How The Big Five Made The Cut

Written by Thomson Safaris

We tell all our guests to keep an eye out for the “big five” species—lion, rhinoceros, leopard, cape buffalo, and elephant—because they’re all incredible animals to see on safari. But originally, these creatures were picked as the crème de la crème of African wildlife not because of their size, rarity, or impressiveness; they were considered the five most difficult species for a big game hunter to hunt on foot.

But what about these animals makes them so difficult—or dangerous—to track down? Why did they make the cut, while hippos (notoriously ornery), crocodiles, and cheetahs didn’t?

Who knows?

Just kidding—we do, and we’re going to tell you:


Let’s consider a hypothetical: would you want to stand just feet away from a possibly-hungry lion that you’ve just ticked off?

Assuming you’re not a professional death-defier, the answer is probably no, and for good reason. The lion’s powerful jaws, razor-sharp claws, and impressive speed have earned it the status of “apex predator” in Africa. Moreover, lions generally don’t deal very well with irritation (though they do deal with it very efficiently: they tend to attack the annoyance).

If all that’s not enough to convince you that lions shouldn’t be trifled with, bear in mind one of their less-visible skills: their stealth. Lions are able to sneak through tall grasses—where their tawny coats act as further camoflauge—often managing to get within mere feet of their targets before attacking.

Big Five LionPhoto: Thomson Safaris guest, Joe V. Smith


Nowadays,  rhinoceros are so endangered that even seeing one at a distance is a rare treat. But once upon a time, anyone who spotted a rhino would have been wise to KEEP his distance; the animals are notoriously aggressive, charging readily at any perceived threats (that’s a pretty broad definition: they’ve been known to charge trees and termite mounds).

And if they do charge, get out of the way, fast: rhinos regularly top 6,000 pounds, and their elongated front horns have been known to reach almost five feet in length.

Their eyesight is poor, but that might not be in your favor if they see you on the horizon. After all, you might look like an extremely-threatening termite mound at that distance…

Big Five RhinoPhoto: Thomson Safaris guests, Tom & Sue Dority


Leopards aren’t particularly dangerous to humans (though they’re still well-equipped in the tooth and claw department), and are generally solitary creatures; once you’ve spotted one, you know where any danger is coming from (unlike many other big five species, which travel in groups).

So why are they on a list of top hunting prizes? Because they’re almost impossible to track down on foot.

Stealthy, nocturnal, and easily spooked, leopards prefer the “flight” option when faced with danger…

…and they’re smart enough to realize that a man creeping through the underbrush towards them means “danger.”

Big Five leopardPhoto: Thomson Safaris guests, Mark & Elna Jones

 African/Cape Buffalo

They may look a lot like well-horned cattle, but don’t let that fool you: the cape buffalo is often called the deadliest species in Africa.

Thick skins, massive bodies, and hair-trigger tempers often lead cape buffalos to charge, and once they do, watch out: the bony horns that cover their head are so thick that bullets may not even penetrate them.

Worst of all, they have an extremely long memory for slights (they also travel in large herds—are they the wildlife version of a mafia family?), which means that once you’ve made their list, they’ll go the extra mile to make sure they check you off it…permanently.

big5_buffalo_thomsonsafarisPhoto: Thomson Safaris professional photography trip leader, Andy Biggs


When most of us think of elephants, we think of their famously long memories (which studies have shown are more than just a cute anthropomorphism), of their intelligence, and just maybe, of Dumbo.

It’s hard to square that with deadliness, but any animal as large as an African elephant—and there’s no living land-mammal larger, with males sometimes topping 13,000 pounds—is worth treating with caution.

Moreover, elephants put their smarts to good use, hiding themselves in tall grasses (a fairly impressive feat for a herd of 6-tonners) and charging when they perceive threats to themselves or their relatives.

And though they can’t run for long, because of their huge size, when they do decide to take a jog, they can reach speeds of about 25 mph.

All of which is to say: you might be wiser NOT to anger an elephant.

big5_elephant_thomsonsafarisPhoto: Thomson Safaris guest, Tom Rohrer