big five game animals of africa

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

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

  • 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.

The Big Five Game Animals of Africa
Black Rhino | Photo courtesy of

Interesting Facts About The Black Rhino

  • Black 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 Africa
Leopard (Panthera pardus) , Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

The 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 Africa
A cape buffalo I photographed in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

The 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

The Big Five Game Animals of Africa
A lion (Panthera leo) male I photographed in Nairobi National Park, Kenya

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 continuous shooting 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.




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