Best places to spot the Big Five

Introducing the Big Five

What are the Big Five?

If you are planning a safari to Africa then you will no doubt be keen to find the Big Five. Made up of the lion, the leopard, the elephant, the rhino and the buffalo, the Big Five originally gained their selection in the early 20th century when the African continent was awash with hunters from Europe and North America. They were selected as they were notoriously the hardest animals in Africa to hunt. Given that these five had fewer natural predators, they were hard to track and they could also be very dangerous if ever wounded or cornered. Thankfully hunting these beautiful creatures is largely a thing of past, although sadly it does still happen. It is sometimes possible to see all five in one day at various national parks and game reserves in Africa and there are some places where the individual animas are better to spot.

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Best places to see Lion

Without doubt the most famous of the Big Five, the ‘King of the Savannah’, the ‘King of the Beasts’ and interestingly the ‘King of the Jungle’ – even though they don’t actually live in the jungle! Of all the big (and little) cats, the lion is the only species to exist in groups, known as prides. These prides consist of anything from 15 to 40 members of mainly related females and their young plus one dominant male who has won their place in the pride through fierce battles with rival males. They are territorial animals and the females do the (excuse the pun) lion’s share of the hunting. Generally how lion society works is for the females to provide and the male to protect – hence once the kill has been brought to the pride, the male will get to eat first, followed by the cubs and then the females get what is sometimes just the scraps!

Our picks for spotting lion

Kruger National Park (South Africa): Without doubt, South Africa’s premium National Park, Kruger is home to all of the Big Five. Estimates suggest there are about 1600 lions in the park and the best spot to see them is around the Satara Rest Camp towards the east of the park.

Serengeti National Park (Tanzania): Also home to all of the Big Five, the endless plains of the Serengeti are a great place to spot lions. Estimates show there are about 3000 lions in the park and the best thing about the Serengeti is that it’s one of the only places in Africa where lions are not in decline.

Masai Mara (Kenya): One of Africa’s most famous national reserves, the Masai Mara was home to the BBC’s famous Big Cat Diaries which documented the lives of many of of the big cats but especially the lions.

Lake Manyara National Park (Tanzania): Lake Manyara is one of the few places in Africa that are home to the tree-climbing lions. Although no one quite knows why, the resident big cats here like to spend their days relaxing in the acacia trees and it really is a sight to behold.

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Best places to see Leopard

The African leopard is often one of the hardest to find when on safari. These elite hunters are generally solitary creatures (with the exception of times of mating and when rearing their young). Spending most of their day sleeping in trees, these nocturnal cats hunt for their prey at night often using ambush as their successful means of attack. Athletic and strong, it is not uncommon for a leopard to drag its prey that can be 3 times the weight of their own body weight up a tree for safe dining – away from other leopards and the scavenging hyena. Being fiercely territorial, leopards protect their hunting territory ruthlessly from other leopards using the spray of urine and claw marking on trees to make their presence known. Territory size for the leopard is markedly bigger for the males (up to 30 sq miles) than the females (around 6 sq miles) and overlap of territory is common place between males and females but never between just the males.

Our picks for spotting leopard

Serengeti (Tanzania): With a healthy leopard population, the Serengeti is still one of the best places in East Africa to see leopard. Particularly along the river valleys including the Seronera Valley in the centre of the Serengeti.

Lake Nakuru National Park (Kenya): Nakuru does not have a large number of lions making the leopard a more important resident . Interestingly they are commonly seen in the day here and with the great number of fever trees with their thick branches make it ideal for daytime leopard lounging.

Sabi Sands Game Reserve (South Africa): Home to the highest density of leopard in the world, Sabi Sands is considered one of the best places to see leopard. You can’t visit for the day, you must stay at one of the many lodges here. Although we can’t prove it – they say leopard sighting is almost guaranteed!

South Luangwa National Park (Zambia): South Luangwa is one of the only national parks that allow night safari drives. So naturally your chances of seeing these nocturnal hunters are greatly increased and sightings are extremely common.

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Best places to see Elephant

The giants of the savannah – African elephants are the world’s biggest land mammal. Weighing up to 6 tonnes and reaching heights of over 3 meters high and 7 metres long – it’s not hard to see why. One of Africa’s most iconic animals, the elephant is often one of the most seen of the Big Five. These incredible creatures live in big herds and famously enjoy a matriarchal society. The female elephants are in charge. They lead the herd often for decades at a time and make all the choices of where to go, when to eat, how long to stay anywhere, how to deal with any potential danger and are hugely respected by their herds and sorely missed when they die. Male elephants generally leave the herd when they reach puberty (typically 13 – 14 years old) and join fellow bachelor elephants until the age of 30 when they begin to look for a mate. The gestation period of an elephant is an incredible 22 months and elephants can live up to 70 months.

