunters who were looking for the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Fortunately, it’s now much more common to go on safari armed with only a camera where you can enjoy seeing these awe-inspiring creatures in their own habitat from up close, though typically at a less imperiling distance. What are the BIG 5, and why are they considered such a big deal?

The Big 5 safari animals include the African lion, the African leopard, the African elephant, the Cape buffalo, and the rhino. While there are other impressive animals to witness on safari (including cheetahs, giraffes, and even the African wild dog), the BIG 5 are some of the most sought-after sightings. 

The BIG 5

The BIG 5: African Lion
Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

African Lion (Panthera leo):

At the top of the list is, of course, the apex predator in Africa. The undisputed king of the savanna, male African lions are known for their distinctive manes and load roars. The females, on the other hand, are revered for their strong social ties and behavior. 

Lions are highly social animals that live in groups called prides. While the pride is led by a dominant male (or two), the skilled hunters are made up of females, which prey on a variety of animals, including antelopes, zebras, and wildebeest. 

These big cats—the second largest after tigers—can be found in grasslands, savannas, and woodlands, and they’re breathtaking in all of these environments. Seeing these animals in action is exciting, though they typically hunt only at night. During the day, they’re more often found sleeping in the shade and can be found lounging for up to 20 hours each day. Remember to listen for their roars, growls, and even purrs.

While lions have few natural predators, their numbers are under decline due to traditional and big game hunters as well as decreased habitat. 

When on safari, some of the best places to see African lions include: 

  • Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa
  • Okavango Delta, Botswana
  • Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
  • Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
The BIG 5: African Elephant
Photo by Charl Durand on Unsplash

African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana):

As the largest and heaviest land animal, African elephants make a huge impression. These giants can weigh over 10 tons (or 22,000 pounds) and can be found in over 37 sub-Saharan countries from lush wetlands to arid deserts to savannas, grasslands, and forests. Their dense inch-thick skin allows them to adapt to these various environments, as it protects them from thorns and other irritants. Their large ears help disperse heat. These big animals are also big eaters, consuming up to 375 pounds of vegetation and 50 gallons of water per day. 

Elephants are well-known for both their intelligence and social behavior, led by the matriarchs (or dominant females) of the group. They even have complex communication systems including the use of vocalizations like low rumbles, body language, and scent marking. The females tend to stay with the same herd throughout life. Young males, on the other hand, leave and form groups of bachelors to later create their own herds.

Elephants are also known for their long, curved, ivory tusks. The animals use these for digging for water and food as well as for defense. Unfortunately, the global demand for this unique material led to a decreased population of these captivating, intelligent animals. The ban of the ivory trade has fortunately helped stabilize this population over the past decade. That said, poaching is still a problem, especially in areas where there’s political and economic instability. 

When on safari, some of the best places to see elephants include: 

  • Chobe National Park, Botswana
  • Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
  • Hwang National Park, Zimbabwe
  • South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
The BIG 5: African Leopard
Photo by FUTURE KIIID on Pexels

African Leopard (Panthera pardus):

These beautiful, stealthy, elusive predators are found in a variety of habitats throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Known for their striking spotted coats and ability to climb trees, these naturally shy, solitary, and elusive animals are not easy to spot. They spend their days hidden from view as they rest and stalk their prey at night. 

Leopards often scan for prey from trees and also use trees to store their fresh kills, away from scavenging animals like hyenas and lions. These skilled, powerful hunters can leap great distances to catch their food, including antelopes, rodents, and birds. Leopards can take down large prey by running at them at over 35 miles per hour and then leaping up to 10 feet into the air. These big cats are also excellent swimmers.

Their beautiful coats help camouflage them day and night. Leopards also tend to have large territories to roam, seldom hanging around the same area for more than a day or two and are one of the few big game animals that can even be found outside of national parks. 

Unfortunately, leopards are also threatened by humans as their habitat has shrunk. They can also get shot by farmers who are trying to protect livestock.

When on safari, some of the best places to see leopards include: 

  • Londolozi Game Reserve, South Africa
  • Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
  • South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
  • Sumburu National Reserve, Kenya
The BIG 5: Rhino
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Rhino:

Two species of rhino are found in Africa: the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) and the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum). Despite their names, black and white rhinos don’t differ in color. Black rhinos are smaller and more agile. They can be found in a variety of habitats, including savannas, forests, and swamps. White rhinos are larger and tend to be more docile in nature. They’re found in grasslands and savannas. 

The easiest way to tell rhinos apart is to look at their lips. Black rhinos have a more pointed lip while white rhinos’ lips are wider and flatter. In fact, the reason the white rhinos are called white is due to a mispronunciation of the Dutch word for wide (i.e., wijd). 

Black rhinos are most often found on their own and are known as being a bit bad tempered. They’re most often found in desert and scrubland areas, browsing for plant life. White rhinos often travel in pairs and graze on the open savanna.

Sadly, though both species are believed to have roamed the African plains for over 50 million years, they’re now endangered and at high risk of extinction. Unfortunately, this is due to human poaching for their horns, which are used in traditional medicine and as a status symbol in some cultures. In reality, three subspecies of rhinos have already been declared extinct, northern white rhinos no longer exist in the wild, and only an estimated 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos have been left to roam in the wild. 

Rhino conservation efforts are underway to protect and hopefully preserve the decreasing populations. For instance, there are tireless efforts to reduce habitat loss and stop the illegal trade in rhino horns, but these animals are still critically endangered.

When on safari, some of the best places to see rhinos are only on preserves, including: 

  • Etosha National Park, Namibia
  • Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, South Africa
  • Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya
  • Mkomazi National Park, Tanzania
The BIG 5: Cape Buffalo
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels

Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer):

Also known as African buffalo, Cape Buffalo are found in water-rich grasslands and savannas across Africa, especially in reserves and national parks. They are known for their size and strength and were often considered one of the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot, which is why they’re one of the BIG 5. They are formidable creatures and remain one of the most dangerous, especially if they feel threatened. Male Cape buffalo can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and are armed with curved horns that can be deadly.

There are actually four sub-species of Cape buffalo. The largest variety is most often seen in East and Southern Africa. Like African elephants, Cape buffalo also live in herds and are social animals with complex communication systems and use vocalizations, body language, and scent marking. Buffalo are also known for their strong bonds with other members of their herd. These fairly peaceful (at least with each other) animals defend each other and especially their young or ill members. They’ve even been observed grieving for their dead and showing empathy toward other members of their group.

These herbivores feed on tall, coarse grasses and bushes, fruits, and other vegetation. They also need to drink a lot, which is why they’re most often found close to water sources.

When on safari, some of the best places to see Cape buffalo include: 

  • Kruger National Park, South Africa
  • Chobe National Park, Botswana
  • Katavi National Park, Tanzania
  • Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia

These animals are called the “Big Five” because they were considered the most difficult and dangerous to hunt on foot in the days of big game hunting in Africa. Today, the term is used more broadly to refer to the most iconic and sought-after animals to see on safari. Safaris are popular tourist attractions in Africa, which invite visitors to take in these animals in their natural habitats and learn about their behavior and ecology and, of course, take lots of photos.

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