Safari Series: The Big Five

Before my first trip to Africa, I had never heard of the Big Five. I was apparently the only one, because everyone in my tour group said that they were hoping to see the Big Five and everyone in the tourism industry used the term as if its meaning was self-evident. I learned pretty quickly that the Big Five are (1) Elephants, (2) Rhinos, (3) Lions, (4) Leopards, and (5) Buffalo, which confused me. If we’re talking big animals, how did the little leopard beat out the gargantuan hippo? And if we’re talking famous animals, who did the buffalo have to bribe to edge out zebras and giraffes?

As it turns out, the term Big Five was created by hunters and the Big Five are supposed to be the most difficult-yet-desirable animals to hunt on foot. They are all “trophy” animals for hunters (elephants for their tusks; rhinos and and buffalo for their horns; lions and leopards for their skins) and are all considered extremely dangerous. Somehow the term caught on in the tourist industry, so that national parks are now marketed as “home to the Big Five” and many tourists see the Big Five animals as the checklist for a Successful Safari. Honestly, it makes no sense to me. But this Safari Series of mine is going to get very long (don’t say I didn’t warn you), so I’m happy to use the Big Five as a rational reason to group completely unrelated animals into one blog post.

I think lions and buffalo already got more than their share (resisting temptation to use the term “lion’s share”) of airtime here, so I’ll skip over those.

First up, elephants. I had mentioned to Juliet before Daniel arrived that elephants were one of the only animals that I didn’t mind too much if Daniel didn’t see, because he’s seen plenty of elephants in India and Southeast Asia. She set me straight, pointing out that not only is it different to see them in the wild (agreed), but that Asian and African elephants are actually very different species (descended from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago, I’ve since learned).

No offense to the Asian Elephant, which is lovely, but the African Elephant is definitely the more awe-inspiring of the two. The African Elephant is significantly bigger — usually about a foot taller and thousands of pounds heavier. It has much larger, Dumbo-shaped ears, and longer tusks on both males and females (female Asian Elephants usually do not have visible tusks at all). The African Elephant has two “fingers” rather than one at the end of its trunk, giving it more dexterity. There are also a host of other differences between the two species, like number of toes, number of ribs, shape of teeth, and more, but let’s be honest, no one cares about the ones we can’t see.



Female elephants travel in large groups, and since they live a long time, the groups often include many generations in the same family. The group is led by one matriarch. Male elephants leave the group around puberty and then travel on their own or in small groups, meeting up with the female groups only for mating. We watched this group walk around and eat for a while — you can tell that the matriarch is pretty old because of the size of her tusks.




This is another one that we watched for a while; an old man who was on his own. He was missing a chunk of an ear and had broken tusks, which could have been either from a fight or from pulling down trees (which elephants will often do in order to get at fruit that they can’t reach on the top of the tree).


Goodbye, elephants πŸ™‚


The leopard is the rarest sighting of the Big Five, and one of the hardest animals to see in general. Leopards are small (for big cats), shy, solitary, and strongly nocturnal, preferring to spend their days sleeping in leafy trees, all of which make them very difficult to spot. We can attest to the fact that they are very stealthy and very well-camouflaged: After our guide saw a leopard, we and one other safari vehicle drove closer to get a look at it, but couldn’t find it. We stayed in one spot looking for it in the trees or the grass before concluding that it had already slipped away. As we were about to drive away, there was a movement in the grass, and there it was — it had been lying not far away from us the entire time.

The leopard is often confused with the cheetah, but the two animals have relatively few traits in common (they are not even in the same genus, but more about that when I get to cheetahs). The cause of the confusion is their skin patterns, which are actually very different. Unlike the cheetah (and contrary to the proverb), a leopard doesn’t have spots, but rosettes — brown patches surrounded by a circle of black marks.


And finally, to round out the Big Five, the rhino. I think that rhinos are the second-rarest sighting of the group because they are so endangered, but we were treated to a great view of one grazing in an open field full of wildflowers in the Ngorongoro Crater.


This was the first black rhino I’ve seen; the one that I saw at Etosha was a white rhino. The nomenclature is confusing because black and white rhinos are both gray. One of the key differences between the two species is that white rhinos are grazers and have flat, broad mouths, while black rhinos are browsers and have pointed mouths that are better for grasping twigs and leaves. Dutch settlers in Southern Africa used the word “whyde,” meaning wide, to refer to the one with the wide mouth, and it’s not hard to see how “whyde” became “white.” Once the one species had been named the white rhino, its smaller, pointy-mouthed counterpart became known as the black rhino.



So there you have them: The Big Five.

P.S. I’ve finally finished organizing my favorite safari photos and I still have lots to share. I’m planning to churn out at least one post per day for the foreseeable future, in the hopes that I will one day (preferably before I get home) remember what it is like to be up to date. My point is: if you follow by email and you don’t want your inbox flooded, this might be a good time to change your settings πŸ™‚ And if you don’t follow by email but you love animal planet, check back regularly this week.


6 thoughts on “Safari Series: The Big Five

  1. So let’s see, Hannibal would likely have tried to take African elephants to terrorize the Romans, and they would have been scarier than their Asian cousins, but way less tractable… I can’t imagine what an elephant from the plains of African would have thought of the Alps. Brrr, is my guess. πŸ˜‰

    • Exactly. I think this has the makings of a children’s book that could entertain and educate kids about history and science, all at the same time.

      • Funny you should say that… I’ve repeatedly thought that your posts could spark a great book.

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