The Big 5 of Southern Africa: What’s the Big Deal?

The Big 5 refers to the lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros. Planning an African safari is simply incomplete without considering the Big 5 of Southern Africa. These magnificent animals, rule the African plains, some more abundant than others. Although these wild animals are quite dangerous, they are still classified as vulnerable. The black rhinoceros, in particular, is on the critically endangered list, while the southern white rhino is near threatened, and the northern white rhino is near extinct.

In terms of conservation, the Cape buffalo and African elephant is of the least concern. You will find these species in abundance, especially in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.

If you’re planning your first-ever African safari, or your next trip to Southern Africa, this guide will help ensure that you get to see as much of the Big 5 as possible on your trip.

1. The Lion

The African lion rules the African plains. These majestic beasts are the apex predators of the bush and arguably the most recognised member of the Big 5.

Lions generally have a strong, compact frame, with powerful forelegs, teeth, and jaws, which are perfect for hunting their prey.

Two lions in Hwange National Park

Their coat is short and tawny, and males develop a mane around their neck and shoulders. You can easily identify a male lion in the African bush. All you need to look for is their mane, which is normally the colour of the savannah, blonde, reddish-brown, or black. The appearance of a lion’s mane is determined by their age, hormones, and genetics.

Lions are also very adaptable. You may find them in a wide range of habitats, including open plains, thorn forests, and thick bush. You may find a small population of lions in the northwest of India, but the majority of these species are located in Southern Africa. In captivity, lions may live up to the age of 20. In the wild, a lion may live up to the age of 12, while a lioness may live up to 16 years old.

Lions live in prides which are family units. These prides can consist of 30-40 lions, where there would be 3-4 males present. All of the pride’s lionesses are related . Female cubs will stick to the pride, whereas young males would leave and establish their own pride.

If you’re travelling to Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, your chances of seeing the ruler of the African plains are great!

Did you know?

  • The bonds between lionesses are very strong, especially since they are in the same pride for life and raise their cubs together.
  • Females do all the hunting, and the males get first preference when it comes to eating, even when there are new cubs in the pride.
  • Rosettes and spots appear on young lions’ sandy coats. However, these usually disappear when they get older.
  • As they age, male lions develop impressive manes. These manes can grow to up to 16 cm in length and signify dominance.
  • Lions can survive in extremely dry environments like the Kalahari Desert because they are adaptable. They get their nourishment mostly from their prey, and they can even drink water from plants like the Tsamma melons.
  • The only cat species known to roar together is the lion. Even their cubs join in. The call usually lasts around 40 seconds.

2. The Leopard

The African leopard is a large, elusive cat. Its coat is light in colour with black spots and rosette like patterns, while the head, lower limbs, and belly are covered in solid black spots. Leopards are sexually dimorphic, meaning that there are distinct differences between males and females. These animals are known for their speed and stealth. They love to stalk their prey and kill them by going for the throat. This big cat is very versitile and can easily climb up a tree or cliff, even dragging heavy prey up with them.

A Leopard in the Linyanti Wildlife Reserve Botswana Safari

Leopards are widespread, mostly in Africa, but also in the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Similar to the lion, leopards also adapt well to changing environments. You can find them in the African bush, the open plains, and even in the rainforest. If you are on safari in Africa, you may spot this species in Botswana, specifically around the Okavango Delta, Linyanti, Chobe National Park or Moremi Game Reserve.

Leopards also have distinct methods of communication, which include body language or posture, vocalisations, and chemical communication. The female usually uses her tail as a compass for her cubs. When they move through their territory or range, leopards emit a distinctive hoarse, rasping cough that signals their presence. After feeding on their prayers, they can be heard purring loudly.

Did You Know?

  • The leopard avoids interacting with one another, except for mating and raising cubs.
  • Both females and mails reach sexual maturity between 24 and 28 months. However, they rarely breed before three or four years. After a gestation period of 90-106 days, cubs are born. The litter size varies from one to three.
  • Leopards are also strong swimmers and occasionally eat fish and crabs.
  • Leopards don’t roar; they bark and snarl. They even purr when they’re happy. They are one of the most adaptable felines.

Have You Read Our Ultimate Guide to the Okavango Delta?

Read here.

3. The Rhino

There are only two types of rhinoceros found in Southern Africa, 40% of which live in South Africa, where they are critically endangered. In fact, all rhinos are critically endangered. Thousands of these species have been poached for their horns. Conservation efforts are still going forward regardless. In fact, the southern white rhino has been reintroduced to Kenya, Zambia, and Cote d’Ivoire.

