Big Five Animals | Facts About These Iconic African Mammals

October 14, 2022

Are you familiar with safari animals? And no, not the ones searched on Apple web browser. If you’ve ever been to Africa, you’ve definitely heard about the iconic Big Five animals.

The Big Five includes lions, elephants, buffalos, rhinos, and leopards. These groups of mammals are incredibly popular in game reserves and safari tours. The term ‘Big Five’ first came into use to describe and identify the five most difficult animals to hunt by foot.

Nowadays, the term is more ubiquitous, as the Big Five are much-loved, valued, and protected. Although it is still legal to hunt the Big Five, the bounty is much pricier. And given the possible extinction of some of these glorious animals, it is much better to observe them at African safaris resorts or game reserves.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Big Five, stick around.

A Closer Look at The Big Five

Time to dive deeper into each Big Five animal, from their characteristics to where you can find them.

The African Lion


The lion is arguably the most famous of The Big Five animals. Popularly referenced as the “kings of the animal kingdom,” lions sit atop the animal food chain.

These felines can weigh up to 550 lbs and are superb hunters. Lions can eat as much as 15 lbs of meat in one sitting or 15% of their body weight. Lions kill their prey with a bite to the neck or clamping their jaws around its throat until it suffocates.


Lions are social animals, so naturally, they hunt in groups, with a pride of lions ranging from 2 to 40 members. Their cubs are also raised in groups and are almost always reared by the lionesses.

Contrary to popular belief, lions do not stay in the jungle. There are two recognized species: the African lion which lives south of the Sahara Desert, and the central/west African lion. A small population of the Asiatic lion can also be found in western India.

Read more: Learn more about the hunting difference between lion and lionesses.

The African Elephant


Elephants are the world’s largest land animals, so it’s no wonder they are a part of the Big Five. But don’t let their mammoth size scare you. These creatures are as gentle as they come – unless provoked.

Elephants have many distinct features, including their ears, trunks, tusks, and brain.

Elephant ears are remarkably huge. Interestingly, you can tell elephants apart by the shape of their ears. African elephants (which have a spot on the Big Five) have much larger ears with a similar shape to the African continent. Indian elephants, on the other hand, have smaller and rounder ears.


Ever heard the phrase, “an elephant never forgets?” Well, there’s some truth to that. Scientific studies suggest that the part of the elephant’s brain associated with memory (the temporal lobe) is considerably bigger than humans. Impressively, an elephant’s brain can retain all memory from birth until death.

Elephants use their trunks for many purposes. They can grab objects, crack open fruits and nuts, drink water, and trumpet with their trunks. It’s no surprise that trunks are an elephant’s strongest organ, with a whopping 15 000 muscles.

The African Buffalo


The Cape buffalo is the largest bovine in Africa. These weighty cow-like mammals can reach up to 11 feet in length and can weigh anything between 660 lbs and 1900 lbs. This is not surprising, as these herbivores feast on 24 lbs of grass, shrubs, and aquatic plants daily.

Interestingly, Cape buffalos kill more hunters than any other species. They are also known to kill lions. Although they have poor eyesight and hearing, the African buffalo’s acute sense of smell makes for excellent defense. Their moody behavior and ability to charge without warning make these unpredictable creatures extremely difficult to hunt.


The Cape buffalo’s most distinct feature is its horns. The horns help determine these enormous bovine’s age and sex. The older the buffalo, the larger the horns.

Large adult males have horns that meet in the middle of their heads. This dense shield is called a “boss.” The Cape buffalo uses their horns for defense and to display dominance while mating. Female Cape buffalos have narrower and smaller horns.

Tip: For an up close and personal view of the African buffalo in South Africa, check out the South African safari guide.

The Black Rhino


Black rhinos have a misleading name – they aren’t actually black. Their skin is, in fact, gray and very sensitive to the harsh African atmosphere. Their skin also gets sunburnt pretty quickly. Sunscreen anyone?

Black rhinos are the third biggest rhino species. They can weigh anything between 1,760 lbs and 3,090 lbs. Their diets consist of a staggering 220 types of plants, and their big appetite contributes to their large bodies.


Black rhinos are most common in wetlands. Their habitats always have access to water sources like ponds, lakes, or rivers.

Herds of black rhinos can be found throughout southern and eastern Africa, from Kenya down to South Africa. Once an almost extinct species, rhinos currently have a population greater than 5000.

The Leopard


To close off the list, we have another feline – the leopard. You can find them across sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, India, and China. They have varying natural habitats, depending on the species.

African leopards are usually a pale yellow to deep gold hue. Their fur is covered in spots called “rosettes” because of how they resemble the shape of a rose. They are incredibly fast-paced and can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.


Leopards are nocturnal, which means they hunt at night. When not ferociously hunting for prey, you’ll find leopards resting on grass or camouflaged in a tree.

Like most cats, leopards are solitary creatures. Leopards enjoy their alone time so much that they even hunt individually. When hunting, leopards go into stealth mode. They move cautiously before making an ambush with a fearsome bite to their prey’s neck.

Frequently Asked Questions About The Big Five

Time to answer some of the burning questions you may have about the Big Five.


Where Can I Find The Big Five?

You can find the Big Five across central, eastern, and southern Africa. Countries with some or all of the Big Five animals include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Why Aren’t Hippos Part of The Big Five?

The Big Five does not necessarily include the biggest known land animals. If it did, hippos would definitely be considered a Big Five animal. Although hippos are dangerous and have a kill count higher than any other Big Five animal, they aren’t among the most challenging to hunt.


Why is The Big Five Only in Africa?

The Big Five animals require specific habitats. Africa has great weather, expansive vegetation, and a variety of prey. All these factors make the African continent the perfect home for the Big Five.

Do The Big Five Roam Around the City in Africa?

The Big Five are incredibly dangerous, so they cannot roam the streets of African cities. Like any other country, wildlife is secluded from the inner city. In most cases, you’ll find the Big Five wandering around in private game reserves.


Are Game Reserves Safe for The Big Five?

Because the Big Five are highly sought-after, they are extremely vulnerable to extinction. Enclosing the Big Five animals in game reserves is a great way to conserve and protect them. In a game reserve, the Big Five animals are within a controlled environment, which minimizes the danger of being hunted excessively.

Final Thoughts on The Big Five

The Big Five are incredibly interesting animals. They’ve even appeared on old South African bills. Ultimately, each animal represents the beauty and unpredictable nature of the wild.

If you enjoyed reading about the Big Five, you might want to check them out in real life. There are tons of all-inclusive African Safari vacations to choose from. Whether it be at the Serengeti or the Kruger National Park, the perfect safari experience awaits.

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