The Big Five: Get to Know the Big Five Animals

Written by Emily Wolfel
Updated: September 30, 2022
Image Credit Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • The African Big Five is a term coined during the British colonial era by hunters to refer to the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot.
  • The term in modern days is used in relation to safaris as the five most popular anmals for tourists to spot.
  • All five animals populate the same areas of Africa; however, due to decreasing population numbers from poaching and loss of habitat, it is difficult to spot all five in the wild.

If you aren’t familiar with African wildlife or hunting, then you may not have heard of the term “The Big Five” in regard to animals. While the term originated among hunters, it has expanded over the years. Now, you will find it used by safari guides and anyone else talking about African wildlife.

Whether you have a trip to Africa planned or just love learning about animals, finding out more about the Big Five Animals can be incredibly interesting.

Where the Term Came From

As mentioned, the term The Big Five comes from game hunters. The term dates back to the colonial period in the late 1800s. But surprisingly, it doesn’t refer to the largest animals that people have hunted in Africa. It refers to the hardest (and most dangerous) ones to hunt on foot.

These animals are:

The Switch from Hunting to Safaris

As mentioned, it is now very commonly used by safari guides. You will commonly see safari operators tell you that you will see the Big Five animals instead of individually listing them all.

Many tourists who visit certain parts of Africa make it their goal to see the Big Five. This is an especially admirable goal as all five of the species are facing decreases in their populations.

More on the Term and the Animals’ Importance

All of the Big Five game animals feature prominently in popular culture in various parts of Africa. They are also among the most famous of the continent’s large animals. Of course, given the size of the continent, not all of the Big Five are found in the wild in every country.

All of the Big Five are in the following countries:

As an interesting note, South African banknotes (of the rand, the local currency) featured Big Five animals. Each animal appeared on a different denomination.

#1 African Buffalo

The Big Five
Cape buffalo, despite weighing as much as a ton, can race up to 40 mph, jump up to 6 feet vertically, and can quickly pivot to combat predators.

PACO COMO/Shutterstock.com

When you spot African buffalos, they are almost always in large groups, frequently groups of thousands. This is one of the species’ defenses to keep predators away. Interestingly, this is the only of the Big Five that is not “threatened” or “endangered.”

Looking at African buffalos, you will notice that all of them have horns. You can tell the difference between males and females by taking a closer look at those horns. Males have horns that curve up and then fuse to form a “boss.” This is a bony plate in the center, and it is a key part of the animals’ defense.

If you see an African buffalo, like most of the other animals on this list, keep your distance. These animals are very large and known for being aggressive. If they aren’t in a protected area, there is a high risk of human conflict.

It is even risky for lions to take on an African buffalo. Between their aggressive nature, the fact that they weigh three times as much as the big cats, and the bony “boss,” lions would have their work cut out for them. It is not uncommon for a lion that attacks a buffalo to die. Despite this, lions are still the primary predators of buffalos.

You may look at the African buffalo and assume that the water buffalo is a close cousin. But that is not the case. Another big difference between the two is that no one has ever domesticated the African buffalo, as the animal is too dangerous.

#2 African Elephant

The Big Five
An African Elephant in the National park of Kenya, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. African elephants are the biggest animals that walk the earth at present.

Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock.com

The African elephant is the largest of the Big Five, and it can easily weigh seven tons. As such, it should go without saying that you don’t want to interfere with them. They are also harder to hunt because there is a higher risk that they will charge you compared to some of the other Big Five, and they hide in the tall African grasses.

There are several types of African elephants, and depending on who you ask, all or some of them may be included in the Big Five. It is the African savanna elephant that can weigh seven tons. There are also smaller African forest elephants in the Congo Basin forests. These are about three feet smaller and genetically different. African bush elephants are closely related to the African forest elephant.

To give an idea of the habits and size of the African savanna elephant, consider that they can have a huge impact on the local landscape. They commonly pull up trees and turn areas into grasslands. They also tend to disperse seeds, increasing biodiversity. Nature has helped this process, as many plants evolved, so their seeds have to go through the digestive tract of an elephant before germinating.

Unfortunately for elephants, they have been among the most sought-after species by poachers for years, along with rhinos. This has led to their range being fragmented, especially in southern and central Africa.

One interesting fact about African elephants is that they use low-frequency communications that humans can’t hear. They use these sounds to communicate across many miles. Elephants are social, and the groups are led by matriarchs. Groups commonly have more than 100 elephants in them. Female calves will typically stay with the same group throughout their life. By contrast, males leave the herd when they are young adults, creating bachelor groups and then their own herds.

#3 Black Rhinoceros

The Big Five
Rare big Black Rhino with an amazing horn in the bushes of Masai Mara, Kenya.

