The Big Five Game Animals of Africa

Africa has always been known as the world’s foremost destination for finding big game. Big-game hunting has been the sport of the wealthy for centuries. But as Africa has become more accessible to the average tourist, the sport of “big-game hunting” has changed as well. Hunting for meat or for trophies is on the decline, but many more tourists “hunt” game with cameras these days. If you’re planning a photographic safari to someday, you should consider seeking out the big five game animals of Africa.

The Big Five Game Animals of Africa

The Big Five Game Animals of Africa

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many legendary explorers and travelers made their way to Africa to hunt big game. The term “big five” emerged in the mid-19th century to describe the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on an African safari. Even today, The “big five” are:

The African Lion (Panthera leo)

The Big Five Game Animals of Africa
Two male lions resting, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

The African lion is belongs to the biological family Felidae. This family also includes domestic cats, cheetahs and tigers. Lions are muscular and deep-chested, have small heads with rounded ears, and a tuft of the end of their long tail. They range in weight from 150-250 Kg (330-550 lbs). Females are typically smaller and lighter. Males are larger, more aggressive and are easily identified by their beautiful manes of hair.Lions live in grassland or in savannas but not in dense forests. They are referred to as diurnal animals – meaning they are most active at sunrise and at sunset. They are also considered hypercarnivores – that is, more than 70% of a lion’s typical diet is meat. Their preferred diet consists mostly of wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and giraffe. 

Lions aren’t exactly rare in Africa, although they are becoming more so. Their conservation status is listed as “Vulnerable,” and the population of lions in Africa is shrinking. It is estimated that the population is about 45% smaller now than in the mid-1990s. Game hunting of lions is down significantly, but it is believed that the encroachment of human habitats has disrupted the feeding and mating grounds of African lions.

Interesting Facts About The African Lion

  • The Big Five Game Animals of Africa
    An African lion in Nairobi National Park, Nairobi, Kenya

    Lions are the largest carnivores in Africa.

  • They are extremely fast, and can cover 100 meters in under six seconds.
  • They hunt in the morning and the evening and spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping or resting.
  • All lionesses will remain in a pride for life and are all related.
  • Lions have very rough tongues – this is used to separate meat from bone after making a kill.
  • Females do most of the hunting work although males will assist if help is needed.

The Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

The Big Five Game Animals of Africa
Black Rhinoceros. Photo courtesy user Gil Aegerter

Many tourists to Africa view the black rhino as a slow, lumbering tank…but they do so at their peril. Adult black rhinoceroses are large, powerful and fast.

An adult black rhinoceros stands 140–180 cm (55–71 in) high  and is 3–3.75 m (9.8–12.3 ft) in length. An adult typically weighs from 800 to 1,400 kg (1,760 to 3,090 lb). Females are smaller than the males. Black rhinos have two horns on their skull, composed of keratin. The front horn is typically typically 50 cm (20 in) long but some specimens have been found up to 140 cm (55 in) in length. These horns are used for defense, intimidation, and digging up roots and breaking branches during feeding. 

The black rhinoceros can be distinguished from the white rhinoceros by its size, smaller skull, and ears; and by the position of its head, which is held higher than the white rhinoceros; the black rhinoceros is a browser and not a grazer.

The black rhino’s conservation status is “Critically Endangered,” and their numbers have fallen dramatically over the years. Approximately 70,000 black rhinos existed in the wild in the 1960s, but this number dwindled to under 2,500 by 2004. Sadly, it’s a rare site these days for tourists and photographers anywhere in southern Africa.

Interesting Facts About The Black Rhino

  • The Big Five Game Animals of AfricaBlack rhinos have terrible eyesight but great hearing and a very acute sense of smell.
  • The typical lifespan is 35-50 years.
  • Most black rhino are found in Tanzania.
  • Rhinos run on their toes.
  • While they do have thick skin, they still run the risk of getting sunburned. This is why they’re often found wallowing in mud – it’s a natural sunscreen.
  • Rhinos are herbivores and eat up to 220 different types of plants as part of their typical diet.

The African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

The Big Five Game Animals of Africa
African bush elephant, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

A subspecies of African elephant known as the bush elephant is the largest living terrestrial animal. Its close relative, the forest elephant, is the third largest land animal in existence. 

