First-Timer’s Guide to Seeing Africa’s Big 5 Animals on Safari

If you were asked, which are the Big 5 of the African safari world, would you know? Most safari enthusiasts know some or all of the Big 5 and many feel that seeing even one of these extraordinary animals in action would be the icing on the cake of their safari experience.

So which are the Big 5 animals of Africa, and what tips should you follow while seeing them? Here are top tips and guidelines to help you get the most out of your safari and with luck seeing some or all of the Big 5.

For additional guidance on what not to do on African big five safaris, refer to our guide:  Top Tips: What Not to Do on an African Safari

Safari Guidelines

Tip #1: Respect The Animals

Though we’re sure you understand this point, it’s an important one to reiterate. Even something as simple as wanting to touch an animal that gets up close may end in disaster. For both the safety of yourself and the animals, respect their personal space, listen to your guide and follow their instructions at all times.

Tip #2: Research Before You Go

If there’s a particular animal scenario you have your heart set on seeing – a herd of elephants having a mud bath, a pride of lion sunning themselves, a leopard relaxing in a tree – do plenty of research beforehand to choose the right place where there may be a chance of witnessing this scene. Look up which animals live where and use that as a factor in choosing your big five safari destination.

Tip #3: Timing Is Everything

There are many factors that go into determining the likelihood of animals making an appearance on your safari, but there are a few that stay constant. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see wildlife as these are the cooler times of day when animals head out from the shade and into the open. In addition, Africa’s dry season offers more opportunities to spot game when there is less foliage, so it’s easier to see the animals, and with water sources drying up they have to venture out further afield for food and water, thus increasing your viewing chances.

Tip #4: Go Private

Private safaris, when it’s just you and your family/friends with a guide, can be advantageous for game viewing. There’s more flexibility on timing, and your guide can often take you off the beaten path to find or follow an animal you’re interested in. Do note that a private game viewing vehicles as opposed to those with a mixture of guests, often attract a surcharge.

Which Are The Big 5 Animals Of Africa?

This majestic group group of animals encompasses elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo. The term originates from the late 1800s as the five most dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot. They were termed dangerous because of their behaviour when they feel threatened. Over time, this term has changed and now describes five of the largest and most popular animals to see on safaris. Thus, ticking off the big 5 is on many travellers bucket list. However, most parks and reserves offer more wildlife worth seeing roaming freely in their natural habitat.

1. Lion


  • African Lions are a vulnerable species, which is further hampered by their short life span. Over the past 25 years, the population of lions has declined with human conflict as a primary threat.
  • You can detect whether the lion is young or old from the colour of its m The ones with a darker mane are older and have high levels of testosterone.
  • Lions are the second-largest and second fastest of the wild cats, with 50mph their fastest speed, which they use to reach their prey before pouncing.
  • You can hear a lion’s roar from miles away. Their flat and square vocal cords allow them to roar loudly with the least effort.
  • Exclusively found in Sub-Saharan Africa, African Lions have keen hearing and acute eyesight, which helps them hear their prey from miles away and also makes them a great nocturnal predator.
  • The daily meat intake of a lioness is 5-8 kg, whereas a male lion eats 7-9 kg. A lioness can consume 25 kg of meat in one sitting, whereas a male lion consumes 40 kg.

Recommended Safari: 5-Day Classic African Safari Tour

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2. Elephant


  • African Elephants, another vulnerable species, are the largest land mammals in the world. They weigh up to 6 tonnes, measuring up to 3m high. African elephants weigh 120 kg at birth.
  • The Sub-Saharan species prefer rain forest and lush grasslands and woodlands, but over the years have evolved to survive in hot and arid climate zones, such as deserts.
  • Elephants have huge appetites: they consume 150 kg of food per day, which results in the majority of their day spent Baby elephants daily consume 11-12 kg of their mother’s milk.
  • Elephants have the longest pregnancies amongst all land mammals, lasting from 18 to 22 months.
  • Elephants live in tightly knit groups known as families. The elephants within the families share strong bonds and are separated only by death. An elephant’s cognitive abilities allow them to remember things and feel emotions such as anger, compassion, grief, joy and love.
  • Poachers are the primary threat to African elephants, hunting them for ivory.

