‘The Big Five’ is synonymous with African safaris. While the term is now widely used within the realms of wildlife tourism, the term (originally ‘big five game’) was actually coined by hunters. 

The African elephant, African lion, African leopard, Black rhinoceros and Cape buffalo are not the biggest animals in Africa, but they were considered the most dangerous and most difficult in Africa to hunt on foot. 

Despite the continent’s wealth of biodiversity, these five species, symbols of African fauna, remain at the top of the list for many safari tourists.

How much do you know about The Big Five? Here we have some interesting facts and figures about each of these beautiful, imposing creatures.

African bush elephant

  • Latin name: Loxodonta africana 
  • Max lifespan: 60-70 years
  • Size: 3-4m tall
  • Weight: 6-10 tonnes 
  • Conservation status: vulnerable

The African bush elephant is the largest living land mammal. There are, in fact, two species of extant African elephant; the other is the smaller African forest elephantLoxodonta cyclotis

Their characteristic trunks are used for breathing, smelling, drinking, picking leaves, trumpeting, grooming and showing affection. They eat hundreds of kilograms of food a day, though only around 40% of what they eat is properly digested. 

One of the greatest threats to elephants is from poachers, who kill this iconic species for its ivory tusks. An estimated 8% of the population is poached every year.

Family of African elephants drinking at a waterhole in Etosha national park. Namibia, Africa. By Efimova Anna | Shutterstock.com

African Lion

  • Latin namePanthera leo
  • Lifespan: 10-14 years
  • Size: 1.7-3.0 m long
  • Weight: 120-250 kg
  • Conservation status: vulnerable

Unlike most feline species, lions live in social groups, which usually consist of 10-15 individuals. Some of the largest prides ever observed, however, had up to 40 individuals.

Both males and females roar extremely loudly and can be heard as far as 8 kilometers away. They roar to communicate with one another and to mark their territory, which can extend to an area of 100 km2.

Although they are sometimes referred to as the ‘king of the jungle’, lions never live in that kind of habitat! They are far more at home in savannas, plains, grasslands, dense bush, and woodlands.

Lions. By Diriye Amey | Shutterstock.com

African Leopard

  • Latin namePanthera pardus 
  • Lifespan: 10-12 years
  • Size: 1.6-2.3 m long
  • Weight: 30-65 kg
  • Conservation status: vulnerable

African leopards are native to 35 African countries. They are incredibly adaptable, able to thrive in some of the world’s most humid rainforests, as well as dry, rocky landscapes.

Leopards are excellent stalkers and prey on a wide range of animals (around 90 species), including monkeys, birds, warthogs, and ungulates. They often store their kill up in the tree branches so as to avoid interest from rival predators, such as lions and hyenas. They are also strong swimmers and sometimes feed on fish and crabs.

The African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) young female patrolling in its territory in the last evening light. By Karel Bartik | Shutterstock.com

Black rhinoceros

  • Latin nameDiceros bicornis
  • Lifespan: 35-50 years
  • Size: 1.4-1.8 m tall / 3-3.75 m long 
  • Weight: 800-1,400 kg
  • Conservation status: critically endangered

Both black and white rhinoceroses are actually grey. One of the key differences between these species is the shape of their lips. The black rhinoceros has a pointed upper lip, which it uses to pluck leaves and fruit from the branches. Whereas white rhinos have squarer lips, which makes them better adapted to grazing.

The majority of the black rhinoceros population (around 98%) is concentrated in four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. Since 1960, the population of Black rhinos is estimated to have drop by around 97%. After an all time low of 2,410 in 1995, they are starting to recover.

Photograph of the critically endangered Black Rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis, also called hook-lipped rhinoceros. By PicturesWild | Shutterstock.com

Cape buffalo

  • Latin nameSyncerus caffer 
  • Lifespan: 11-22 years
  • Size: 1.0-1.7 m tall / 1.7-3.4 m long
  • Weight: 500-850 kg
  • Conservation status: least concern

The Cape buffalo is one of the most abundant of Africa’s large herbivores, with an estimated population of 900,000. As long as they have access to water, they can survive in a range of habitats, from dense forest to open plains, throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They typically live in big herds of 1000 or more individuals. 

Their horns have fused bases, which form a bone shield across the top of the head. As well as serving as a formidable weapons against predators, such as lions, leopards and hyenas, these horns are used by males in fights for dominance and mating rights.

Cape Buffalo. By 2630ben | Shutterstock.com

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James is a freelance language professional based in Barcelona. Besides writing articles for Zoo Portraits, he writes about education and teaches English as a foreign language in businesses, universities and other institutions around the city.


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