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The Big Five Animals of Africa (Plus Wild Facts!)

If you are familiar with African wildlife, you may have heard of the big five animals.

Once used among hunters, the term has evolved due to increased tourism, and nowadays, you will hear it on African safaris and when talking about wildlife on the continent.

Today’s article is about the all-mighty African big five, including some (fun) facts for you!

Whether you’re planning an African safari or are curious about the big five animals, here’s a nice introduction to these remarkable creatures.

Collage of The Big Five animals - Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo and Rhinoceros

What Is The Big Five?

The big five is a term used to describe the largest and the most famous animals in Africa. 

Originally, this term was used by hunters. The group of “big five game” included the animals that were most difficult to hunt on foot. Bringing them back home was a great success for hunters because of their dangerous nature.

Today, the meaning of the term has changed, fortunately. Instead of hunting, the expression is used to refer to seeing the big five in Africa due to a shift toward tourism.

Namely, African safaris, which we very much prefer. These animals are among the must-see creatures when visiting the amazing safaris in Africa.

So, what are the big five animals? The big five animals of Africa are lions, elephants, African buffalos, leopards, and rhinoceros. 

When thinking of African fauna, these animals are usually among the first that comes to mind.

The Big Five Animals

African Buffalo

African buffalo also known as Cape buffalo
African buffalo attacked by a crocodile in Kruger National Park, South Africa

African buffalos, also known as Cape buffalo—Syncerus caffer, can be found in sub-Saharan Africa. Their range commonly includes Eastern and Southern Africa. 

Typically, these African animals are found in habitats with dense cover near water sources but can also be found in open woodlands, including swamps, savannas, floodplains, grasslands, and African forests.

Also, these African big five animals are known to be among the most dangerous animals on the continent because of their bad temper when feeling threatened.

These hefty, cow-like animals can weigh between 935 to 2,000 pounds but are not very tall, reaching around 3 to 5.6 feet at the shoulders. As for the length, they can range somewhere between 5.6 to 11.2 feet long. 

These large animals have dark brown coats, but females tend to have more reddish coats. Additionally, they also have curved horns.

African buffalos’ diet includes bushes and tall and coarse grasses. They graze and then chew their grass, just like the cows do. This way, they get the maximum amount of nutrients from their food. They need a high amount of water every day, approximately 7 to 10 gallons.

On the IUCN Red List, African buffalos are listed as the Near Threatened as the population keeps decreasing.

Their main predators include crocodiles, lions, and hyenas. Also, as a member of the big five game, the African buffalo is sadly a sought-after trophy in hunting.

African Elephant

The African elephant is the biggest of the big five animals
The African elephant is the biggest of the big five animals

African bush elephants, scientifically called the Loxodonta africana, are not only the heaviest land animal but also one of the largest land animals in the world.

Not only are they very heavy, but they also are very big. Those large animals can weigh as much as 11.5 short tons and reach an average of 10.5 feet tall at the shoulders. 

One of their distinguishing characteristics is their large ears. They have a long trunk, huge head, and grayish-colored body with coarse hair.

African elephants have very thick skin, which is an inch thick to protect them from sharp bushes.

They are pretty adaptable and can survive in various habitats, including deserts and wetlands. 

African elephants can be found in over 21 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa and Botswana.

Typically, these large animals can be found in the rainforests and Saharan savannas of Central and Western Africa, like in Chobe National Park and Hwange National Park. 

As one of the big five animals, African elephants can consume very high amounts of vegetation and water. They are herbivores and enjoy eating fruit, barks, grass, and plant roots.

Elephants are known to be very social creatures. They live in groups that can include more than 100 individuals. The group slowly travels for long distances and communicates typically with quiet rumbles.

Unfortunately, the population of these large animals is decreasing rapidly. Even though many restrictions have helped to maintain and stabilize the elephant population, it still is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

They have a few natural predators like hyenas, crocodiles, and lions. Still, their biggest threat is habitat loss and illegal poaching for their tusks.

African Lion

Male African lion looking out atop rocky outcrop

The African lions, scientifically known as Panthera leo, are typically found in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in savannas, grasslands, and shrublands.

These African wild cats can be active at any time of the day but often prefer to hunt at or after dusk.

Their coloring and coat help in camouflage and are very effective help during hunting. They have a yellow-goldish coat which can change towards blonde or brown. 

Also, lions have powerful developed jaws, teeth, and forelegs. Males are bigger than females and have manes, which are large hair that covers the head and portion of the neck.

They are considered to be the second-largest cats, only behind the tiger. An average male lion can weigh between 385 to 495 pounds. At the same time, females can weigh between 260 to 315 pounds. 

Lions can reach up to 4 feet at the shoulders and can reach up to 5.2 to 6.8 feet long.

