The Big 5

Written by Thomson Safaris

big five animals of africa
If you’re interested in safari, you may have heard of the “Big Five,” a term big-game hunters came up with for the five most difficult African species to track and hunt on foot. Though all five species—lion, leopard, elephant, black rhinoceros, and African buffalo—are indeed big, hunters singled out these species not because of their size, but because of the danger and difficulty involved in bringing them down.

On a Thomson safari, a “hunt” for the Big Five will be with your camera and binoculars only, but they’re still a fun wish-list group of animals for any visitor to Africa. Tanzania is one of only a handful of countries with populations of all five species, so when you visit, keep an eye out for:


1. Lion

male lion roaring

He’s often referred to as the king of the animals, and it’s not hard to see why. An apex predator on land, a lion does know how to purr, but that’s about all he has in common with your housecat.

Lions are a familiar sight throughout Tanzania, which is home to over 15,000 lions, about half the remaining wild population. Visitors might spot a pride sunning on the granite kopjes that dot the grasses of the Serengeti, lazily scanning the plains, like kings and queens perched atop their thrones.


2. Leopard

leopard at sunset in tanzania

Nocturnal, stealthy, and wary of humans, leopards are an elusive animal, making a sighting a rare treat for any safari-goer. The smallest of the big cats, leopards are mostly solitary creatures, and are likely to flee at the first sign of perceived danger.

Leopards are most active at night, which means most safari-goers will spot them resting during the day among the branches of the trees they use as a home base. The treetops aren’t just a leopard’s bed, they’re often also its kitchen; leopards regularly drag their kills up into the branches to keep scavengers and other predators from snatching them away.


3. African Buffalo

oxpecker bird on head of african buffalo

They may look bovine, but don’t be fooled; African buffalos are powerful, quicker than they appear, and ruthless when provoked. Though there are no hard-and-fast facts on the matter, some claim that the African buffalo is the most dangerous animal to man in Africa, even more so than the hippopotamus.

Part of the reason for that is the buffalo’s extremely thick skull. Curving horns completely cover the top of the animal’s head, forming a near-impenetrable bone shield that can even deflect bullets. Because of this, and the buffalo’s large size (males can weigh up to 2,000 pounds), most predators won’t attempt to take down an adult African buffalo alone.


4. Black Rhinoceros

black rhino pair

Massive, solitary, and horned, a black rhinoceros wandering the African plains looks almost prehistoric, a creature from some ancient, vanished past.

If conservation efforts don’t work, the black rhinoceros might vanish, too; critically endangered due to poaching (their horns, made of keratin protein such as that found in fingernails and hair, fetch high prices on the black market), only a handful of black rhinos remain in the wild. Though they’re notorious for their aggression—black rhinos have been known to charge termite mounds—too few remain to pose a significant threat to nearby human populations.


5. Elephant

large tusker elephant

The largest living land mammal, elephants are a truly unforgettable safari sight, especially when you spot them traveling in a large family herd.

They’re not only the largest animal you’ll spot on safari, elephants are likely one of the smartest. Scientists have observed complex familial relationships between elephant families, and they seem to show empathy, self-awareness (even recognizing themselves in mirrors), and of course, famously long memories, both for other animals and for their surroundings. Elephants have even been known to mourn relatives who die, visiting their gravesites regularly over the years, and showing special interest in elephant bones, even if they didn’t know the animal. All this has led some scientists to compare their intelligence to primates and dolphins.