Our picks for spotting elephant:

Chobe National Park (Botswana): Said to be home to between 50 - 70’000 elephants (particularly in the dry season), Chobe National Park is undoubtedly one of the best places in Africa to see elephant. Not only does it have the highest population but also some of the biggest elephants physically.

Addo Elephant National Park (South Africa): A sanctuary to over 600 elephants, Addo has now become South Africa’s third biggest national park. Starting up in 1931 when only 11 elephants remained in the area – it’s one of the most memorable and interesting places to see elephant.

Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe): Being so close to Chobe National Park, Hwange is also home to lots of elephants. Happily travelling freely from Botswana to Zimbabwe using the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers as a foraging ground.

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (Kenya): Located in the capital Nairobi, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust cares for many orphaned baby elephants. There is an elephant nursery open for an hour a day when the baby elephants come in from the bush for milk and water play!

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Best places to see Rhino

Divided into two distinct species, the rhino is the world’s second largest land mammal. The more common of these rhinos is the white rhino, so called from the Dutch settlers, the Boers who came to Africa and referred to it by its wide or ‘wyd’ mouth. It has nothing to do with colour. In order to differentiate between the two species the second was naturally called the black rhino. Both species are in fact grey in colour. The white rhino is the heavier of the two – sometimes weighing in at an impressive 2500kg whereas the black rhino peaks at 1400kg. Rhinos love to wallow in the mud and are often seen caked in the stuff – the reason for this is twofold – the mud acts as a very good bug repellent and sun screen! Rhinos only bear one calf per birth whom they are hugely protective of. Interestingly the female white rhino will always keeps its calf in front of her whereas a black rhino will always keep it behind her. The black rhino is considered the more dangerous of the two due to its very volatile nature. It is also the more elusive and solitary than the white rhino.

Our picks for spotting rhino:

Etosha National Park (Namibia): Quite possibly one of the best places to see Namibia’s wildlife at night is at Etosha’s Okaukuejo waterhole. Black rhino are frequently seen here and even more so in the dry months.

Lake Nakuru National Park (Kenya): Although most famous for its flamingo, Nakuru is home to both the black and white rhino. The white rhino are more easy to spot but if you stay at a lodge or camp in the park and go out first thing you’re increasing your chances of seeing black rhino.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park (South Africa): One of the pioneer’s in rhino conservation, Hluhluwe in Zululand is a very popular self-drive destination. It has had fantastic success in rhino conservation and also looks after young rhinos who have been orphaned.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy (Kenya): As East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary, Ol Pejeta is home to a great number of free roaming black rhino. It is also home to four of the last seven northern white rhinos in the world as well as Barake, a blind black rhino rescued by the conservancy.

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Best places to see Buffalo

Not to be confused with the water buffalo from Asia; the Cape or African buffalo is a far more fearsome and dangerous bovine. Unlike its Asian cousins this buffalo has never been tamed. Considered the most dangerous of the Big Five, due to their complete unpredictability – the buffalo is a surprisingly social creature. Living in massive herds, sometimes in numbers of up to 500 the buffalo is probably the easiest of all the Big Five to find and certainly the one you will see the most of. Sporting an impressive set of horns, especially the males whose horns meet at the middle to form a characteristic ‘boss’ shape, they are used mainly for fighting and protecting the herd – sometimes from lions. There have been a number of occasions when younger members of the herd have been taken by lions only for the herd to respond en masse and rescue their young literally from the lion’s jaws! The herds generally get smaller during the dry season when the males tend to join their own bachelor herds, the younger ones returning in the wet season to breed and protect their young.

Our top picks for spotting buffalo:

Kruger National Park (South Africa): Made viral on Youtube a while back, the famous Battle at Kruger saw a baby buffalo taken by lions (and crocodiles) and successfully rescued by its herd. You can find buffalo all over this massive park but more so in the north and south.

Serengeti (Tanzania): Although buffalo are not the number one reason to visit the Serengeti, it is a great place to find them as they attract impressive herd numbers during the migration season (July to November). At this time you won’t be hard pushed to find herds of 1000 plus!

Chobe National Park (Botswana): Buffalo can be found all over Botswana. It is not uncommon to see them in their 100’s drinking along the Chobe River during the winter’s dry season (May – October).

Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania): As with most of the big parks in East Africa, the Ngorongoro Crater also attracts good numbers of buffalo. Being quite bold creatures they have been known to get quite close to people camping on the rim of the crater – so be careful!

Big 5 Safari Tours

Whether you're looking for an overland camping expedition from one end of Africa to the other or a comfortable small-group lodge safari with less travel, we've got the perfect selection of tours for all tastes and budgets. From Kenya and Tanzania in east Africa to Namibia and Botswana in the south, our tours take in the very best safari destinations with plenty of opportunities to spot the Big 5. Here's some of our favourite and most popular Big 5 safari tours.

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