Male African elephants range in height from 3.2 to 4 meters (10.5-13.1 feet). They typically weigh 4,700–6,048 kilograms (10,362–13,334 pounds). Females stand 2.2–2.6 m (7.2–8.5 ft) tall and weigh 2,160–3,232 kg (4,762–7,125 lb). The tallest recorded individual stood 4.21 m (13.8 ft) at the shoulder and weighed 8 tonnes (8,000 kg; 18,000 lb).

African elephants are distinguished from their Asian cousins primarily by the fact that their ears are much larger. The larger ears help African elephants keep cool. Not only are they used as fans, but their ears contain a network of fine blood vessels that are close to the skin. The elephant’s blood can be cooled by the motion of their ears, thus bringing their core temperature down.

The African elephant’s conservation status is “Vulnerable.” Adult elephants have no natural predators, but the calves are vulnerable to attacks from lions. The population of elephants in the wild declined in the 1980s and early 1990s due to the encroachment of cities. However, the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have made significant efforts to preserve natural settings for elephants to feed, range and breed in – and this has led to a resurgence of new births, thus driving up the population.

Interesting Facts About The African Elephant

  • The Big Five Game Animals of Africa
    African elephant, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

    Elephants can be right- or left-tusked – in much the same way as humans can be right- or left-handed.

  • The average tusk size of the African elephant has shrunk by approximately 50% in the last century. Scientists have several theories as to why, but no explanation.
  • Elephants can live for up to 70 years in the wild, but typically only last about 40-45 years in captivity.
  • They live in tight-knit, female-led groups called herds.
  • Elephants can recognize their own reflection in mirrors. Most other animals assume that a reflection in a mirror is another animal of their same species.
  • It’s not a myth – elephants have been scientifically proven to have excellent long-term memories.

The African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus)

The Big Five Game Animals of AfricaThe African leopard is one of the few species of the big five that can be found outside southern Africa. It appears quite often in the non-desert areas of northern Africa as well. Male African leopards typically weigh 60 kg (130 lb) with specimens as large 91 kg (201 lb) being found in the wild. Females typically weigh about 35 to 40 kg (77 to 88 lb).

The African leopard lives in a wide variety of habitats within Africa. These range from mountainous forests to savannahs and grasslands. Sandy desert areas, such as the Sahara or in northern Africa, are the only ecosystems in which leopards are not found.

As with many other animals in the feline family, the African leopard is diurnal. Outside its hunting times at daybreak and dusk, it can be found sleeping or resting. Leopards are carnivores but have an extremely varied diet: they eat beetles, rodents, birds, and larger land animals as well. Leopards are known to hide their kills in trees – a feat requiring great strength. There have been several reports of leopards hauling a young giraffe carcass – an animal that can outweigh the leopard by three to one – into acacia trees.

Interesting Facts About The African Leopard

  • The Big Five Game Animals of AfricaLeopards can run up to 58 km (36 miles) per hour, and can leap as high as 6 m (20 feet) in the air.
  • They are solitary animals and rarely cross into each others’ territories, except for breeding purposes.
  • Female leopards can give birth year round, and typically have two or three cubs per litter.
  • Relatives of the African leopard can be found throughout most of Africa and Asia from the middle east to the Soviet Union, Korea, China, India, and Malaysia. 
  • Pound for pound, leopards are the strongest species in the Feline family.
  • Leopards are incredibly agile, thanks in part to the diverse terrain in which they can be found. They can be found swimming, climbing trees, or ascending steep hills – all while carrying prey that is two to three times their size.

The Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

The Big Five Game Animals of AfricaThe cape buffalo is easily distinguished by its unique horns. The horns form a continuous shield of bone, known as a “boss”, across the animal’s head. It is also recognized as the most deadly of the big five game animals of Africa. Cape buffalo gore, trample and kill upwards of 200 people each year. Cape buffalo have never been domesticated, unlike other members of the Syncerus family. This is primarily due to its aggressive and unpredictable behavior.