Rhino Botswana

Both black and white rhinos are actually grey in colour. The only way to differentiate between the two is by their lip shapes. The white rhino has a squared lip, while the black rhino has a pointed upper lip.

The black rhino is a browser who prefers to eat on and shrubs, whereas white rhinos prefer to graze on grass. Both white and black rhinos can be found in Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

Rhinos, unlike lions, are solitary species. Some rhinos are more introverted than others. They are not social butterflies, and enjoy being left alone or being observed from a distance. This withdrawn nature, can also be attributed to their bad eyes. However, their hearing and sense of smell are very good. Every 2–5 years, a female will bear a calf. This is why breeding is so slow. A calf is entirely dependent on its mother until the age of three, when it will wander off on its own.

Did You Know?

  • The Big 5’s most endangered species is the rhinoceros. The illegal rhino poaching trade is driven by a growing demand for rhino horns. This is made worse by sophisticated poachers. Few rhinos are now found outside of national parks and reserves.
  • The horn of a rhino is not attached to its skull. It will grow back if it is broken off.
  • Poor vision means that rhinos can sometimes accidentally attack trees or rocks. Their hearing and sense of smell are great, so they often make up for their poor vision.

4. The Elephant

The African elephant, or “ellies” as we call them, is truly unique.They are, without a doubt, the largest and heaviest animals on earth. They are also one of the iconic members of the Big 5. There are currently two types of ellies found in Africa, the savana elephants, located in southern Africa, and the forest elephants, located in west and central Africa.

Elephant Pool Somalisa

You’ll be able to spot a savana elephant easily on safari. They use their trunks to communicate and handle objects. They also have large ears that keep them nice and cool, during extreme heat, often experienced under the African sun. African elephants also have two extensions at the tip of their trunks. Both males and females have tusks, which are mostly used for feeding, digging, marking, and occasionally fighting.

Elephants have a very complicated social system. A family unit consists of about 10 ellies. However, several family units may also join together and form a clan, which can consist of 50-70 elephants. A female will carry her calf for approximately 22 months. It takes the female 6-18 months to wean her calf, but nursing may continue for a bit longer after that.

A male, will leave his clan once he reaches puberty, which is at the age of 10-20. The male then goes on to form an alliance with other males. Males only compete to mate at 20 years old, while females are only fertile between the ages of 25 and 45. A elephant can live up to 70 years old.

Elephants are herbivores and only eat leaves, branches, fruit, grass, and bark. You will find a high concentration of elephants in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.

Did You Know?

  • Many trees in West African forests rely on developed seeds passing through the digestive tract of an elephant for their dissemination and germination.
  • African elephants communicate at a low frequency, so humans cannot hear them, even though they are far away.
  • Elephants can also get sunburned in Africa’s scorching sunlight. To prevent sunburn, they put sand on their heads and backs to keep insects away. Even though their skin is extremely tough, they can still feel tiny insects walking on their skin.
  • Baby elephants are nearly blind when they are born. They often suck their trunks to comfort them, much like young humans do with their thumbs.

A few of Our Camps in Southern Africa

5. The Buffalo

African buffalo roam by the thousands in Southern Africa. These hardy animals are very adaptable and can survive in almost any habitat, from semi-arid bush to coastal plains, wetlands, marshes and forests. All they need is water source close by. Most people think that the lion is the most dangerous among the Big 5, however, the buffalo is quite verocious as well. African buffalo, in particular, are incredibly possesive, and cannot be domesticated.

Buffalo Wildlife

Buffalo are herbivores, feeding only on plants, tree shrubs and grass. They are also part of the Bovidae family, which means that after they eat they usually regurgitate later, to chew a second time.

Buffalo, although short tempered, are social beasts. They operate in herds and separate themselves by gender. A young male will stay with the herd for about three years and then wander off to join another male herd. A maternal herd has up to 30 females, while a male herd has up to 10 members. Buffalo usually calf one at a time. The female is pregnant for 9-11 months.

Did You Know?

  • The lion is the primary predator of buffalo. Buffalo will often try to save another member if they have been injured or caught.
  • Buffalo have also been documented killing a lion, after they have killed a member of their herd.
  • Buffalo are very short tempered and vicious. Buffalo have killed more African hunters than any other animal.


  • The Big Five : What is it?

The Big Five refers to a group of wild animals, namely the lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant and leopard.

  • Where are the Big Five?

The Big Five can be found in Southern Africa. Although, they are dispersed across the world, you can find them all in Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

  • Why are they called the Big Five?

The Big Five were originally named by hunters to classify the level of danger and size of the most hunted game animals in Africa.