Big 5 safaris to Africa include sightings of lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino. Here's our guide to see the big five.
Game hunters in the early classic Africa safaris coined the term "Big 5" to refer to animals that were most dangerous and difficult to kill. Modern wildlife safaris have seized the term to refer to the must-see game animals on African safari, lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino. We guide you and suggest some trip packages to go see these majestic savannah celebrities on holiday.
Where to see the big 5
You have not been on a wildlife safari in Africa till you marvel at the big 5 game animals, lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino, on the open savannah plains. For photographers, the big five set the scenes for the most rewarding trophy shooting.
Many safari travellers dream of spotting the entire Big Five cast on the same holiday trip, but we can't guarantee you will sight them in one go. The big 5 animals are wild and roam free in the African wilderness. You must have a smart local safari guide to track their location, using their behaviour pattern and trails.
We organise our Big 5 safaris with an experienced local safari guide, who sometimes doubles as a driver to ensure you are there to catch live wilderness action.
A Lion-hunting action, a herd of elephants elegantly walking down the valley, or a mother leopard with its litters watching its prey over the plains washed with the golden sunlight. Let's take you to East Africa, our home and the birthplace of the Big 5 Safaris.
The annual migration of wildebeests, zebras, and the predator tailing them across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is a world phenomenon that attracts many wildlife travellers.
The Serengeti-Mara is where you are sure to see the Big 5.
The best places in East Africa where you can watch all the big five animals include the Mara-Serengeti, Laikipia Platou in Kenya, Ngororongo in Tanzania, Murchison Falls in Uganda, or Akagera in Rwanda.
However, to maximise the experience of watching the big five plus other noteworthy wild animals on safari, visit a combination of national parks.
Big 5 safaris usually combine at least two national parks on the same trip. Especially in Uganda and Rwanda, where safari gets off the beaten track to explore the rainforest jungles and meet the gorillas, chimpanzees and other rainforest celebrities.
A big five safari in Kenya, extending to Uganda or Rwanda for the mountain gorilla experience, is typical with most ground operators. Let's explore the big 5 game where you may want to find them.
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Spotting the Big Five in Africa is an epic highlight particularly for first-timers
The Big Five Safari Animals
The largest and most imposing African carnivore, the lion is the most sought-after member of the Africa big 5. The African lion is the most social large cat, living in loosely structured prides of typically five to 15 animals. Lions have special cultural significance in most countries on the continent that enjoy a reputation as 'king of the beasts' and are popular symbols of royalty, strength, and bravery.
These big cats are not born into a rank; they are egalitarian. Which means they don't have a permanent social hierarchy. One male may be dominant over the others, but that can change at any time. Lion society is also matrilineal; the females hold the territories and stay with the pride they're born into.
We are huge fans of watching lions on a safari game drive, especially in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. There's nothing like watching a pride of lions roaming in long grasses reflecting the golden sunset over the plains. At dusk, you can watch the lions shake off the lazy afternoons, become restless, roar, play, and, if lucky, watch them get into hunting formation for a dinner hunt.
The best places to watch lions in East Africa are Serengeti in Tanzania, Masai Mara and Laikipia in Kenya, and Queen Elizabeth National Park's Ishasha Sector in Uganda.
The leopard is the most elusive, and also the smallest, of Africa's big 5 animals. Leopards are sneaky, naturally shy, elusively nocturnal, and harder to spot. These big solitary cats haul large kills, such as zebra or antelope, into tree-tops to eat alone in peace.
These shy cats can be distinguished from cheetahs by their rosette-shaped spots, a more robust build, and their preference for wooded or rocky habitats.
Typically, any wildlife safari guide will recommend either the Maasai Mara or the Serengeti, as this ecosystem's animal diversity is startling. Predators here flourish, preying on the great migration herds and causing exciting survival battles. To see leopards in the Serengeti-Mara, however, you should usually avoid the open plains where lions and cheetahs dominate. Instead, look up acacia trees or places with adequate cover for these shy cats.
During Big 5 safaris in Uganda, you can spot leopards in Queen Elizabeth, Kidepo, or Murchison Falls National Parks. In Rwanda's Akagera, finding the leopards is challenging, but it is worth a try for a patient adventurer.
The African Elephant is the largest big 5 and perhaps the most enduring symbol of nature's grace and fragility. It is also among the most intelligent and entertaining to watch on big five safaris.
A fully-grown male elephant can weigh a whopping 6300 kilos. Even the smallest adult male rarely dips below 4000 kilos, which is way over twice the weight of an average family SUV. Females are usually just over half the weight of males.
Savanna elephants are large enough to change the landscape, pulling up trees to make grasslands, dispersing seeds, and increasing biodiversity.
Whether your most exciting encounter with elephants is with a sole bull or it's all about being surrounded by a herd of females and babies, you can see these massive creatures on any game drive or walking safari in East Africa's savanna parks.
However, the best places to spot elephants in East Africa include Samburu and Amboseli in Kenya, Ngorongoro and Katavi in Tanzania, Queen Elizabeth, Kidepo Valley, and Murchison Falls in Uganda.
4. Cape Buffalo
Africa's only wild buffalo ox species is an adaptable and widespread creature that lives in large herds on the savanna and in smaller packs in forested areas. The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) or Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous African game species, especially if wounded or solitary. Its reputation precedes it as a member of the big 5 game animals recognized worldwide.
African buffalo are huge, even-toed ungulates characterized by their stocky build and heavy horns. Horns are present in both sexes, and they are not ridged. The buffalo is easily distinguished from other animals because of its dark black colour and characteristic horns, which are smaller and lighter, curving outward, backward, and upwards. Ears are large and fringed with hair and hang below massive horns.
These large cows can easily be seen in any safari park in east Africa. Even when driving by a park, look out your windows, and that big dark patch on the savannah might be a small herd of African buffalo.
Identified by their characteristic horned snouts, rhinoceroses are universally recognized by their massive bodies, stumpy legs, and either one or two dermal horns. In some species, the horns may be short or not obvious. They are renowned for having poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and hearing are well-developed.
There are two species—the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros—and five subspecies left in Africa. Those include the northern white rhino, the southern white rhino, the eastern black rhino, the southern central black rhino, and the southwestern black rhino. Due to largely poaching, the black and northern white rhinos are extinct.
The African rhinos exist only in a few protected parks and reserves. Spotting one in the wild, with its stumpy legs and tank-sized body, you'll immediately understand how extraordinary these creatures are. You can see them on walking safaris in remote Uganda's Ziwa Ranch and on conservation excursions in Kenya.
Tailor-made Big 5 Safaris
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Other nature special interest experiences
Join the daily gorilla trekking excursions deep into the tropical rainforests of Uganda and Rwanda mountains and sit close to a gentle silverback and his family. A forest adventure experience that will leave you forever enchanted.
Fly high above the savannah plains and feel that liberating sense of space over expansive animal trails impossible to see from the ground. Hot air balloon safaris give you a unique perspective and first-rate wildlife photography.
Viewing wild animals from a houseboat or launch safari brings you closer to the animals. Nkuringo Safaris specialists recommend this wildlife experience in Uganda and Rwanda on a private motorboat, canoe or launch adventure.
Take a light aircraft between remote destinations, save time travelling, and experience more of East Africa's wilderness. Fly-in safaris also allow you to explore the wildlife drama and the spectacular African landscapes from the sky.