What are the BIG 5 animals in Africa? 

Thanda Team

The Big 5 game animals in Africa are the African lion, African elephant, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo. South Africa is a premier safari destination to see the Big 5 with a choice of magnificent national parks and private game reserves from which to choose, including Thanda Safari in northern KwaZulu-Natal, one of Africa’s most celebrated Big Five private game reserves.  

The largest member of the Big 5 is the African elephant. It can be three to four metres in height, adult males can weigh over six tons and adult females over three tons. Their ears alone measure up to 2mx1.2m and can weigh up to 20kg each. Elephants can live well into their sixties in the wild and the two largest elephant bulls on Thanda Safari are close to 50 years of age.

The Zulu people’s symbol for the Zulu King is the elephant and the lion.

The elephant, or ‘ndlovu’ in the Zulu language, means ‘the forceful one’; the lion, or ‘ibhubesi’, means ‘to make the final decision’ as the lion is regarded as the King of the Beasts. An adult male lion weighs between 190 and 260 kilograms, and can clear 12 metres at a leap and bring down a wildebeest of the same weight.

Male lions are in their prime from five to nine years and any male that is the head of a pride is constantly challenged by other males wanting to take over.

The leopard, ‘ingwe’, is also highly revered and symbolises all that is noble, courageous and honourable. The solitary leopard is the most elusive of the Big 5. The male leopard weighs an average of 65 kilograms and the female 35 kilograms. Safarists are sometimes fortunate to see a leopard ‘tree’ its kill, dragging prey that can be twice its own weight up a tree to escape scavenging lions and hyaena.

Fossil records reflect that four-fifths of the big cats that once roamed the earth have vanished. The lion, leopard and cheetah as we know them today, made their appearance around 3.2 million years ago.

The white rhino with its wide mouth is the second largest land mammal after the African elephant. They have poor eyesight but exceptional hearing and smell, and despite their size they can reach speeds of 40km/h. The smaller black rhino is far more solitary and elusive with a notoriously volatile temperament.

The Cape buffalo can appear to be docile grazing in its large herd, but if angered, it charges at an average of 50 km/h. A wounded buffalo is considered to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.


The Big 5 safari animals (African lion, African elephant, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo) got their name in the 19th and early 20th century, when they were considered the prize trophies to hunt. They were called the Big 5 because they were the most intimidating, dangerous animals to hunt on foot. If they were shot but not fatally injured, there are many stories about how they would go after the hunter.

Renowned 20th century author and Big 5 hunter Ernest Hemingway’s famous quote about being on safari in Africa reads: “All I wanted to do now was to get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”

Today, the Big 5 is a safari and ecotourism term as everyone wants to see the Big 5 in the wild in Africa’s legendary game reserves. Many safarist describe how being on safari and witnessing these animals is the best experience of their lives.

Apart from the leopard, four of the Big 5 were reintroduced to Thanda Safari, as well as the cheetah. The animals had been shot out over the decades and Thanda brought them back when it established the game reserve in 2002. Thanda Safari is 20 years old in 2022.


South Africa is an exceptional destination to experience the thrill of the Big Five animals on safari, which is on many people’s life lists.

To hear the lion roar at dusk is one of the most exciting, ancient sounds. The lion is synonymous with an African safari, and everyone wants to see the powerful, beautiful King of the Beasts, and, if they are lucky, their exquisite cubs.

Another animal every safarist wants to see is the leopard, but this is often the most difficult to find because of their incredible camouflage and secrecy. They are solitary animals, except then mating or when a mother has cubs. Many safarists speak of the mystical experience of seeing a leopard.

Despite their size, elephants can be incredibly silent and many safarists express their absolutely surprise and apprehension as a herd suddenly emerges from the bush. Females rule the herd, with a matriarch leading them and making sure the young are protected. An elephant trumpeting is another sound that takes safarists back to the beginning of time.

Then there is the Cape buffalo, that might appear docile in their huge rambling herds, but can be the most dangerous of the Big 5 if you’re on foot. When the males fight for rank, the clashing of their bosses (the hard ‘helmet’ between their impressive horns) has been equated to a car hitting a wall at 50km/h.

The story of the rhino, both white and black, is one of the world’s sins, as these animals are being viciously hunted by organised crime syndicates. Many game reserves are monitoring them 24/7 to try and prevent them from going extinct and they remove their horns to deter poachers.

So where do you go to see the Big 5 animals on safari. The multiple award-winning Thanda Safari in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is a safari destination of choice. It’s a good size reserve with dedicated field guides and trackers that go out their way to find the Big 5. Thanda Safari also offers bush walks and has an excellent resident wildlife photographer who can teach you how best to photograph the Big 5 and other wildlife, or, if you are already a wildlife photographer, you can book a photographic safari in a vehicle especially kitted out for this. Thanda Safari’s wildlife department engages in a number of scientific projects to study the Big 5 and other wildlife, and there is 24/7 monitoring of rhino and cheetah.