by Chris
May 24, 2019

What is the Big Five?

You hear the term "Big Five" thrown out a lot when you're planning a safari.

"This is a Big Five park" is a huge selling point but what is the Big Five? Why are people so crazy about trying to collect the set?

Meet the Big Five

The Big Five is comprised of, you guessed it, five African animals. They aren't the most fascinating, the most endangered, or even the largest.

Can you guess why they're called the Big Five? We'll tell you later!

  • 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.

There are two varieties of African elephant: the larger bush elephant you'll see on the plains, and the smaller forest elephant more common in Uganda and Rwanda. 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.

  • Lion (Panthera leo)

A relatively common sight in both Tanzania and Kenya, 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, Ngorongoro, and the Serengeti in Tanzania. The Maasai Mara in Kenya. Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. Akagera National Park in Rwanda.


  • Leopard (Panthera pardus)

The most elusive of the Big Five, the beautiful leopard are solitary, nocturnal hunters with fantastic camouflage and naturally shy personalities. This can make them immensely difficult to spot while on safari.

Best Place to See Leopards: The Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

  • Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

The most endangered of the Big Five, the black rhinoceros is critically endangered due to continued poaching, largely due to the incorrect belief in Chinese traditional medicine that their horns have medicinal properties.

Due to both their low numbers and their natural shyness, rhinos can be immensely difficult to spot while on safari.

The white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), while not a member of the traditional Big Five, is a larger variety of rhinoceros that many people count as part of the Big Five for game-viewing purposes.

Best Places to See Rhinos: Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Lake Nakuru National Park and Nairobi National Park in Kenya. Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Uganda.

  • African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

The African Buffalo (sometimes called the Cape Buffalo) is the most confusing member of the Big Five. They're neither endangered nor especially interesting to look at. As you're driving across Ngorongoro or the Serengeti, you'll see hundreds of them.

Despite their unassuming appearance, the Cape Buffalo is considered one of Africa's most dangerous animals. In fact, the buffalo is considered the most dangerous of the animals in this list!

Best Places to See African Buffalo: Ngorongoro and the Serengeti in Tanzania. The Maasai Mara in Kenya.

Origin of the Big Five

In the bad, old days, wealthy European aristocrats would fly all the way to Africa to hunt the animals we are now so desperate to protect. What a bunch of jerks!

During this period, five animals began to emerge as the most dangerous to hunt. Whether due to camouflage or aggression, the Big Five were renowned as being the most challenging animals to hunt. Therefore, there was a great deal of prestige to be gained from killing one.

While we've since evolved beyond that primitive pastime, the Big Five terminology has remained. In some ways, several of the Big Five remain incredibly hard to hunt, albeit with a camera. Rhinos and leopards, in particular, can be incredibly difficult to spot on safari.

On the flip side, lions, elephants, and African buffalo are common sights while on safari in Tanzania and Kenya.

The Big Seven

In some circles, the Big Five has been expanded out to a Big Seven, including two other elusive and popular animals: the African wild dog and the cheetah.

  • African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus)

While they may resemble dogs, African Wild Dogs (sometimes known as Painted Dogs or Hunting Dogs), are actually the last remaining members of a distinct genus of the canid family.

Hunted not for sport or for their fur, Wild Dogs are nonetheless endangered due to their ongoing clashes with local farmers. Why? Because of their brutal hunting methods and habit of eating animals alive, leaving wounded animals to die slowly.

Despite this grisly reputation, African Wild Dogs are a popular animal to spot on safari due to their distinct looks and their interesting behavior.

Where to See African Wild Dogs: Selous National Reserve in Tanzania. Maasai Mara in Kenya. Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda.

  • Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

The last of the three big cat species in Africa, the sleek cheetah is renowned around the world for its incredible speed. Cheetahs are the fastest land mammals on earth!

While not endangered, Africa's cheetah population is considered vulnerable due to both hunting and the species' need for large areas in which to hunt. With more and more land being claimed for farming and development, cheetahs are finding their hunting range stymied.

Cheetahs are diurnal (active during the day), but their natural camouflage can make them hard to spot. There's nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a cheetah at full speed, but it is a rare sight.

Where to See Cheetahs: Serengeti National Park and Ruaha in Tanzania. The Maasai Mara in Kenya.

What is the Small Five?

If you've already 'caught' the entire Big Five, you might be looking for a new challenge. The Small Five is what you're looking for!

Comprised of five small (obviously) animals that share names with the traditional Big Five, the Small Five can be incredibly difficult to spot from your moving safari vehicle.

  • Elephant Shrew (Elephantulus)

Small, insectivorous mammals native to Southern Africa, the adorable elephant shrew resembles a rodent and is not actually related to shrews at all. In fact, it's more closely related to the elephant it only resembles in passing!

If you're looking to spot an elephant shrew in the wild, your best bets are likely to be Namibia or South Africa.

  • Buffalo Weaver (Bubalornis niger)

The easiest of the Small Five to spot, the Buffalo Weaver is a common bird-sighting across Africa. In fact, you'll probably see one on your first day without even knowing!

You can find Buffalo Weavers almost everywhere in Eastern and Southern Africa.

  • Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)

A grazing tortoise species with markings akin to those of the leopard, the leopard tortoise is the fourth largest species of tortoise in the world and the largest of the Small Five.

The Leopard Tortoise can be spotted across Eastern and Southern Africa.

  • Antlion (Myrmeleontidae)

You don't even need to leave home to spot an antlion, as there are over 2,000 species spread across the world. Most famous for their larvae's ability to dig traps in which to catch and eat ants, these predatory insects often resemble dragonflies.

In Africa, Antlions can be found in arid environments such as Namibia, as well as drier parks like Tsavo in Kenya and Tarangire in Tanzania.

  • Rhino Beetle (Dynastinae)

Some of the largest insects in the world, there are dozens of species of these insects scattered across the world, with the Americas and Asia home most of these.

In Africa, these insects can be spotted on farms, where they are considered a pest.


As you can see from the list above, you're in for a challenge!

What is the Special Five?

Last, but certainly not least, is the Samburu Special Five - so named for the Kenyan reserve in which they're found.

Comprised of five animals found in Samburu and neighboring Buffalo Springs, the Special Five consists of:

  • Reticulated Giraffe
  • Grevy's Zebra
  • Somali Ostrich
  • Beisa Oryx
  • Gerenuk

While these animals can all be spotted elsewhere in Africa (notably, Somalia), Samburu and Buffalo Springs remain the only places in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, or Rwanda where all five of these distinct varieties of wildlife can be found.

What will you 'hunt'?

At the end of the day, a safari is an intensely personal experience.

Some people go out in search of the Wildebeest Migration or the Big Five, while others are looking to spot a specific animal such as a pangolin or serval cat.

There is no wrong way to go on safari, just as long as you're not harming the animals or leaving the place a worse place than you found it!

Are you interested in an African safari?

Contact one of our safari experts and we will tailor-make a safari for you!