Maggy Meyer/Shutterstock.com

While some lists of the Big Five will specifically include the black rhinoceros, others will just include rhinoceroses in general, including white ones. But “white rhinos” don’t get their name from their color. It is from the Dutch word “weit,” meaning wide, describing their muzzle. Despite that, white rhinos are lighter, typically yellowish brown to slate gray.

The black and white rhinos are technically different species. There are five subspecies. Black subspecies include the southwestern, eastern, and southern central black rhinos. White subspecies include the southern and northern white rhino.

Unfortunately, these are the only five subspecies of this Big Five animal left. There were more subspecies, but poaching, especially for horns, has made several extinct. For example, the western black rhino officially went extinct fairly recently in 2011.

While northern white rhinos technically still exist, they are functionally extinct, as the last male died in 2018. If you want to spot a southern white rhino, you will have to go to southern Africa. Meanwhile, black rhinos are more common in southern and east Africa. Thanks to conservation efforts, the black rhino population is doing better than it used to.

Even so, out of all the Big Five, the rhino is the most endangered. The demand for horns has driven poaching. Because of this, most rhinos are in reserves or national parks.

An interesting note about rhinos is that while their smell and hearing are excellent, they have poor vision. As such, the first two senses frequently make up for the latter. Even so, you may spot a rhino attacking a rock or tree.

#4 Leopard

The Big Five
Leopards are pound for pound the strongest of the big cats. They will take heavy prey into the branches of trees to protect it from other predators.

lightstock/Shutterstock.com

Of the Big Five, the leopard is the smallest and the hardest to spot. Part of the reason why they are so hard to find is that they are solitary, secretive, and nocturnal.

Most leopards are lightly colored and feature their distinctive dark spots called rosettes. That being said, there are also black leopards. These are commonly called black panthers, and while they do have spots, they are nearly impossible to spot.

When leopards make a large kill, like an antelope or zebra, they will bring it up into a tree. This helps stop hyenas or lions from stealing their meal. This is also a safety measure, as leopards have predators of their own, including the lion.

In addition to the larger animals that they bring up into trees, leopards also sometimes eat crabs and fish. They are also great swimmers.

#5 Lion

The Big Five
The majestic lion is the only one of the big cats to live in groups. A pride can be up to 30 animals strong, depending on the food and water available.

iStock.com/Shawn Levin

Lions stand out among big cats as the only one that is social. Unlike media portrayals, don’t expect them to have a monarchy. Instead, they may have a dominant male, but the dominant male can change very quickly. It definitely doesn’t depend on lineage.

But even if a male is in charge of the lions, their society is matrilineal. Females will stay in the pride that they are born in. In fact, it is much more common for females to be in charge as they hold their territories. While male lions do hunt, the lionesses are the primary hunters for their pride. They hunt in open areas in large groups, chasing down their prey until they exhaust it. Male lions, on the other hand, are typically solitary hunters who use areas with dense vegetation to sneak up on their targets.

Interestingly, lions’ manes get darker as the big cat ages. Lion cubs are also born with markings in the shape of a rosette. These fade as the lions age.

Conclusion

The Big Five animals are the five African animals that are hardest to hunt on foot. While the term was originally used by hunters, it is now more commonly associated with safaris. This is a natural result of the decline of hunting and the rise of safaris. Most of the Big Five are either threatened or endangered, with several rhino subspecies being extinct. As such, there are conservation efforts directed at many of these animals.

The Big 5 Summary

Below you’ll find the summary of the Big Five African animals, ranked by colonial hunting difficulty.

RankAnimal NameConsiderations
1African BuffaloThese animals live in large groups, making them dangerous to approach on foot.
2African ElephantWith some subspecies weighing up to seven tons, their size makes them formidable to smaller creatures (including humans).
3Black RhinocerosRhinos can be a major threat to humans who encroach on their territory thanks to their impressive size, horn, and charging power.
4LeopardLeopards are fast, stealthy felines that spend most of their time in trees. Not only are they difficult to spot, they use their high vantage point to pounce on prey from above.
5LionLions are the only big cats that live in communities. They are highly territorial, and often headed by the females of the pride.

Up Next…

That’s it for the African Big Five, but we have plenty more articles to keep you going. Check out these next:

10 Extinct Animals in Africa – Discover ten native African animals that went extinct.

Animals Bigger Than an African Elephant – Think African elephants are big? Find out which animals are even bigger!

Types of Lions: Every Lion Species and Lower Classifications – Learn interesting facts about all the different types of lions.

The Big Five
The Big Five
Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock.com
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About the Author

Emily is an editor and content marketing specialist of five years. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania where you can regularly encounter anything from elk to black bears to river otters. Over the years, she raised livestock animals, small animals, dogs, cats, and birds, which is where she learned most of what she knows about various animals and what allowed her to work as a dog groomer and manager of a specialty pet store. She now has three rescue cats and two high-needs Pomeranian mixes to take up her love and attention.

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