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Seeing the big five in Africa is on the bucket list of many people. It used to be a dream of mine as well and I was so lucky to see all of them on my first trip to mainland of Africa. I am wondering how many people, that have to wish to see the big five themselves, actually know why these animals are called the big five? Let’s start by introducing them: the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), the cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), African lion (Panthera leo) and the African leopard (Panthera pardus Pardus).

Size or popularity?

Often I hear that they think it is because of their size or popularity. But this does not make sense. Looking at the size of these animals, the elephant is clearly a big animal. Bulls can reach up to 4 meters high and over 6000 kg kilo! But the leopard looking at the leopard, a male will only reach 60 kg on average. So if the leopard only is about 60 kg, should it not be replaced by the giraffe? The giraffe reaches up to 5.5 meters and can weigh as much as 800 kg. Even a zebra or some Antilope species are heavier than a leopard, so this debugs that the big five is named like this due to their size.

The popularity is also not the most logical explanation. The elephant, lion and leopard are the favourites of many. I also call the elephant one of my favourite animal species. However, the buffalo, in particular, does not get mentioned as the animal they want to see the most during a safari or is their favourite animal. I think that most people would like it more to see a zebra, a giraffe or a particular bird species than the buffalo, this does not mean that they are not amazing animals of course…

Big game hunters

The real reason why these animals are called the big five I much less exciting than I would like to be. The real reason why they are called this is because of big game hunters. They called the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard the big five because these animals are the most dangerous to hunt for. Nowadays this term is widely used by safari tour operators, no longer for hunting but as many of tourists know which animals are included in the big five.

As mentioned in the beginning, I have been lucky enough to see all the members myself. Although I have to admit that I have only seen a glimpse of the leopard. But it still counts, I even got evidence. The pictures above are of my own experience of the big five in Uganda. In the picture to the most right, you can see a leopard, if you look closely!

Conservation status of the big five

Did you know that four out of the five animals are either endangered or threatened in their existence? The elephant is listed as vulnerable, due to habitat loss and poaching for its ivory. The black rhino’s overall status is critically endangered, three subspecies are already declared distinct. If nothing is going to change, more will follow rather soon. The lion is also declared vulnerable, due to habitat loss and conflicts with humans. The same counts for the leopard, it is also declared vulnerable. Although they are widely distributed, almost everywhere the populations are declining. So, four out of five species from the big five are in danger of extinction! If we do not take action, quickly, we might never be able to see the full big five anymore.

Do you want to go and see them yourself, before it might be too late? This is possible in many different countries; Angola Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. But when going on a safari, there is much more to see than the elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino. There are many bird species, antelope species, monkey species and much much more! Such as the animals in the pictures below, these are all sightings I had during my safari trip to Uganda. I have even seen the mountain gorilla in Uganda!

The new big five

Not only more and more people are against the term the big five for these animals, due to the history of hunting, the world’s wildlife is also in crisis. There is a project called ‘the new big five‘, initiated by British photographer Graeme Green. To get a new big five, not for hunting but for photography, and to celebrate wildlife. People from all over the world could vote for a whole year, to determine the new big five. And the results are … The elephant, the lion, the polar bear, the tiger and the gorilla!

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2 thoughts on “The famous big five of the African savannah”

  1. Great insight. You have certainly learned a fair bit about the struggles faced by Africa’s precious wildlife. This is a very vast and biodiverse country and the protection of the wildlife is crucial. You may want to pop onto Netflix and watch Virunga which covers the plight of the Gorillas in the DRC wherevy only 4 months ago 17 rangers lost their lives trying to protect them. There is also the documentary The Ivory Game which covers the illegal ivory trade. The biggest demand is still coming in from China for Ivory, despite the international ban.

    1. Thank you! I have seen the Virunga documentary yes, both interesting as difficult to watch. I will look up the other one. Too many Elephants are getting killed for their Ivory.

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