Diet-wise, lions are apex predators among the big five in Africa. Their diet includes zebras, African buffalos, giraffes, blue wildebeests, warthogs, and impalas.

Lions are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and are threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

They have no natural predators, but crippled lions and cubs are often preyed on by hyenas and leopards. They may also be trampled by buffalos and elephants.


Leopard sitting with cub beside her

Leopards, scientifically known as Panthera pardus, are one of the most unreachable big five animals as they spend the majority of the day hidden and only come out at night. 

They can be found in various habitats, including the savanna, rainforest, grassland, woodland, and riverine forest. Leopards are found in sub-Saharan Africa and are one of the few big game species still found outside national parks.

Leopards are carnivores that prefer medium-sized prey, like impalas, bushbucks, and common duikers, but may also prey on smaller animals like black-backed jackals and bat-eared foxes. As strong swimmers, they also eat fish and crabs.

African leopards have light, creamy-colored fur covered with dark spots called rosettes all over their body. This pattern is a perfect camouflage and helps them blend in with the environment.

As for their size, leopards weigh between 61 and 198 pounds. They can reach around 22 to 27 inches tall at the shoulders and 2.1 to 6.5 feet long, excluding the tail, which is about 23 to 39 inches long.

Just like other big five animals, their population is also declining mainly because of habitat loss, trophy hunting, and poaching—all human-related. Some of their natural predators are lions, tigers, and hyenas. 

Unfortunately, these gracious big five animals are considered to be Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List.


Black rhino portrait

The two species of rhinoceros are among the African big five animals. 

Black rhinos, scientifically known as Diceros bicornis, and white rhinos, Ceratotherium simum, are herbivores and their diet typically consists of leaves, shrubs, trees, fruit, and grass. They graze for food continuously throughout the day.

Unfortunately, there is a very low individual number of both of those species, and they are respectively listed as Critically Endangered and Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List because of extensive illegal poaching for rhino horns.

Their main predators are lions, leopards, hyenas, Nile crocodiles, wild dogs, and humans.

Even though they are referred to as black and white rhinoceros, they are dark and light gray, respectively. The main difference between them is that the black rhinoceros have pointed lips, while white rhinos have square lips.

Adult rhinoceros are on average 6 feet tall at the shoulders and 12 to 13 feet long. They can weigh somewhere between 1,760 and 5,000 pounds.

They typically have two horns, yet, sometimes a third one might appear, too. The horns are used in defense, to dig up food, and to break the branches.

Rhinoceros can be found in several locations, including Namibia, Kenya, South Arica, and Zimbabwe. 

Many black rhino individuals live in protected nature reserves. Their habitats include grasslands, savanna, and shrublands.

Big Five Animals Facts

Here are some fun facts about the big five animals:

Collage of The Big Five - Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo and Rhinoceros

African Buffalo Facts

  • African buffalos have poor vision and hearing. However, they are characterized by an incredibly well-developed sense of smell.
  • In Africa, cape buffalos are the animals that have killed the most hunters. If they get injured, they ambush the person who caused it, which often results in death.

African Elephant Facts

  • These animals live in herds. Females typically stay in the same herd for life. Yet, the males leave the native herd and create the one on their own. So, the new herd is kind of a “male bachelor group.”
  • African elephants are known for their huge ears, which are used not only for hearing but also to help in regulating body temperature when temperatures are extreme.
  • The food consumption of elephants can go up to 300 pounds of vegetation in just one day, and the water intake can reach 50 gallons.
  • Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their powerful trunk that they use to drink water, snorkel, pick up things, and eat.

African Lion Facts

  • The roar of lions can be heard 5 miles away.
  • Lions have a top speed of 50 miles per hour, making them one of the fastest land animals.
  • Male lions typically guard their babies and the territory. The main hunters are the females.
  • Not many cars live in the groups, but lions do. A group of lions is called pride, and it can have up to 30 individuals.

Leopard Facts

  • Leopards are excellent climbers, so they go up the trees to check out the environment and see whether there is prey nearby or not.
  • These animals can pick up the speed of 36 miles per hour. They are great jumpers too and can jump up to 10 feet high in the air.
  • Leopards are known as roaring cats, but their roar sounds more like a bark.
  • Leopards are the smallest of the big cats.

Rhinoceros Facts

  • Rhinos can pick up the speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour when running.
  • Rhinoceros communicate through funny noises: sneezes, honks, and poo.
  • At least two rhinos are killed every day by poaching gangs who sell their horns to be used in traditional Asian medicine.
  • Rhinos love mud because it keeps them cool, eliminates parasites, and stops insect biting.

Did you enjoy learning about the big five animals? Then share this article with your friends on social media!

Chiquita Lundy

Monday 12th of September 2022

Very interesting...learned something new about each species.