Once mostly targeted by hunters, these large species are “awe-inspiring” sights for safari-goers.

What are Africa’s Big Five? Meet the continent’s most iconic wildlife

The Big 5 are Africa’s undisputed super stars and the reason tourists set out eagerly on dawn and dusk game-viewing excursions. There can be no argument that giraffe and zebra are prettier creatures than buffalo, or that cheetah can be easier to find than leopard, but seeing any of the Big 5 living wild and free in their natural habitats remains an unforgettable thrill at the top of most travelers’ safari tick list.

The term ‘Big 5’ was originally coined in the 19th Century by big game hunters who listed African elephant, Cape buffalo, African lion, leopard and rhinoceros as the five most dangerous creatures to hunt on foot in Africa. Fortunately, the Big 5 are now protected in national parks and private game reserves, and the term is synonymous with photographic safaris. Today’s tourists contribute directly to the conservation of these magnificent animals across encroachments like poaching, wildlife trafficking and habitat destruction.

When is the Best Time to See the Big 5?

Peak safari season runs from about July to October across Africa. This coincides with the continent’s cool, dry winter. There are several reasons why it’s easier to find them at these times:

• The lack of rain means the vegetation dries up and thins out, literally making it easier to see a rhino or buffalo compared to the long, dense grass and heavy foliage of summer. This particularly applies to leopards, which spend much of their time in trees – in winter, they will have fewer leaves, making these sleek felines easier to spot.

• The lack of rain also means that ponds, streams, puddles and smaller water courses dry up, forcing animals to congregate around the remaining large lakes and rivers. Most animals must drink every day so they don’t stray too far from the little water that is left. This is particularly true of herds of buffalo and elephant, which often migrate to lile-giving rivers like the Chobe at the border of Namibia and Botswana.

Big 5 safari

African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

Arguably Africa's most famous inhabitant, the colossal African Elephant is Earth's largest land mammal, qualifying as 'big' in every sense of the word.

Their incisors grow into tusks, which they use to move objects, dig and as weapons, while their famously large ears help control their body temperature. Related females live in family groups with their calves, while mature males live alone or in bachelor herds. Elephants are gregarious with multiple family groups socializing together.

There are two varieties of African elephant: the larger bush elephant you'll see on the plains, and the smaller forest elephant. Both species are surprisingly good at hiding and can be quite aggressive if provoked.

Best Place to See Elephants: Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire, and the Serengeti in Tanzania. Tsavo, Amboseli, and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.Chobe National Park in Botswana. Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa. Etosha National Park in Namibia

Big 5 safari

Lion (Panthera leo)

About 10 000 years ago, lions were among the most widespread large land mammals after humans. Today, they are a vulnerable species with most of the world’s wild lions living in sub-Saharan Africa. Lions are unusually social compared to other cats - a pride consists of related females, their cubs and a handful of adult males. Prides spend their days dozing in comfort and hunt in the dark hours between dusk and dawn. Females typically hunt together and are considered apex predators.

A relatively common sight in both east and Southern Africa, the regal lion is a social big cat that can look remarkably like a larger-than-life housecat when they're sunning themselves on rocks or playing together.

The males have gorgeous manes, while the females do the lion's share (pun intended) of the hunting and child-rearing.

Best Place to See Lions: Lake Manyara, Ruaha, Nyerere, Mikumi,Katavi, Ngorongoro, and the Serengeti in Tanzania. Aboseli and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. Akagera National Park in Rwanda.Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. South Luangwa National Park in Zambia

Big 5 safari

Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Leopards are smaller and lighter than jaguars with similar rosettes on their fur and, like jaguars, melanistic leopards are called black panthers. Leopards are solitary creatures that make excellent use of camouflage and are strong enough to drag their prey up into trees, away from rival predators and scavengers. Leopards are one of the fastest big cats, able to reach speeds up to 58km / 36mi per hour. Leopards are masters of camouflage, naturally shy and nocturnal, which is why they are so hard to find and observe in the wild. If this is the creature you most want to see, definitely let your consultant know so that your game viewing takes place in reserves where leopard sightings are regular and the population of these cats is healthy and stable.

Best Place to See Leopards: The Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya.Sabi Sands in South Africa. Moremi in Botswana. South Luangwa in Zambia

Big 5 safari

Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

Rhinos range in colour from pale grey to medium brown – it’s not their colour but the shape of their upper lip that determines which sub-species is which. ‘Black’ rhinos have a hooked, pointed upper lip while ‘white’ rhinos have a broad, square upper lip. The species is classified as critically endangered: rhinos are killed to supply the demand for their horns in Asia. A rhino horn is made of keratin – the same substance as our hair and nails – which means it will re-grow if cut. However, the illegal trade values the base of the horn under the skin, the harvesting of which results in such severe wounds that rhinos that might have survived the initial assault invariably die of shock and blood loss when their horns are removed by chainsaw or machete.

