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Meet The Big Five

By Paul Gettings

Posted: 21st August 2014 10:57

The Big Five has become a popular term of reference for visitors planning an African safari.   Trophy hunters coined the term, and thus the original ‘Big Five’ included elephant, black rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard.  Today, most visitors choose to shoot with their cameras, and because the hippopotamus is so often spotted many confuse it for one of the five.  Today, a new group called the ‘Big Nine’ includes all of the safari favourites alongside zebra, giraffe and cheetah.  But whether it’s the Big Five or the ‘Big Nine’, these are the animals most visitors to Africa come to see, and in Namibia you have an excellent chance of seeing them all.

African Elephant

Africa is home to two species of elephant: the African bush elephant and the African forest elephant.  Until recently, these two species were seen as mere sub-species of the African elephant.  However, in 2010, a DNA sequence study confirmed the distinction between the two breeds as two separate species.

The African bush elephants are the largest terrestrial animal on Earth.  As the name suggests, these elephants are commonly found in bushvelds across Africa.  The record height for individual is 13ft (3.96m) tall at the shoulder, with the average height for a male being 10.8ft (3.3m) and 9.2ft (2.8m) for females.  In contrast, the African forest elephant are of a more diminutive size that rarely surpasses 8ft (2.5m).  This is due to the species inhabiting the denser wooded regions of central and southern Africa, in which their smaller bodies grant them greater manoeuvrability within the forests.  The forest elephant also has more rounded ears and straighter tusks compared to their larger cousin.

Even though they are big they can still be difficult to spot, due to their ability to camouflage into their environments.  Once you do encounter one, be sure to make safety a priority.  Whether it is just a lone elephant or a family, they are known for their tendency to charge when threatened – especially during mating season or if there is a younger male within their group. 

Black Rhinoceros               

The black rhinoceros is a critically endangered species native to eastern and central Africa.  The sub-species, the western black rhinoceros, was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2011.  Approximately only 5,500 black rhinos remain in the wild, making it the most endangered member of the Big Five; despite this, the species is still being illegally poached for their keratin horns.  These horns have been historically recorded as being used for ceremonial handles for Arabian daggers jambiyas, and in traditional Chinese medicine. 

Black Rhino horns can measure over one metre long, with the longest recorded horn measuring just below 1.5m (4.9ft) in length.  The horn is the rhino’s key tool in feeding, as they use it to dig in soft soil and to break branches.  The horn is also used as a way of intimidating and fending off predators and other threats.  An adult black rhino can grow up to 180cm high at the shoulders and normally weigh between 800kg and 1,400kg. 

Due to the endangerment of this species, the more common White Rhino has been seen as a substitute for the more endangered breed, as they can be found in many of the same southern countries as the black rhino.

African Buffalo

The ancestry of this robust bovine is unclear.  It is not believed to be the ancestor of domestic cattle or a close relative to the wild Asian water buffalo.  Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the African buffalo has developed into one of Africa’s toughest animals.  Unlike its Asian counterpart, there has been no record of the African buffalo being domesticated.  In fact, the species’ aggressive nature has given it the title as the most dangerous animal of the Big Five, as it has been known to kill humans and other predators.

The African buffalo consists of a variety of subspecies.  The largest breed is the Cape buffalo, whose males can weigh up to 2,000lbs.  As the name suggests, this subspecies is predominantly found in the southern parts of Africa, where it can be found grazing in grasslands.  In contrast, the forest buffalo is the smallest subspecies, with the average height of just over a metre and a weight of only 600lbs.  This dwarf breed populates the woodlands of central and western Africa and has frequently been suggested as a separate species from the other buffalos.

Within the ecosystem of Africa, buffalo herds play a key role.  Whilst grazing, these bovines mow down and trample the grass as they move throughout land in their herds.  This shortens the grass and softens the soil for other animals to graze on.  Buffalos are known to attack as a herd when they feel threatened, so be sure to keep your distance when observing them.


As one of the most popular species in the Animal Kingdom, Lions have become one Africa’s biggest icons.  As the tallest living cat in the world, and one of Africa’s biggest predators, the lion has earned the nickname of the King of the Big Five.  Whilst the leopard, tiger and jaguar are solitary species that prefer to live alone, lions are more sociable and prefer to live in groups.

These prides usually consist of a group of related females and offspring, as well as a small number of adult males.  The lionesses take on the role of hunter, whilst the male lions’ responsibilities are defending their territory and impregnating the lionesses to produce cubs that will help to maintain the pride’s legacy.

Lions are apex predators, whose only real threat are humans.  However, it is common for lions to be killed whilst hunting larger preys, such as buffalos and hippos; or for a male lion to be killed during a pride takeover.  Due to their crepuscular behaviour, most lion activity occurs during the late hours of the night.  The females of the pride will hunt in groups, using calculated tactics that utilise their strength in numbers.  Group hunts usually involve the younger individuals chasing the prey towards the experienced lionesses waiting in ambush.  For a chance to capture a shot of these magnificent beasts at their best, it is advised to go on a night safari that will provide you with great chances to observe these animals stalking its prey in the moonlight.


As an animal that rarely hits the 200lbs (91kg) mark, the African leopard is the smallest of the big cats.  However, size isn’t everything.  This arboreal cat is a master of stealth and is surprisingly strong for such a slender creature.  They are also one of the strongest climbers; a leopard is able to haul a prey twice its own weight up a tree where it will feed upon out of the reach of other predators.  Leopards are known to kill more than their immediate needs and store the excess food on high tree branches for several days.  Due to their solitary and nocturnal habits, leopards are the most elusive and secretive member of the Big Five, making them a real challenge for tourists to get a clear photo of.  Even within known leopard territories, such as National Parks, it could be days between each leopard sighting.  Due to their preference to live and hunt alone, it is rare to encounter two adult leopards together.  Your best chances to observe these mystifying and graceful creatures will be during the night.  Many national parks that are home to leopards provide late safaris, in hope of increasing the probability of spotting one.  If you spot a leopard stalking its prey late at night, be sure to keep your distance and your eyes open.  Leopards are renowned for their agility and their ability to pounce in a blink of an eye.   

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