The Big 5 of Africa – Your Comprehensive Guide to the Guardians of the Savannah
big 5 safaris kruger national park

“The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa – for he has so much to look forward to.” – Richard Mullin (Origin unknown)

Seeing the Big 5 for the first time, with your own eyes is an experience unlike anything you have ever had before. You can see these majestic beasts in photos and you can watch them walking across your screen, but actually coming face to face with them (at a safe distance of course), will absolutely take your breath away.

One of the most highly sought after safari experiences is to tick off a Big 5 bucket list. 

The lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and Cape buffalo, are regarded as Africa’s most iconic animals and they can be seen in just about all of Southern Africa’s most famous wildlife destinations, with the most rewarding safari experience, hands down, being in the Kruger National Park, or one of the surrounding private game reserves.

In this comprehensive guide to these Guardians of the Savannah, we are taking you on an epic journey, one that will give you all of the knowledge you could ever hope to have about these incredible animals, including the best places to see them, and some photography tips.

big 5 african safari animals

About the Big 5 Safari Animals

Africa is home to a huge range of wildlife species and while each is fascinating in their own way, none are as iconic as the Big 5. If there were such a thing as wildlife celebrity, the Big 5 would be the animals most pursued by the paparazzi!

Since African safaris became a thing, tourists have been attracted to the continent by the possibility of seeing if not all then at least some of the Big 5. Seeing these animals roaming freely in their natural habitat is absolutely unforgettable and just the way that nature intended.

The Big 5 were given their name during the 19th century, when conservation was not the main attraction to visit Africa but rather hunting. Big game hunters flocked to Africa, mostly from Europe, to see if they could claim a trophy to take home. Since Cape buffalo, leopard, lion, rhino and elephant were, and still are, some of the most dangerous game on the continent to hunt on foot, these 5 animals became the most attractive to hunters wanting to be able to say that they had “tamed” some of Africa’s most fierce some creatures.

We have, thankfully, learned a lot from the past and instead of being shot by hunters, the Big 5 are these days “shot” by photographers and tourists, whose only trophies are the images and memories they take home.

Today, Africa’s Big 5 live mostly protected existences within wildlife conservation parks, like the Kruger, and tourists are able to directly contribute to the preservation of these precious animals, not only through their conservation permit fees, but also through the awareness they raise by sharing their photos and the stories of their encounters.  

big 5 safaris rhino

When is the Best Time to See the Big 5 in Africa?

The best time to plan your trip to see the Big 5 in Africa is during the height of the safari season, which is from around June to the end of October. The safari season takes place during the dry winter months, when vegetation is mostly dead and sitting in a safari vehicle is a lot more comfortable (those hot summer months can get intense on the road, and they always bring heavy rains which causes the vegetation to go into overdrive).

The lack of rain is the biggest deciding factor for travelling for a safari at this time of the year, because it greatly increases your chances of seeing the Big 5, especially when they frequent watering holes and rivers, while the lack of vegetation contributes to better visibility.

Where are the best places to see the Big 5?

The southern part of Africa is considered one of the best places to see the Big 5, with many areas home to concentrated wildlife populations. When visiting any of these destinations, you should always keep in mind that your chances of spotting the Big 5 greatly increase when you spend more than a day in the area (like you need us to encourage you to treat yourself to a weeklong stay in one of the most beautiful places on earth, right?).

To see the Big 5, here’s where you should go:

Hands down one the best places (and one of the most popular places) to see the Big 5, the Kruger National Park is right at the top of our list. Here you not only get to see these animals, but you also get a sort of communal, authentic safari experience. The park attracts large crowds almost every day and that is where that “communal” feeling comes in. Visitors usually chat with one another and share the excitement of seeing something amazing, while also sharing where they have seen the wildlife.

If this is your first Big 5 focused safari holiday, you couldn’t choose a better place than the Kruger.

  • The Ngorongoro Crater

Tanzania is home to a fascinating geological wonder which is now a wildlife park. The beautiful Ngorongoro Crater is home to about 30 000 animals and the crater acts as a “fence” of sorts, in that the steep walls prevent the animals from getting out. The crater also acts as its very own, unique ecosystem.

  • Sabi Sands Game Reserve

A popular destination for those with more luxurious tastes, Sabi Sands Game Reserve is well known for its exclusive wildlife sightings; exclusive in that here there are no crowds. The reserve shares an unfenced border with the Kruger, making Big 5 sightings common.

  • Madikwe Private Game Reserve

Finally, the Madikwe Private Game Reserve, which has been lovingly rewilded after being used as farmland, is a great place to see the Big 5, and the reserve is also home to plenty of luxury lodges.

big five safari animals leopard

Tips and Advice for Spotting the Big 5

Planning your trip to Africa to see the Big 5 doesn’t take a lot of effort, especially when you book your trip through a reputable travel company. Here’s our advice for planning a Big 5 focused holiday:

Choose the right time of the year – Plan your holiday for between around June to October. This time of the year will give you the absolute best Big 5 sightings. Keep in mind though, that when you travel at this time of the year, you will be visiting during peak of the African tourism season, so not only will you have the crowds, but you might also be paying more for your holiday.

