Who are the Big Five?

The Big Five

Have you ever heard anyone refer to the Big Five?  If you mention Africa, you’ll no doubt know about the Big Five, but even those who travel to Africa often have no idea who or what the Big Five really are.  Invariably, they will name animals, sightings, or sites, which are not part of the Big Five.  Well, I’m going to clarify it for you once and for all, so when anyone you know mentions the Big Five, you can stun them with your wealth of knowledge.

Trophy Animals

The term Big Five goes back to the time of the big-game hunters and refers to the five most difficult, dangerous and also most popular trophy animals for hunters to hunt on foot.  However, in more current day terminology, the Big Five is referred to as the most popular animals seen on safari and the most commonly associated with African safaris.

Here are the Big Five and some interesting facts about each of them:

Cape Buffalo Cape Buffalo (M’bogo in Swahili), can be found in most safari destinations.  They mate and give birth usually during the rainy season.  They are one of Africa’s most dangerous animals and will defend their calves by surrounding them in the middle of the herd.  Herds of buffalo will come to the aid of a calf in danger.  They are seen in large numbers and have been known to kill many hunters in the past.   Buffalo are not related to the domestic cattle.  The horns are quite different than other animals, and they are skilled grazers. A grazer is an animals that eats the grasses on the plains.  As a general rule, it does take a larger pride of lions to take down a buffalo, but a weak or sick buffalo can be singled out by one or two lions.


Black RhinocerosBlack Rhinoceros (Kifaru in Swahili), used to be found in most of the safari destinations throughout Africa.  They have now become almost extinct due to illegal hunting and poaching, and the demand for Rhino horn throughout countries in Asia.  There are two species – Black Rhino and White Rhino.  The specific species are not actually black nor white, usually they are all grey.  Their appearance can often be easily identified by their mouth.  The ‘wide’ mouth of the  White rhino, over the years and with language differences and inflections, has characterized the ‘wide’ mouth rhino to be known as the WHITE rhino, while Black Rhino have a more distinct rounded mouth.  Their habitat is different too, the white rhinos are grazers living on the savanna, and the black are known to strip leaves off bushes.  If a rhino is able to live out his life, it would be from 30-50 years.


African ElephantAfrican Elephant (Tembo in Swahili), is the largest land mammal in the world and is extremely adaptable.  They would not survive without their trunk, which is used like a hand, and often facilitated by the tusks.  The elephant is continuously threatened for its ivory, also in great demand throughout Asia.  They too are illegally hunted and poached.  Conservationists predict that in the next 5-8 years, elephants may not exist, certainly not in the numbers they do now, which is down considerable over the past few years.  Elephants are very social and reside in family groups.  They eat grass, leaves, bark, fruit and can cause significant destruction. If an elephant feels threatened, the sound of their trumpet alone will scare the you know what out of you! Elephants are seen throughout the safari destinations throughout Africa.

African LionAfrican Lion (Simba in Swahili), once you have seen one, you will know why they are considered KING of the jungle.  They are very large animals, live in prides of several females along with their young and perhaps a couple of young males.  They hunt with a strategy that is sometimes amazingly precise, with most of the females doing the hunting. Lions are known to ambush their prey, rather than track it, as other animals might do, i.e., hyena.  Males are usually kicked out of the pride anywhere from age 2 to 4 years of age, to fend for themselves and go off and start a pride of their own.  Lions rest around 20 hours a day, do climb trees, and do not purr like domesticated cats. They generally do not like to swim, but in areas where there is only water, i.e., Botswana, they have become very adept at swimming and hunting in the water. Lions do have spots, though not as visible as a cheetah or leopard. Though the lion numbers are dwindling, they are seen in almost every major safari destination.

African LeopardAfrican Leopard (Chui in Swahili), is a very elusive animal.  Chances are, if they are not right in front of you, you will not spot one.  Your driver, however, will be quick to point out a leopard in the tree or grasses that blend in so perfectly with the environment around it. You might never see one, as you drive by it, if it weren’t pointed out to you.  The leopard spots are a perfect camouflage.  The only predator a leopard has is man and unfortunately, there are many who want the skin of this animal to decorate their home or to for a trophy on the wall.  They are near threatened because of this. A leopard will carry it’s kill up a tree, and often the kill may be larger than he is; but watching it, seems like a simple process for the stealthy leopard.  A leopard does not ‘roar’ but sounds more like a domestic cat, they are very creative in stalking their prey.  Their spots are called rosettes, and are quite different than a cheetah, which they are often mistaken for.  The rosettes may differ in various parts of the world, and there are different types of leopards, but all have some sort of pattern to them. Because Leopards are so elusive, it is not always easy to know how many exist in any given destination, but typically leopards do exist in many safari destinations.


That’s it for the Big Five….If you can remember BRELL (like the old commercial product PRELL), then you will have no trouble remembering what they are.  If you don’t remember the product, hopefully, you will remember the acronym. Thanks to one of my travelers for coming up with it.

No, no cheetah, no hippo or crocodiles are part of this big five though they can be seen on safari. So the next time someone tells you they are part of the Big Five, feel free to correct them with you new wealth of knowledge.

For more information on upcoming safaris, please visit my Upcoming Safaris page, or if you’d like to come to my next presentation on Africa, Let’s Go on Safari.

Safari Kay