Best Places to See Rhinos: Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Lake Nakuru National Park and Nairobi National Park in Kenya. Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Uganda.Moremi in Botswana. Phinda Private Game Reserve, Madikwe and Sabi Sand in South Africa. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Grumeti Game Reserve in Tanzania. Mkomanzi National Park in Tanzania

Big 5 safari

African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

The African or Cape buffalo is a large, horned bovine found in South and East Africa. Both males and females have horns that form a continuous bone shield across the top of their skulls. Buffalo are very unpredictable and quite fearless, which explains why buffalo have never been domesticated. They are not the ancestors of domestic cattle and are only distantly related to other bovines, like the Asian water buffalo. Only lions have the group strength to hunt buffalos and these bovines are no easy meal – they are quite capable of defending themselves and will gore predators to protect their herd mates. A herd of buffalo can easily intimidate a pride of lions and there is footage of a resolute buffalo putting its head down and simply ‘walking off’ attacking juvenile lions.

Best Places to See African Buffalo: Tarangire, Manyara, Ruaha, Mikumi, Nyerere, Arusha, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti in Tanzania.Amboseli, Nakuru, Tsavo and the Maasai Mara in Kenya.Chobe in Botswana. Addo in South Africa. Hwange in Zimbabwe

Best Places to See the Big 5 on Safari in Africa

Members of the Big 5 are found in different concentrations across Africa. If you want the best chance of seeing them all on a single safari – sometimes, if you’re really lucky on a single game drive or in a single day – then head to the following places:

1: Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater offers incredible wildlife viewing. Although animals can move in and out of the crater, climbing the steep caldera walls requires some effort, so much of the wildlife is resident inside. This includes a healthy population of black rhino. These shy creatures are rarely seen in East Africa, but the crater is one of the few places where they are easy to find. The other four members of the Big 5 are prolific as well, although leopard sightings are hit-and-miss, and less likely inside the crater than on the forested rim. The good news is that these elusive cats are quite common in the Seronera area of Serengeti National Park, the next stop after Ngorongoro on most northern Tanzanian safari itineraries.

• When to visit Ngorongoro Crater: Wildlife viewing is always good in the crater, but marginally better in the Dry season when the grass is short and animals are easier to spot. The calving season of the wildebeest is from January to February and the best time to avoid the crowds is in the low season months, April and May.

• Where to stay: Several upmarket lodges are perched on the crater rim offering great views over the crater floor. There is a campsite on the rim as well, but be warned, it gets very cold here at night. Several lodges and hotels in the gateway town of Karatu are also used for visits to the crater. There is no accommodation within the crater, itself.

2: Kruger National Park – South Africa

Whether you’re on a guided tour or self-driving, Kruger National Park is a great choice for a Big 5 safari. The park is the size of a small country, and the wide variety of habitats it protects is reflected by the varied wildlife. Identifying all the different antelope species in Kruger can be an enjoyable challenge. In terms of the Big 5, lion, buffalo and elephant are easily found in southern Kruger, which is also one of the best places to see white rhino. With time on your hands and a bit of luck, you might spot a leopard too. Make sure to be out and about at dawn and dusk to increase your chances of seeing this shy cat which is active at night.

• When to visit Kruger: Wildlife viewing in Kruger is best from May to September. These are the dry winter months when animals don’t stray far from waterholes and rivers. During the wet summer months, the bush gets very thick and animals are more difficult to spot.

• Where to stay: Well-equipped, basic rest camps offering campsites and huts can be found throughout Kruger. Several private concessions within the park offer a luxurious and more exclusive alternative.

3: Sabi Sand Game Reserve – South Africa

Spotting the Big 5 doesn’t get easier than in Sabi Sand Game Reserve. This cluster of jointly-managed private reserves has open borders with Kruger and forms part of the same ecosystem, but animals tend to be more relaxed. Furthermore, unlike in Kruger, guided drives in open vehicles are permitted to head off-road, which makes for fantastic close-up viewing. The real star of Sabi Sand is the leopard. Nowhere else is this usually shy creature so habituated? Most guests are treated to sightings of leopards as they go about their daily routine: a male patrolling or hunting, a female nursing cubs, possibly even a mating pair in action.

• When to visit Sabi Sand: There is no bad time to visit Sabi Sand, but wildlife viewing is best in the dry winter months from May to September.

• Where to stay: There are many lodges spread over the different reserves of Sabi Sand. All offer a similar experience inclusive of meals and activities. The standard of décor, service and guiding is superb. There is no camping or budget accommodation in Sabi Sand.

4: Mana Pools National Park – Zimbabwe

Mana Pools, a World Heritage Site, is Zimbabwe’s most exciting national park for activities. It is prime territory for a Big 5 safari, and game drives are hugely rewarding. But what sets Mana Pools apart is the opportunity for genuine adventure via walking and canoeing safaris. Paddling on the Zambezi River is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Aside from gliding past huge crocodiles and hundreds of hippos, you’re likely to see elephant and buffalo coming to drink, possibly even a pride of lions. And if you think seeing these animals from a canoe will get the adrenaline going, imagine how you’ll feel approaching any of the Big 5 on foot!

