Big 5 Safaris: What You Need to Know

November 8, 2016  By: Gretchen

Most safari-goers want to see the ‘Big 5’ when they visit Africa, but often, people aren’t sure which species make up the collection or what makes them part of it. There are also misconceptions about the ‘Big 5’ species – are they the biggest animals? The hardest animals to see? The most majestic? These are all subjective and up to the viewer. We’ll help you learn about the ‘Big 5,’ and dispel common myths.

Africa’s ‘Big 5’ are made up of lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo. It is an absolute thrill to spot any of these animals while on an African safari, but where did the name come from? It actually originated from big game hunters during Africa’s colonial period.

The ‘Big 5’ refers to the five animals that were considered the most difficult and dangerous to hunt while on foot.

The name took on legendary status and is now one of the sighting goals for most photographic safari enthusiasts.

The ‘Big 5’ can be spotted on safaris in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi, as well as on South Africa’s currency! Some countries are better than others for viewing these species, either because of population numbers, vegetation/ecosystem composition, or the ability to see them all in one park. Among our top picks for trying to see all 5 of the species during one safari (and perhaps even in one park or reserve) are South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya.


Perhaps the toughest to see on a Big 5 Safari is the rhinoceros.

South Africa is home to 80% of the world’s remaining rhinos, so it gets our unequivocal endorsement as the best spot on the continent to see these incredible prehistoric-looking animals.

Tanzania and Kenya are also viable options. It’s almost a guarantee to see the critically endangered black rhino in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. On a lucky day, you might see all five species in the Crater, though leopard aren’t commonly spotted.

Kenya’s Masai Mara holds the possibility of spotting the ‘Big 5,’ but we would recommend a visit to Lewa or Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancies on the Laikipia Plateau. These conservancies have the advantage of more exclusivity and fewer lodges than the Mara. The backdrop is incredible – the jagged, snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya can be seen on a clear day, possibly providing a photographic backdrop for your ‘Big 5’ shots.

leopard in Sabi Sand

If leopard are tops on your list of big 5 viewing, we suggest a trip to one of the private reserves surrounding Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Kruger National Park is often credited with allowing guests to see all five species in a single day (but no guarantees!), and it is known for having epic leopard sightings.

Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is also very well known for leopard. With night drives being allowed in the park, you can also enjoy seeing leopards at their most active. Tanzania’s Serengeti is also a great park in which to spot leopard. With the world’s largest migration of ungulates, prey is abundant.

Elephants are widely dispersed throughout the continent, however there are some places with incredible concentrations of the world’s largest mammal.

baby elephant

Chobe National Park in Botswana is home to the largest population of elephants on the continent.

Chobe National Park is a sure bet to see large herds. Even better, many of those sightings come with a beautiful, watery backdrop. Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park is also a beautiful setting to see elephants – every season brings a different scene in which to see the animals among huge baobabs. Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is another great place to see elephants – the park has artificial water sources for wildlife during the dry season, which makes for great concentrations of elephant (and other animals!) at waterholes.

Cape buffalo herd

To see (and feel!) a herd of thousands of cape buffalo thundering across the plains is quite a memorable experience!

Cape Buffalo are found in many of Africa’s ecosystems, and one of our favorites for viewing them is the off-the-beaten-path Kafue National Park in Zambia.


Tanzania is home to the largest population of lion on the continent

Lion numbers are decreasing, but there are still plenty of places to see these top predators. Other than Tanzania, Kenya and Botswana are also wonderful for seeking lions as well. Namibia hosts lions that have adapted to desert life. Seeing these cats in their arid environment is a very special experience.

Let us help you plan your Big 5 safari!