If you’re a lover of animals and Africa, then you should be familiar with the term “the Big Five”. It refers to the five most dangerous animals to hunt in Africa and originated many years ago. However, times have changed and today the term is used widely to describe these powerful, majestic animals.
They are considered the most sought-after animals to see when going on safari. In fact, many travellers have the Big Five at the top of their safari checklist. Familiarise yourself with these amazing animals before setting off on your next trip.
What Are the Big Five
So, what mammals make up the Big Five? They are: the African lion, the Cape buffalo, the African leopard, the black rhinoceros, and the African elephant.
They are powerful, magnificent and the sight of them leaves you in awe. It’s important to keep in mind that although fascinating, the Big Five does not make up the continent’s only spectacular wildlife.
Where Can You See the Big Five
The Big Five are found in national parks and private game reserves across Africa. There’s no shortage of locations to see them and many other impressive animals as well. South Africa is a prime wildlife destination with magical scenery covering the country’s diverse regions.
The African Lion
Scientific name: Panthera leo
The African lion is easily one of the most popular members of the Big Five. This big cat represents sheer power and commands it in its presence. Lions are a symbol of strength and are the second largest cat species in the world, after the tiger.
Female lions are about 1.1 metres tall (at the shoulder) and weigh around 120 kilograms, while male lions reach about 1.2 metres in height and can weigh up to 250 kilograms.
Adult lions are tawny in colour while cubs have spots that fade away as they grow older. Male lions have a distinguishing mane that frames their face that is usually brown or black in colour. Lions also have black tips on their ears and tail that act as “follow me” signs.
Surprisingly, lions aren’t amongst nature’s best hunters as they only have a 20% success rate when it comes to their hunting capabilities. They are carnivorous and tend to hunt antelope species such as springbok and impala, as well as zebra, warthog and even giraffe. They are opportunistic hunters and spend about 20 hours a day sleeping. Their eyesight is fantastic, which allows them to hunt nocturnally.
Females tend to do most of the hunting whilst males protect territories by patrolling, scent marking by rubbing against bushes and spraying their urine. Vocalization is also used to prevent conflict with other prides.
Lions are found in large groups called prides, where males, females and cubs spend hours playing, sleeping, and grooming. They practice a lot of tactile communication by rubbing against each other when they encounter one another, and it strengthens their bond. Most other cat species are solitary in nature.
These groups can be quite large, and comprise of a few related adult females, their young and one or two of the males that mate with the females. Sub-adult males are forced to leave the pride when they reach sexual maturity at about two to two and a half years of age.
Did you know? A lion’s roar can be heard from about 8 kilometres away.
The Cape Buffalo
Scientific name: Syncerus caffer caffer
The Cape buffalo is arguably the most unpredictable member of the Big Five. It is known to be the most dangerous to encounter while on foot. This massive wild bovid (a member of the cattle family) is found in Eastern and Southern Africa.
Buffalo stand about 1 metre to 1.7 metres tall and can weigh anything from 400 to 900 kilograms.
The males’ coats are black in colour while females are reddish-brown in colour. Both sexes have abrasive horns. Males’ horns join in the middle of their head to form what’s called a ‘boss’. Females’ horns are smaller. Their calves also have a brownish coat, like that of the females.
Buffaloes are herbivores, only eating vegetation. They love grasses and shrubs. These animals need to drink water daily due to their large size, so they’re never too far from a water source.
Buffalo roam in groups called herds that can be as large as a few hundred members. They are extremely social animals and gather in these herds for protection. When a member is threatened, they are quick to defend it together as a herd. They are far from being easy targets. Older males tend to separate themselves from the herd and go on to form small groups of their own.
Did you know? Buffaloes love to roll around in the mud to get rid of ticks and parasites that latch onto their skin. Small birds such as oxpeckers like to sit on them and eat the parasites/insects.
The African Leopard
Scientific name: Panthera pardus pardus
The African leopard is one of the most elusive members of the Big Five. These animals represent grace, power and can camouflage magnificently well with their surroundings.
