The African Big Five: The Top 5 Animals to Spot on Safari

There are certainly a wide range of animals you can catch sight of during a safari in Africa (just check out my Safari Animal Bucket List to see how many!), but there are a handful that get the most adoration—the African Big 5—said to be the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. If you are traveling to halfway around the world for an African safari there is little doubt that you will want to spot these Big Five beauties, which include the African elephant, leopard, lion, Cape buffalo and the every so elusive rhino.

In case you’re curious to learn more about the animals that belong to the Big Five, or at least which safaris to look further into if you want to specifically spot one or more of them, I’ve given some insight of each one and their natural habitats below.


The African Big Five are the Top 5 Animals to Spot on Safari


What is the Big Five ?

The term “Big Five” was originally coined to refer to the animals on African Safaris that were the hardest and most dangerous to sport hunt. These Big Five animals were African elephants, Cape Buffalo, Leopard, Lion and Rhino. They’re still considered the African Big 5 today, although thankfully these days it’s more in terms of being the most sought after animals to see on a safari rather than to hunt down.


Meet the Big 5

African Elephant

The African elephant is the largest animal that walks on Earth (with the Antarctic blue whale being the largest animal on Earth overall). Two subspecies of the African elephant exist, with 37 of the countries in Africa having at least one subspecies—Savannah elephant and Forest elephant—roaming around their soil. African elephant’s status is considered vulnerable, with especially the Forest elephant suffering from poaching for their ivory.

WHERE TO SPOT IN AFRICA

African elephants are quite widely spread around the African continent, and your sure to see dozens while on safari. But even so, they are far easier to spot in some places than in others. For your best bet to spot an elephant during a safari, visit a safari in Botswana or South Africa, Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, or Damaraland in Namibia.


Cape Buffalo

Cape buffalo is a subspecies of the African buffalo, the one most commonly seen roaming about sub-Saharan Africa. They live in herds, with anywhere from 50 to 500 members, with any type of terrain being to their liking as long as there’s water nearby. During the rainy season, you may see a buffalo herd with thousands of members in Serengeti.

WHERE TO SPOT IN AFRICA

You can find cape buffalo in many areas across sub-Saharan Africa. However, just like with elephants, you’ll have a far easier time spotting a buffalo in some regions over others. Kruger National Park, Addo National Park and Hluhluwe Imfolozi game reserve are some of the best places to visit for a buffalo sighting, as well as of course Serengeti during the rainy season.


Leopard

Found in northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, leopards are strong and stealthy big cat animals. They hunt predominantly by stalking their prey in the tall grass, but also feel comfortable and at home up in the trees or in the water.

WHERE TO SPOT IN AFRICA

Your best bets for a sighting of a leopard are in Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti, especially the latter’s Seronera Valley. You can also spot a leopard in other national parks and game reserves in Kenya, in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, and in South Africa’s Londolozi Private Game Reserve.


Lion

Another big cat, lions are the second largest cat in the world, living in various terrains in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike other cat animals out there, lions are social animals living in prides of around 30 lions. One pride consists specifically of 3 males, a dozen females related to them, and the young of the pride, with males and females having their distinctive roles in the pride.

WHERE TO SPOT IN AFRICA

Depending on your interests, there are various spots to see lions in Africa. If you want to see a pride of lions that have taken a liking to water, head to Okavango Delta; in Chobe National Park, on the other hand, you are most likely to see lions in predator mode; in Masai Mara there are plenty to see any time of year; the lions of Namib Desert are some of the most resilient ones out there; and Kruger National Park has long been considered one of the best places to see a lion in the wild, especially among all the parks in South Africa.


Rhino

There are two species of this large animal on African soil: black rhino and white rhino, of which the black rhino is sadly listed as critically endangered species. Both of these rhinos are actually grey and have two horns (some rhino species outside of Africa only have one), for which they are sadly poached a lot.

WHERE TO SPOT IN AFRICA

For the largest population of white rhinos in Africa, head over to Kruger National Park in South Africa; meanwhile at Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania you can spot black rhinos. For a chance to see both species on one safari, you ought to try out the Mkhaya Game Reserve in Eswatini. A few other locations for spotting rhinos in Africa also exist, most notably Ol Pejeta Conservatory, Lake Nakuru National Park, and Kwandwe Game Reserve (where you may have a chance to see all of the Big Five!).


So, which of the Big Five Animals do you fancy seeing the most? Are you planning on choosing a tour specifically to see that specific animal or are you hoping to catch a sighting of all the Big Five on one safari? Many of us are likely dreaming of hopping into a vehicle and heading into a safari once in our lives, and what better experience to come out of it with than having seen the “king of the jungle” or the largest walking animal on Earth!


My Story & Experience:

Having a competitive nature, I was up for the challenge of spotting the Big Five Animals and it turns out that spotting these 5 was a pretty big one. Game on.

We had four days while on safari in Tanzania with Shadows of Africa to spot the Big Five. That was only 1.25 animals to identify per day. Pretty good odds.

Our trip started out promising with witnessing an African Elephant on our first day of safari in Tarengire National Park. Actually, there were a couple dozen elephants roaming the land. Looks like this whole spotting the Big Five thing was gonna be easy. Famous last words.

On day two, we scored big time in Serengeti National Park. It started with finding a male lion. And he was roaring. Do I get bonus points for the roar?

