The Big Five
The Big Five are among the most sought after and impressive animals in Africa. Since the days of Stanley and Livingstone, these beasts have captured the imagination—and shaken the nerve—of the most intrepid of adventurers. Today, their power and beauty leave travellers in awe, and seeing them is still among the highlights of safari.
Lions | Elephants | Rhinos | Leopard | Cape Buffalo
Nicknamed the "King of the Jungle," lions are among the most feared (and revered) animals in Africa. They are the only cats that live in groups—called prides—and can reach weights of over 500lbs. Males are responsible for protecting the pride, sometimes patrolling an area of over 100 square miles. The females are responsible for hunting (typically zebras, wildebeest and antelopes). The roar of the lion is still one of the most impressive sounds of the African savannah, but it is less common these days: once among the most numerous land mammals, their numbers have decreased an estimated 30-50 percent over the last two decades.
Fun fact: An adult lion’s roar can be heard up to five miles away.
The largest of the Earth’s land mammals, the African elephant can reach up to 13 feet in height and weigh up to 14,000 lbs. Like humans who are right or left-handed, elephants are usually right or left-tusked—they use their tusks to dig for food and water, as well as to move trees and branches when clearing a path. The elephant fears no other animal, other than man—they generally have no natural predators once fully grown. The savannahs were once teeming with these mighty creatures, but a number of human-related factors (notably the ivory trade) have decimated their numbers and there are now fewer than 700,000 left.
Fun fact: The trunk of an African elephant has over 40,000 muscles.
Second in size only to the elephant, and known for their deadly horns, rhinos are an intimidating sight. Unfortunately, due to poaching, there are not many to see these days. Rhino horn is a much prized treasure in the Middle East and the Far East—ironically (and tragically) the horn contains nothing that cannot be found in human fingernails. The deceptively-named Black Rhino and White Rhino (both are actually gray in color) are the two that are found in Africa. The number of Black Rhino's has plummeted in the last twenty years, now numbering only around 3,500, while the White Rhino’s numbers are closer to 11,000 (mostly in Southern Africa).
Fun fact: Rhinos have an acute sense of hearing and smell, but have terrible eyesight.
Sleek and cunning, leopards are nocturnal animals that spend much of their time in trees. They are superb hunters, and unlike other cats they often pounce on their prey from their perch on a bough (their spots provide them with camouflage). Once they kill, they often bring the carcass back up into the tree with them, to keep it safe from scavengers like hyenas. Leopards are generally solitary, though they travel in pairs during mating season when the female is pregnant. The roar of a leopard is distinct—it is a grunt which, it has been said, sounds like someone is sawing wood. Though they are hunted mercilessly for their fur, their elusiveness has aided in their survival.
Fun fact: A leopard’s spots are called rosettes.
Cape Buffalo may look like slow and placid grazers, but they are considered among the most dangerous animals on the savannah. Luckily, safe in our vehicles, we can observe these massive beasts from a distance. Weighing between 1,300 and 2,000 pounds, they generally gather in herds in the savannah—although older males will often live a more solitary existence. Though formidable, they are not territorial; they sometimes live in combined herds of over a thousand. When attacked, buffalo sometimes gather in mobs and become aggressive rather than defensive. After a lion has killed one of their herd, they may stampede, trampling lion cubs in the process.
Fun fact: The horns of the Cape Buffalo indicate gender. Adult males have a shield on their horns at the base of the skull —females and younger males do not have this.