The African leopard varies in size and colour depending on habitat and geographical location. Males generally weigh about 60 kilograms and females about 40 kilograms. They aren’t particularly tall either, with males being about 70 centimetres tall and females about 60 centimetres tall.
They are light, tawny or black in colour. Their coat is patterned with rosettes and their head, belly and lower limbs are covered in black spots.
Leopards are carnivorous and have an incredibly diverse diet, ranging from antelope species to reptiles and small mammals such as monkeys. They are great hunters and will stalk their prey, getting as close as possible before attacking so that they only have to run in short bursts. They are incredibly agile and strong and can be found in Africa’s treetops or in dense bushes. Leopards drag their kill up into the trees to avoid conflict with other predators. They are primarily nocturnal.
African leopards are solitary animals. The only time you will find leopards together is when females have cubs as they will be dependent on her. Cubs will leave their mother when they are between 12 and 18 months old. Males and females will come together briefly to mate. Male leopards will have different territories. Like lions, they patrol their territory and leave urine scent markings and scratches on trees to make other males aware of their presence.
Did you know? Leopards can leap up to 6 metres in the air? They can climb or scale a tree with ease.
The Black Rhinoceros
Scientific name: Diceros bicornis
The black rhino is one of the most formidable members of the Big Five. They are a critically endangered species, targeted for their horns. Poachers brutally attack these poor animals daily, across the African continent. As a result, rhinos face the threat of extinction.
The black rhino is a prehistoric-looking animal. An adult stands at about 1.3 to 1.8 metres tall and weighs between 800 and 1,400 kilograms. It is grey in colour and has a pointed lip, suited for its diet. They have two horns, with the one at the front being the most prominent. Their horns are made of keratin, which is the same substance human hair and fingernails are made of. Females use their horn to protect their offspring from predators.
Black rhinos are herbivores and eat from trees and shrubs. They prefer dense vegetation where they can easily access scrubs for their diet. Rhinos tend to spend their days feeding and sleeping in shady spots. They are known to have an aggressive streak and safari-goers should make sure to keep a safe distance.
These fascinating creatures live a solitary life, apart from females and their young. Calves will stay with their mothers until about 3 years of age. Females will reproduce every few years. Rhinos have brilliant hearing and a sharp sense of smell that make up for their poor eyesight. This allows them to easily pick up the scent of other rhinos in the area.
Did you know? Rhinos are one of the oldest groups of mammals to exist.
The African Elephant
Scientific name: Loxodonta Africana
The African elephant is one of the most beloved members of the Big Five and is the world’s largest mammal. These gentle giants play an important role in ecosystems.
One of the most distinguishing features of the African elephant, apart from its gigantic size, is its large appendage called a trunk. This unique appendage is used for breathing, smelling, drinking, picking up things and trumpeting. Being the tallest land mammal on earth, an African elephant can range between 2.5 to 4 metres tall. They can weigh up to a whopping 6 tons! Both male and female elephants have tusks. They are grey in colour and have large ears that they flap to help keep them cool in the hot summer months.
Elephants are herbivores. Their diet consists of grasses, roots, bulbs, fruit and even bark. They can consume about 130 kilograms of food in a single day! Being such large animals, they need plenty of sustenance. They travel for long distances in search of food and water. Elephants love water – one of the most wonderful sightings is watching an elephant herd play and swim in a river.
African elephants are exceptionally social animals and are found in large groups called herds that can consist of hundreds of individuals.
Elephant societies are based on a matriarchal system, where females lead the herd. A matriarch is the oldest female elephant in the herd. The herd will comprise of her direct relatives, sisters, and cousins, as well as all of their offspring. Usually, trailing behind the herds, you’ll find young bulls and teenagers that will spend more and more time away as they grow older. The matriarch will lead the herd on a daily basis and initiate all the movements for feeding, water and larger gatherings with other herds.
Did you know? The lifespan of an elephant is similar to that of a human.
Are you eager to witness the beautiful Big Five for yourself? Book your stay at Shamwari Private Game Reserve to see them all in their natural habitat, while enjoying world-class luxury accommodation.