What is the big five and where can I see them?

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Although Africa’s Big Five were originally named for their being the most difficult to hunt on foot, today’s tourists are thankfully for the most part more interested in shooting them on camera.

Let’s take a look at the important roles these magnificent creatures – the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo play in their natural habitat, and why they hold such a special place in our hearts.

Panthera leo – The Lion

The second largest wild cat after the tiger is unusual among felines in that they are highly social, living and hunting in groups called prides. But like their smaller domestic relatives, sleep is always big on the agenda – especially during the hottest part of the day. The females do the majority of the hunting, which usually takes place at night when they have a big advantage over their prey due to their excellent night vision. 

Adult African lions typically weigh in between 265 to 420 pounds, or 120 to 191 kilograms. Their territories can be as large as 100 square miles when they are not restricted by human borders, and are found across Botswana, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, the Central African Republic and several sub-Saharan African countries such as Namibia and South Africa.

Unsurprisingly, they’re not an animal to be approached on foot, and you’re likely to feel rather grateful for the protection of your game drive vehicle when you encounter them in the bush!

Panthera pardus – the leopard

Even though they are the most widely distributed big cat in Africa due to their excellent climbing ability (meaning that fences present little challenge for them) they are also well known as the most elusive. Preferring to spend much of their time in the trees, and with those beautiful rosette-patterned coats to camouflage them, spotting a leopard in the wild is a rare treat. They manage to get most of the moisture they need to survive from their prey, meaning that they are rarely even spotted at waterholes. 

They are incredibly adaptable hunters, taking prey as large as wildebeest and antelope, as well as many smaller creatures – even frogs and fish. Unlike their larger lion cousins, they are solitary creatures, only seen together when mating or while a mother is raising her cubs. Incredibly powerful climbers, they are known for carrying their kills (often weighing substantially more than themselves) into tree ‘larders’ where they will be safer from scavengers or theft by other predators.

Diceros bircornis and Ceratotherium simum – The Black and White Rhino

Although there are five species of rhino found around the world, sadly all of which are endangered, the White Rhino and Black Rhino are the ones found primarily in Africa. The term ‘White’ Rhino is actually a mistranslation from the Dutch word for ‘wide’, which refers to their wide mouths which help them to graze, but the name stuck! The Black Rhino has a pointy upper lip which it uses to browse leaves, and is smaller than the White Rhino. The horn of the rhino is made from keratin, the same substance as our hair and fingernails, and has led to them being hunted almost to extinction by man. They have an undeserved reputation for aggression, as they prefer to be left alone, but will defend themselves if they feel cornered or that their calves are in danger. If one does chase you, however, it’s best to try and climb a tree to escape, as they can run about twice the speed of your average human!

With such a demand for their horns, protecting the rhino from extinction has proved to be an enormous challenge. Many organizations are fighting hard to try and preserve the species for future generations, such as the WWF, Save the Rhino, the International Rhino Foundation, and even private game reserves like Thanda Safari, which have been crucial in providing safe havens for breeding programs.

Loxodonta Africana – The African Elephant

The world’s largest land mammal, the elephant has always had a special place in our hearts. Extremely intelligent, long-lived, and with a huge focus on raising and educating their youngsters, we can’t help but see ourselves in some of their behaviors. Female young will stay with their maternal herds their whole lives, while males are expelled once they reach sexual maturity at around 14 years old. Herds with young are famously led by a matriarch, while males tend to form bachelor herds or become solitary as they grow older.

Weighing as much as 7 tons, it’s hardly surprising that elephants have a pretty healthy appetite too! They need to consume about 600 pounds of grass and shoots a day, and can drink 200 liters of water in a single session.

Syncerus caffer – African or Cape Buffalo

Despite not being related to Asian buffaloes, Africa’s buffaloes do share their love of being in and around water. Bathing in mud is a favorite pastime, especially among older bulls. Both males and females possess the striking horns which make them so easily identifiable. They have struck up a mutually beneficial relationship with the oxpecker bird, which removes ticks and other insect pests from their skin and fur.

Each one of the Big Five play an important role in maintaining the delicate balance of the African bush, and there’s nothing better than getting to observe them in their natural habitat!