Also on this day there was the sighting of a Cape Buffalo toting a bird on his back. Plus, there was a cheetah. He was pretty far away, but I still saw him. So it counts.

It looked like I was winning this Big Five challenge against myself. And then day three came. There were a lot of repeats of what was already seen, but not the last animal on my Big Five hunt, the rhino.

Even on the last day of safari, in Ngorongoro Crater, we actually all felt pretty confident as we drove through the animal rich land.

Besides, if anyone could help spot us a rhino it would be our Shadows of Africa driver Timothy. I swear he can identify an animal a quarter mile away just by its shape and swagger. And he tried to find us a rhino. Really hard. He even had the CB turned on in case any other safari drivers spotted one first.

They did not.

There are only an estimated 21 rhinos in Ngorongoro Crater. That’s not a lot, considering the hundreds of wildebeest and zebra I had seen in the crater in the first half hour.

We drove to all the spots that the rhinos usually hung out, but came up empty. They had gone into the forest, a place we could only go on foot and there was no way I was stepping out of a jeep that was surrounded by lions, wildebeests and wart hogs. 

As the last day on safari came to an end, it became evident that the Big Five would be minus a Big One.

That’s okay, I’m coming back for you Mr. Rhino. Be ready.

UPDATE: I recently returned to Tanzania and finally spotted a rhino at Ngorongoro Crater!


More About Africa

Animal Bucket List: 100 Names of Random Ones to See
Freetown Bucket List: 15 Best Things to Do in the Capital of Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone Bucket List: 10+ Best Things to Do in the African Country
Ugali (Nshima): All About Africa’s Staple Food
African Safari in Tanzania: The Ultimate Itinerary and Tour
Africa’s Maasai Tribe: The Culture & Traditions of The People
Safari Animal Bucket List: 35 Top African Wildlife to Spot
Four Seasons Safari Lodge: Luxury in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park
Spot the Big Five on an African Safari

Tanzania Safari Bucket List: 23 Activities Not to Miss

30 thoughts on “The African Big Five: The Top 5 Animals to Spot on Safari”

  1. After all you have eaten and experienced, I am surprised you were not the first to jump out for your elusive big one.
    I discovered your site while making my bucket list after surviving open heart surgery. I truly enjoy reading your adventures. You really helped me make a great bucket list!
    Kathy

    Reply
    • I did think about it for a second, but lions & hyenas really scare me ;)
      I am so happy to hear that my blog is helping you make a great bucket list after such a major surgery!! And I hope your checkmarks will be plentiful :)

      Reply
  2. Guess you’ll have to visit at least a couple more times. The first time I traveled to Africa, some British tourists told me it was addictive. They were right. I’m headed back, this time, to Namibia where I should finally get the change to see a rhino. I can’t wait!!

    Reply
  3. Wow! What a great experience. Not seeing a rino is a great reason to go back but it seems to me that, ANY, reason would be good enough.

    Reply
  4. Hi Annette, that’s such a pity! I went on a safari on the Maara and the same happened to me. I saw many of the big 5, but Mr Rhino didn’t make an appearance.

    Great blog, by the way!

    Reply
  5. hope you get to see the rhino on your next safari travels. I had a hard time spotting one too and ended up seeing one at the Nairobi national park. Good Luck

    Reply
  6. In the images the lion is mourning, small baby elephants try to break the branch of a tree and a buffalo standing all were captured by way of excellent photography.

    Reply
  7. Hey Annette, I am also planning a safari trip possibly at the end of this year but I was wondering if I set out on my own (trying to get someone to agree to come with..lol) how did you go about finding other possible bucket listers to go with you? Did you just reach out to people who followed your page? or got grouped up with them once you booked? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Actually, I was invited to go on the safari by the tour company along with a couple of other bloggers. Though, I believe that if you contact the company they should be able to pair you with some others that will be on safari too. Good luck! Going on safari was amongst the best bucket list experiences I ever had.

      Reply
  8. Hope you get to come to Africa again sometime soon. If you do, you would love South Africa and the Kruger National Park. We go their every year from Johannesburg and on the first day’s trip into the Park this year, spotted all of the big five pulse most of the Ugly Five. Enjoy your travels.

    Reply
  9. Hi Annette! Amazing photos! Looks like you truly enjoyed and made the most out of your safari trip. Are you planning to visit again soon? If so, what are you looking forward to seeing? As for me, the next time I go on a safari trip I definitely want to see giraffes and maybe some primates too. Looking forward to reading about your next travel!

    Reply
  10. I am a safari organiser for years and this is one of the most comprehensive safari guide, especially when you want to get the best of African safari. Perfect and pretty much useful for both beginners and pro safari goers. Way to go!

    Reply
      • Thanks for sharing amazing tips.
        The big five can also be found in Uganda when you Murchison falls national park and Ziwa rhino sanctuary while on your way to Murchison falls.
        Queen Elizabeth National Park is also another place where you can view lions, the tree-climbing lions in Kasenyi Plains.

        Reply
  11. Loved this post and the details on what to see and where (specifics like the pride of lions). Ps. you definitely get bonus points for the lion’s roar!!

    I want to see leopards the most because they are just spectacular to look at and from your post I’ll be researching Kwandwe Game Reserve for a chance to spot all five.

    Reply

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Annette White the Owner of Bucket List Journey
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