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Africa’s iconic Big 5

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

This blog about the Big 5 was written by Ricardo Strydom, a Bushwise student on our Professional Field Guide course. As part of their training, students research a topic and submit a blog.

3 min read

Here in Africa there is a group of five animals referred to as the Big Five. These animals include lions, leopards, African buffalo, African elephants and rhinos. The term originally comes from the 19th century when trophy hunters identified these five animals as being the most dangerous and difficult to hunt on foot. 

Today the phrase is more commonly used by the safari and game viewing industry as some of the five most exciting animals to see while in the area where they roam. So now rather than shooting with guns, the main priority for tourists is to shoot them with their cameras.

The mighty lion

A young male lion resting in bright green grass, looking over his shoulder as if he’s just heard something interesting.

Lions (Panthera leo) are found in India and in most savanna and grassland ecosystems throughout the continent of Africa. Male lions are iconic for their impressive manes. They will often roam separate from the females and cubs patrolling and protecting the borders of their territory. Female lions are the primary hunters and will provide food for the pride. 

There are an estimated 23,000 lions left in the wild due to a drastic reduction in rangeland – that’s a 75% decline in the last 50 years.

The secretive leopard


A leopard makes its way across an open grassy space, after just jumping down from a tree. 

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are another large feline cat in the group. They are known for their beautiful rosette spotted coats and can often be found relaxing in trees – their spots help them blend in with the leaves. They are solitary creatures Unlike lions, leopards are solitary creatures and only come together to mate.

They are nocturnal and will spend their nights hunting. Once they have caught their prey, they will often pull their prey up into a tree to eat it so as to keep it away from tricky hyaenas who may try to steal it. They are classified as vulnerable and decreasing.

The intimidating buffalo

A Cape Buffalo looks towards the camera, its floppy ears sticking out and its beautiful horns high upon its head. It appears to be chewing cud.

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) have been determined as the most dangerous of the big five. This may be surprising given that they are bovids – meaning they’re related to everyday cattle. When buffalo are injured, they will become aggressive and circle around to counterattack whatever injured them, which often results in death. 

When they charge, unlike a lion who will roar or an elephant that will trumpet and flap its ears, they will remain still and then charge with no discrimination for what stands in their way. Buffalo are classified as near threatened, so currently risks to them are less than the other members of the Big 5. 

The wise elephant

An elephant looks straight at the camera with its ears open wide, trying to show its intimidating size. 

Then there is of course the biggest land mammal in the world, the African elephant. The danger the African elephant poses is obvious due to its sheer size. There have been several cases of elephants trampling people or charging at vehicles. But this is not the natural behaviour as elephants are rather laid back and relaxed. 

We all know the saying, “an elephant never forgets” and when people do an elephant harm or their family they will remember and their behaviour towards people might change. Elephant herds are led by a female which is called a matriarch. Male bulls will either be solitary or roam in bachelor herds meeting up with females occasionally at watering holes or to mate.

The prehistoric rhino

A white rhino sniffs the air with its head lifted high. White rhinos are distinguished from black rhinos by their wide lips, larger size, feeding characteristics and temperament. 

Last but definitely not least is the rhino. We get two types of rhino in Africa, the blackand the white rhino. The black rhino is a browser with a hooked lip. It is known as being more solitary and aggressive. The white rhino is bigger and is a grazer with a wide mouth to graze. Poaching has put rhinos on the endangered list. While rhinos are poached for the medicinal value of their horns, the horn is made up of keratin – similar to our fingernails or hair – and thus has no proven medicinal value.

Honourable mention: hippo

Another dangerous animal not included in the big 5 but that deserves an honourable mention is the hippo. Hippos are the African animal that kill the most people. Even though they are herbivores, a hippo encountered on foot could possibly be a fatal experience especially when encountered with a calf.

See the Big 5 in person on a Bushwise course. Check out our wildlife courses here!

Words by Ricardo Strydom, photos by Annie DuPre

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