Book a tour with a safari company – You can have a self-guided holiday, but the best kind of Big 5 experience will be the one that you have when you book a tour with a company. A guided tour includes an experienced safari guide who will not only share fascinating information about the animals you see, but having a guide will also improve your chances of seeing the animals you hope to see.

Stay a while longer – While it is completely possible to see all of the Big 5 in a single day trip, you greatly improve your odds by spending more time out in the wild. 5 days is good, but 7 days is better.   

Be patient – Wherever you choose to visit, you must remember that you are going into a wild place, not a zoo. You might see everything you hoped to see within the first hours of your safari, or, to be quite completely honest, you might see nothing at all. The best advice we can give you is to be patient during your drive around, focus on everything else you see along the way, and enjoy your trip, no matter what you encounter.

Finally, always respect park regulations and listen to your guide’s instructions. They will keep you, and the animals, safe and sound.

big 5 safari africa

Threats and Conservation Efforts

Anyone with a love for the African wild knows something about the threats the animals face. Of all the wildlife, the Big 5 are among the most endangered, with poachers and the encroachment of people on natural habitats being just a few of the struggles that conservationists face.

Habitat loss, due to factors like agricultural expansion and infrastructure development, breaks up the populations and it also disrupts vital resources, such as rivers being blocked or overused. The encroachment of humans on wildlife habitats also means wildlife are affected by the changes that the surrounding humans make to wildlife water and food sources.

Poaching, both for illegal trade and trophy hunting, is another continuous and major threat. Poachers particularly target rhinos and elephants for their valuable horns and tusks. The Kruger Park is hit annually by poachers. Since the park is about the size of Israel, keeping an eye on every fence is very difficult. The Kruger has a professional anti-poaching unit and they are assisted by soldiers from the SANDF, but still, each year the park loses precious animals, especially rhinos.

Additionally, climate change is posing a growing threat through altered weather patterns which are impacting food availability and migration routes, further squeezing already vulnerable populations.

But it is not all doom and gloom.

Through on-going efforts and legislation, the park is educating the surrounding communities to protect their most precious heritage – their wildlife.

Most of the communities living close to or around wildlife reserves gain their livelihoods from tourism and this gives them a meaningful reason to protect the animals.

conservation efforts kruger national park

Photographing the Big 5

The Big 5, with their size and larger than life presence, are every single photographer’s dream, whether they are an amateur or a pro.

Having good equipment is helpful but not a must, and to get the best shots, having some advice could just be better than that expensive mirror less camera you have been eyeing.

The Majestic Africa Elephant

These gentle giants roam freely across savannahs and clumsily through woodlands in southern and eastern Africa. Some of the biggest herds can be found in the Kruger National Park (and its surrounding private game reserves), as well as Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Chobe National Park in Botswana, Etosha National Park in Namibia and Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa.

To perfectly capture these animals it is best to have a steady telephoto lens (200mm or above) to capture close-ups from a safe distance. To create a really memorable image, focus on their majestic tusks, wrinkled skin, and those playful social interactions within the herd.

The Regal African Lion

The king of the savannah, lions are most active at dawn and dusk. They generally move around in prides, and you will mostly find them in grasslands and woodlands in parks including Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve in South Africa, South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana.

A telephoto lens is a great lens to have on you as it will allow you to capture the lion’s powerful presence without disturbing them. As you line up your image, pay attention to light and composition, and focus on their expressive eyes and powerful facial features. Photographing lions during the golden hour will result in a powerful image.

The Stocky Rhino

Rhinos are solitary animals, so you will usually find them on their own, or if you come across a female, you might find her with her calf. Black rhinos prefer savannahs and woodlands, while white rhinos favour grasslands.

Some of the best places in Africa to photograph rhinos include Madikwe and Sabi Sand in South Africa, Moremi in Botswana and Grumeti Game Reserve in Tanzania.

To capture these animals, use a zoom lens so that you can photograph their full impressive size and unique horn formations, all while respecting space distance and avoiding any actions that might startle them.

The Stealthy Leopards

Elusive and solitary, leopards require patience and expertise to photograph, especially as they are generally found in dense vegetation that hides most of their body. They are one of the more intriguing creatures to photograph, as many times they will have kill with them, up high on a tree branch.  

The Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands in South Africa, Moremi in Botswana, and South Luangwa in Zambia are all great places to photograph these stunning animals.

To get the best shots, opt for a long zoom lens (400mm to 700mm). Try to focus on their intricate patterns, sharp eyes, and agile movements during their fleeting appearances.

The Mighty Cape Buffalo

Powerful and unpredictable, buffaloes are best photographed from a safe distance in open areas like savannahs and grasslands, where they can commonly be seen munching on something tasty.

Buffaloes move about in large herds and are often spotted in the Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant Park in South Africa, Hwange in Zimbabwe and Chobe in Botswana.

Use a telephoto lens and focus on capturing their impressive horns, powerful bodies, and herd dynamics. These magnificent beasts are particularly stunning when captured in the early dawn hours or while move through a dusty terrain and will look fantastic as a black and white image.

big 5 safari south africa

Are you ready to turn your “Big Five” dreams into a reality?

Start planning your once-in-a-lifetime African adventure today! And let ATC help you find the perfect safari package for you.

Remember, the longer you wait, the further away your adventure becomes!