The illustrious Big 5 are always at the top of every safari-goer’s bucket list, particularly those who are visiting Africa for the first time. However, just like rare birds and nocturnal animals, they can be difficult to spot. Here’s our guide on how to spot the Big 5 when you’re on safari.
Lions live in large family groups called prides and are typically led by a male (or two or three males – usually brothers). Prides are made up of hunting lionesses, juveniles learning the ropes and cubs of different ages. Solitary males or bachelor groups will sometimes make themselves known to a pride, usually as a show of rivalry to the dominant male.
Lions tend to live in grassy or open woodland areas and are difficult to spot when lying down (which they do for most of the day) as their tawny coats blend in with the grasses. They are more active in the early morning or at dusk when they get ready to hunt.
Top tip: Visit waterholes known to attract predators, particularly at peak times. You may see a pride come down to drink or even happen upon a kill!
As the world’s largest land mammal, elephants are generally easy to spot. Led by an older female called a matriarch, herds can swell to over a hundred, particularly in Southern Africa during certain times of the year. Jostling juveniles, babies uneasy on their feet and plenty of female elephants of different ages form elephant herds; and this family variety is really fascinating to watch.
Elephants are found in a diversity of terrains; they love water and will frequently congregate at waterholes or rivers during the dry season and will often immerse themselves in woodland areas to eat and rub up against trees. In dryer climates – such as Namibia – elephants have even been seen crossing desert landscapes.
Top tip: Look for the visible signs of elephants in an area: large clumps of dung, broken trees or branches stripped of leaves. Spend time at a river location or at a waterhole known to be frequented by a resident herd.
Top places to see elephants: Kruger National Park, South Africa; Chobe National Park, Botswana; Etosha National Park, Namibia
Rhinos are found in many parks and reserves in Southern Africa and usually are seen on their own or in small family or bachelor groups. They have rather bad eyesight, but their sense of smell and hearing is excellent. White rhinos are slightly heavier-set, have low-hanging heads for grazing and a flat square lip, while black rhinos appear to be jauntier, with a raised head and a hooked lip for browsing.
Rhino tend to frequent large dry riverbeds or mud pools where they laze around deflecting flies. They typically congregate in the same places often, which can be identified by their dung piles and winding bush trails.
Top tip: Thorny thickets, dense bush and slightly more open woodland areas are where you’re likely to come across a rhino, with black rhino somewhat more difficult to spot due to their preference for denser vegetation.
Top places to see rhino: Kruger National Park, South Africa; Etosha National Park, Namibia; Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa.
These wild bovines are well known for their tempestuous natures, love for mud wallows and fierce protective natures. Typically found in large herds – even numbering a few hundred in certain parks – once you’ve seen one buffalo, you’re likely to spot a few more!
The Cape Buffalo have large horns, with the males featuring a heavyset ‘boss’ in the centre of their foreheads. These horns are used defensively against predators like lion, or in angry rivalries with other males.
Top tip: As buffalo herds tend to move throughout the day, they are harder to spot than elephant who are likely to stay in one spot for a longer period. Your best bet for spotting buffalo would be a favourite river or waterhole, or driving through open thickets.
Top places to see buffalo: Kruger National Park, South Africa; Chobe National Park, Botswana; Okavango Delta; Botswana.
The leopard is the most elusive of the Big 5, as it is a nocturnal and solitary animal. Leopards tend to have reasonably vast territories and are found most commonly in trees with large boughs or lying hidden in thickets. The spotted rosette pattern on their coats provides excellent camouflage, and their virtually silent approach means they take their prey by surprise.
Leopards tend to be found near their prey, which includes gazelles like impala and duikers, and even baboons. Once they’ve made a kill, they hoist their prey up a large tree using their strong legs and shoulders and secure their meal away from hungry scavengers like hyenas.
Top tip: Always glance up large trees with big branches, you may just spot a sleeping leopard! They can also be seen wandering up sandy roads or tracks at dusk, so keep an eye out.
Top places to see leopard: Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa; Kruger National Park, South Africa; Chobe National Park, Botswana.