Thinking of going on an African safari? If so, you’ll want to get yourself acquainted with Africa’s Big Five: the Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhinoceros, and Leopard. There’s no better place to find the Big Five than in South Africa, which offers the most exciting, memorable, and exhilarating opportunities to come face-to-face with these animals.
Meet the Lion
The lion is arguably the most sought-after of the Big Five because it is synonymous with an African safari. Lions are charismatic, powerful and beautiful. Once, hundreds of thousands of lions roamed the world, but sadly, today there are between 25,000 and 30,000 left, with most remaining in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, your chances of seeing lions are high in national parks and in private gave reserves. Lions are creatures of the savannah and open plains and they function in prides, usually numbering about 5-15. There are no natural enemies to lions other than hunters, although lion cubs fall prey to nomadic male lions that attempt to take over a pride.
There are no hard and fast rules for spotting game. If there is plenty of prey, lions spend almost all their time just sleeping or lazing about as their bellies are full and thus there’s no need to hunt. Be on the lookout for lions in deep shade or under trees. But don’t be fooled – they are conserving energy for the hunt, which often begins in the late afternoon when they wake up. As they get to their feet, fierce concentration takes hold as they set off in search of prey.
Meet the Elephant
Your first sighting of a tiny baby elephant may be one of your most indelible memories. Watch how mothers protect their babies by always putting themselves between danger and their offspring and how the whole herd immediately goes into protective group defense mode when threatened. If an elephant trumpets, you’ll definitely hear it, but the infrasonic tummy rumbles they use to communicate with one another are most often too low for the human ear to pick up.
Just because elephants are huge, doesn’t mean they are slow. If a herd takes fright, or needs to move quickly, elephants can reach speeds up to 25 miles/hour. Be aware that elephants love water, so be on the lookout to see a herd drinking, playing, splashing, swimming, and dunking in the water.
Meet the Buffalo
Don’t be fooled by the docile appearance of the African buffalo, this mean, moody, and magnificent animal is possibly the most dangerous of the Big Five. Buffalos are social animals and move around in large herds, sometimes of many hundreds. They chomp on long grass as they collectively move and feed. In the dry season, you can often see a cloud of dust signaling an approaching herd.
These large animals have to drink daily and to witness a large herd approaching a waterhole in the early morning or late afternoon is a memorable and noisy experience you won’t soon forget. When buffalos fight for rank and females, the noise of the clashing and crashing of their horns is estimated to be of the same impact of a car hitting a wall at 30 miles/hour!
Meet the Rhinoceros
When you first spot a white rhino your first impression will be of its bulk and size. You may wonder how such a prehistoric-looking animal has existed for so many millions of years. Rhinos are the second-largest land mammal, weighing in at a whopping 5,500 pounds, often living up to 40 years of age. Because rhinos are grazers, eating thick tough grass, they need a lot of water to digest their food. On a safari you may see a rhino eating mud or soil, which acts as a dietary mineral supplement.
If you see rhinos fighting, you’ll see that they use their horn, which is not attached to the skull in any way. You’ll also often find rhinos resting in shaded areas during the heat of the day or wallowing in mud. The dried mud acts as a sunscreen and cooling agent, while helping to evict parasites. Rhinos have poor eyesight but a fantastic sense of hearing and smell, so watch a rhino’s ears as they constantly rotate in all directions as it works out what’s going on around it.
Meet the Leopard
The leopard is beautiful, charismatic, dramatic, and also the most elusive of the Big Five. It’s a solitary animal that will fiercely defend its own hunting territory from other leopards, which is why it’s considered to be one of the most successful of all African predators. Leopards are nocturnal, so if you’re lucky, you may see a leopard stalking its prey during a night drive. It stalks silently and ruthlessly before it launches itself at its prey with a powerful spring.
Leopards often athletically drag their prey up into trees to avoid having it pirated by other animals such as lions and hyenas, so be on the lookout for thick overhanging branches of big old trees – you may find a leopard snoozing there during the hottest part of the day, or snacking on its prey.