• When to visit Mana Pools: The best time for wildlife viewing is in the Dry season when animals stay close to the river and the bush is thin. The roads get very bad in the Wet season and part of the park might get closed off from December to March.

• Where to stay: There are several small, exclusive camps in the park as well as basic campsites.

5: Masai Mara National Reserve – Kenya

The Masai Mara is home to all of the Big 5 but is most famous for big cats. You’ll be tripping over lions and cheetahs as they are remarkably common, and leopards are regularly seen too. Black rhinos are also present, but unless you’re fortunate enough to stay in the remote Mara Triangle in the far west, your chances of seeing one are slim. However, Lake Nakuru National Park, a popular stop-over en route to the Masai Mara, is home to both black and white rhino. The latter is commonly seen in small family groups grazing around the lake.

• When to visit Masai Mara: Wildlife viewing is good throughout the year. To catch the wildebeest migration, you should aim to be here between late August and early October.

• Where to stay: There is no shortage of accommodation inside and just outside the reserve. All budgets and styles are catered for. There are several campsites as well.

6: Phinda Game Reserve – South Africa

Phinda is one of South Africa’s top private Big 5 game reserves. You have a choice of four stunning accommodations spread out over the reserve’s different habitats: Rock, Mountain, Forest and Vlei (wetland) Lodge. The guiding is superb and you’ll easily see four of the Big 5 (lion, elephant, buffalo and white rhino) as well as some Zululand specials, such as the graceful nyala and the shy red duiker. Although there are plenty of leopards around, you’d be lucky to see one. As compensation, Phinda’s flagship species is the cheetah and sightings of this graceful big cat tend to be incredible.

• When to visit Phinda: Phinda’s wildlife viewing is always great but animals are slightly easier to find in the Dry season from May to September.

• Where to stay: There are four luxury lodges in Phinda.

7: Akagera National Park – Rwanda

While Rwanda is well known for its mountain gorillas, it is also home to the Big 5 and many other savannah-dwelling animals. The place to go on a classic safari in Rwanda is Akagera National Park. Wildlife here was heavily depleted by warfare and poaching, but since 2010 it has made an impressive comeback. Following the reintroduction of black rhinos and lions in 2017, Akagera offers a truly off-the-beaten track opportunity to see the Big 5 in Africa.

• When to visit Akagera: The Dry season, from June to September, is the best time to visit.

• Where to stay: There is a luxury tented camp, a seasonal bush camp and a midrange lodge inside the park. There are also several campsites without facilities available to self-sufficient travelers.

8: Murchison Falls National Park – Uganda

Murchison Falls National Park is as much worth visiting for its spectacular scenery as for its wildlife. It is bisected by the Victoria Nile River. A boat trip to the base of the waterfall for which the park is named is not to be missed. The river is home to hundreds of hippos and crocodiles and, in the afternoon, you’re likely to see buffalo and elephant on the shore. Murchison Falls is not a complete Big 5 destination as rhino is missing, but many visitors stop in at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary en route for an exciting rhino tracking experience.

• When to visit Murchison Falls: December to February is best for general wildlife viewing but be prepared for hot weather at that time.

• Where to stay: There is a good choice of upmarket and midrange lodges inside the park and budget accommodation is available just outside. There are several campsites too.

9: Okavango Delta – Botswana

The Okavango is one of Africa’s most iconic wildlife destinations. The delta is home to all of the Big 5, although rhino (both black and white) can be hard to find. Buffalo and elephant thrive in the wetlands, and you should see some big cats as well. The most productive activity for spotting typical safari animals, including the Big 5, is a game drive. But you should put aside time to do a guided walk and for exploring the delta’s channels by mokoro (traditional dugout canoe). Gliding silently through waterlilies, dodging the odd hippo and scanning the shore for animals coming to drink, is an experience that will stay with you long after your trip.

• When to visit Okavango: The best time for wildlife viewing is from July to October.

• Where to stay: There are dozens of luxury lodges in the Okavango. Camping is popular too.

10: Majete Game Reserve – Malawi

Majete Game Reserve is one of Africa’s modern environmental success stories. Prior to 2003, the park was almost completely hunted out. Since then, under the management of African Parks, nearly 5,000 individual animals, including all of the Big 5, have been reintroduced. Elephants have bred so successfully that a surplus of 200 individuals were relocated to Nkhotakota Game Reserve. Although sightings require a bit of patience, Majete offers a totally unspoiled experience, far away from the crowds. A ‘behind the scenes’ tour, offering insight into what it takes to run a Big 5 reserve, is recommended.

• When to visit Majete: You can visit anytime, but July to October is best for wildlife viewing.

• Where to stay: There are two midrange lodges to choose from (one inside and one just outside the game reserve). Top of the range is an exclusive luxury lodge which operates in its own private concession. Campers are taken care of in a well-equipped community campsite.

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