The African buffalo is a very robust species. It can range from 1.0 to 1.7 m (3.3 to 5.6 ft) at the shoulder. Its full length can range from 1.7 to 3.4 m (5.6 to 11.2 ft). The tail can range from 70 to 110 cm (28 to 43 in) long. Its head is carried low; its top is located below the high point of the back. The front hooves of the buffalo are wider than the rear, which is associated with the need to support the weight of the front part of the body, which is heavier and more powerful than the back.

Interesting Facts About The Cape Buffalo

  • The Big Five Game Animals of AfricaBaby cape buffalo can begin running within an hour of their birth.
  • Mothers only give birth to a single calf at a time. There is only one recorded instance of twin cape buffaloes being born, but one of the two did not survive.
  • The hide on a bull cape buffalo’s neck can be up to 5 cm (2 inches) in some places. This helps protect them from predators.
  • Cape buffalo have been shown to have excellent short- and long-term memory skills.
  • The birds you see sitting on the hide of a cape buffalo are called oxpeckers. They have a symbiotic relationship with the cape buffalo and remove ticks/insects embedded in their skin.
  • If a buffalo herd comes under threat from a predator they form a circle around their young. All of the adults face outwards in an effort to hide the vulnerable. The adults actually lower their heads and form a protective barrier with their horns.

Where Are The Big Five Game Animals of Africa Found?

Each of the big five game animals have their own habitats and migration patterns. However, they can all be generally found in similar areas. They are most prominent in lower half of Africa. This includes Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and Tanzania. Large populations of these animals can also be found as far south as South Africa.

Photographing The Big Five Game Animals of Africa

If you’re fortunate enough to make a trip to photograph the big five game animals of Africa, here are some of my tips to help you get the best photos possible:

  • You’ll need a long lens to capture these animals well – somewhere in the range of 500mm to 600mm focal length. Even though the animals are large, the guides tend to stay well away from the animals due to their unpredictable and sometimes aggressive behavior.
  • Bring a small bean bag or a wrapped up towel on which to balance your camera. You’ll need to steady it as you shoot out a window or out the top of a safari tour vehicle.
  • When possible, try photographing the animals with your back to the sun. If they’re looking at you, you’ll get a well-lit face and a small catch-light in their eyes. The animals are used to the bright African sun and rarely, if ever, squint…so you don’t have to worry about having a bad image.
  • Plan for early and late game drives to catch these animals. Depending on the time of year, a game drive can start between 6AM and 8AM, and a late drive can end somewhere between 5PM and 7PM. Most of the big five game animals of Africa are diurnal, so you have to be out when they’re out.
  • If your camera supports a rapid fire mode, use it – especially when the animals are running or are in action.
  • To show a sense of speed and movement, try photographing fast-moving with a slower shutter speed. Set your camera to shutter preferred mode, pick a speed between 1/50 sec. and 1/250 sec. Pan your camera along with the animal as it runs. It takes practice, but the results can be amazing.



30 thoughts on “The Big Five Game Animals of Africa

  1. That’s a a detailed post on game animals of Africa. I never knew that the term game animal exists! I thought water buffalo can be found only in Indian sub-continent only! How wrong I was!

  2. This post has come at a great time since we’re glued to Our Planet with David Attenborough! It’d be a dream to try to photograph any of these amazing animals in their natural habitat. If I ever do, I’ll take your tips on board. It’s so sad to read about the decline in African lions too.

  3. A photographic safari is a dream! So much information, I would love to see the lions and leopards. The Cape buffalo are cute, wouldn’t have guessed they are the most deadly. Great tip to use a bean bag to study the camera

  4. You have done well by including the interesting facts about the wild animals. I just realized how little I knew about them. The tips for photographing them are equally useful! It is a dream to fet to the wild side of Africa some day and this post is inspiring me to get there soon.

  5. Great tips on how to photograph the Big 5. Visiting Africa to see the Big 5 is quite high on our travel list. Tanzania and Kenya are the two countries that we would consider at this stage when booking. Your post has inspired me to book earlier than later, thanks.

  6. We’ve lately talked about bringing our teens on an African safari. My daughter and I love photography that this would truly be a vacation of a lifetime. I honestly didn’t realize that the buffalo is one of the big five. Not knowing much about safaris, those that I would have expected on the list are, my favourite, the giraffe and, my daughter’s favourite, the hippo.