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3. Rhino


  • Africa has two species of rhinoceros, the critically endangered black rhino and the near-threatened white rhino. Both are grey and can be primarily distinguished by the shape of their lips.
  • White rhinos get their name from the Dutch word ‘weit’, which means wide. Similarly, black rhinos aren’t black, but after spending a lot of time wallowing in mud, the local soil that covers them makes their skin look darker.
  • White rhinos have square lips meant for gripping and tearing grass, whereas the black rhinos have a pointed hooked upper lip, which helps them grab hold of spiky trees.
  • White rhinos are also larger than the black rhinos. White rhinos weigh 1,452 kg to 3,629 kg, while their counterparts (black rhinos) weigh 800 kg to 1,398 kg.
  • Their keen sense of smell and hearing make up for theirpoor eyesight.
  • Poachers and loss of habitat are both significant threats to these endangered species.

Recommended Safari: 7 Days Rhino Ngorongoro Crater Safari

Recommended Safari: 2 Days Splendid Rhino and Wild Dogs Safari

4. Cape Buffalo

Cape Buffalo

  • Cape Buffalo, commonly known as the African buffalo, is a Sub-Saharan African bovine species, widely regarded as the most dangerous amongst the big 5 safari animals. They are fierce and unpredictable – it takes an entire pride of lions to bring one down.
  • Their horns can help distinguish between the male and female buffalo. An adult male buffalo has horns that meet in the middle of their heads, forming a helmet-like shield used in defence as well as in a show of dominance. The female buffalo has smaller horns.
  • They can survive in a variety of habitats, from lowland rainforests to semi-arid regions, as long as there’s a water source nearby.
  • Buffaloes live in herds of 50-500. Occasionally, older male buffaloes leave their herds to form smaller packs. During the annual Great Migration, they gather in large groups of thousands, providing safety in numbers.
  • Surprisingly, Cape buffalo can run very fast at 37 mph, which helps them elude predators like leopards.

Recommended Safari: 6-Day Okavango Delta Experience

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5. Leopard


  • Leopards are fast and can run at a speed of 36 mph. Amongst the African cats, leopards are the only ones strong and agile enough to get their kill up in a tree away from scavengers like hyenas. They are also terrific swimmers.
  • Leopard cubs barely have visible spots when they are born. The pattern sets in as they grow. Leopard spots, shaped like rosettes, are different from cheetahs black spots, they are also similar to jaguar’s more complex spots.
  • Leopards are nocturnal predators, also known as master hunters. Their spotted coats help them blend into thick vegetation, such as tall grasses and trees.
  • Leopards have a varied diet ranging from antelopes, deers, pigs, dogs, fishand crabs.
  • They are usually solitary creatures, but a female leopard will protect her cub for about two years, keeping them close until they are old enough to hunt.

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Check our Big 5 Safari tours: Here

Where To Find the Big 5 in Africa?

While each of the big five can be spotted individually throughout Africa, there only a few locations where you can find them all together. We have created a list of the top four countries and places where you can spot each of the big five animals:

When is the Best Time to See the Big 5?

The African dry winter months from July to October are the best time to see the big five in Africa. The absence of rain dries up the vegetation, which makes it easier to spot leopards resting on trees and rhinos and buffaloes which are usually hidden behind the lush vegetation. The absence of rain also forces the animals to gather around waterholes, lakes and rivers, which highly increases the chances of spotting herds of elephants and buffaloes as well as rhinos, lions and leopards as they come down to drink.

Let’s Go On An Adventure!

Now you know the best ways to see the big five animals of Africa, you’re ready to embark on the safari of a lifetime! If you want to learn about how to make the most out of the best African safaris, check out some of the other posts on our blog.

Now get out there and remember to say hi to the lions for us!


Our expert in-country travel partners are ready to help you create your dream safari.

About author

MD and Co-Founder. Born in Zimbabwe, Robin has a long history in Africa, and safaris in general, from running lodges to marketing. He is always on the look out for new ideas and products from around the safari world.

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