  7. Seeing the big five in Africa is one of our ultimate dreams on our bucket list. But I have to be honest I didn’t know all that much about them so it’s wonderful to actually learn about them and even more to learn about them before so when we do see them we have that knowledge. Thanks!

  8. Enjoyed reading this post about wild animals. These lions are the real kings , sleep 20 hours a day and only help the females in hunting if needed. What a life! haha. my favorite among these are the leopards though. I love their grace.

  9. What an amazing experience to see these animals in the wild. Amazing photos. and love that you included so many interesting facts about the animals. I didn’t know most of these.

  10. Love reading posts about wild animals. It’s been years since I was in Africa on a safari and it was so exciting to see the big 5. Wish I had a better camera or should I say I wish I was a better photographer. Like the tips on balancing the camera, wish I had known that one 🙂

  11. Loved reading the post on the famous Big Five of Africa. I had been to Tanzania 2 years amd I was lucky enough to spot all five of them. The experience is surreal. Your post brought back all the amazing memories, the interesting facts were a added bonus.

  12. Great info and tips about African wildlife and wildlife photography. I’m a photography enthusiast and I know how expensive a long lens is. I borrowed such kind of lens once from a fellow photography enthusiast when we went bird watching. It was both fun and difficult. Seeing and observing them personally is a reward in itself but taking home great photos of wild animals (like yours) will be a bonus.

  13. African animals are very exotic and therefore seeing these big 5 animals of Africa must be a beautiful wildlife tour. Thanks for sharing all photography tips and which lens to carry. You have taken stunning shots.

  14. What an interesting and informative post. That’s sad to hear some of the animals on the list are considered vulnerable, but I’m glad that there is some government effort to conserve habitats. I also really like your tips for capturing some great shots of these beautiful animals!

  15. So many interesting things about the big five I learned from your article. How amazing that lions can run 100 meters in 6 seconds, elephants recognize themselves in a mirror and also have a good memory, leopards hide their kill in trees, and buffalo are so deadly and also have a good memory. Maybe the buffalo keep grudges. : ) Thank you for your tips on photography. We really need them with our new Nikon camera.

  16. I really enjoyed reading your article. So many information about the big five game animals, that now I can have a more deeper conversation about the African animals with my son. He knows a lot about them from watching PBS. Thank you also for sharing tips on taking pictures during the ‘hunt’. I don’t know if I will get a chance to do it in the future, but I can see an interesting conversation with my son’s friend’s grandfather who’d been to picture hunting in Africa a few years back.

  17. I have just learned so much about the big five! I had no idea that lions hunt in the morning and then spend 20 hours sleeping. That now must explain my cat and why she sleeps all day love! The African leopard – wow what a beautiful animal. And it’s so incredible that it can run up to 58 km per hour – I wouldn’t want to be its prey that’s for sure. I was lucky enough to be able to spot many of these animals when I visiting Tanzania and Kenya a few years back. Such a beautiful part of the world.

  18. I was in Kenya last year, and learnt a lot about the Big Five. Thanks for sharing this as I love learning interesting facts about animals and you have summarized them well. I also got lucky to witness the Great Migration of Wildebeests across the Mara river last year. Your post totally refreshed all the memories of Kenya. Loved the experience and loving your post.

  19. We went to Ruaha State Park in Tanzania for our safari and were able to see lions, cape buffalo, and elephants on our safari. We didnt get to see the last 2 of the big five, but sure had a great time anyway. Your post brought back some great memories. I guess we will have to go back and see the other 2 you mentioned!

  20. I haven’t done an African safari yet and it is such a pity because geographically, I don’t live too far from the region! I have only been to Tanzania and that too, Zanzibar and since I had only 4 days, I couldn’t make it to Masai Mara or Kruger National Park, two places I really want to go for a safari. Of course, I’d love to see the Big Five and it’s interesting to read all these facts about each of those species. I’d love to spot the African Lion, the most!

  21. Those are super useful tips on photographing the big Five. I might have to hire a lens to capture them right. Loved your fact files on all these. Found some interesting nuggets like I did not know Leopards were the strongest!

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