Without doubt the most famous of the Big Five, the ‘King of the Savannah’, the ‘King of the Beasts’ and interestingly the ‘King of the Jungle’ – even though they don’t actually live in the jungle! Of all the big (and little) cats, the lion is the only species to exist in groups, known as prides. These prides consist of anything from 15 to 40 members of mainly related females and their young plus one dominant male who has won their place in the pride through fierce battles with rival males. They are territorial animals and the females do the (excuse the pun) lion’s share of the hunting.
The African leopard is often one of the hardest to find when on safari. These elite hunters are generally solitary creatures (with the exception of times of mating and when rearing their young). Spending most of their day sleeping in trees, these nocturnal cats hunt for their prey at night often using ambush as their successful means of attack. Athletic and strong, it is not uncommon for a leopard to drag its prey that can be 3 times the weight of their own body weight up a tree for safe dining – away from other leopards and the scavenging hyena. Being fiercely territorial, leopards protect their hunting territory ruthlessly from other leopards using the spray of urine and claw marking on trees to make their presence known.
The giants of the savannah – African elephants are the world’s biggest land mammal. Weighing up to 6 tonnes and reaching heights of over 3 meters high and 7 metres long – it’s not hard to see why. One of Africa’s most iconic animals, the elephant is often one of the most seen of the Big Five. These incredible creatures live in big herds and famously enjoy a matriarchal society. The female elephants are in charge. They lead the herd often for decades at a time and make all the choices of where to go, when to eat, how long to stay anywhere, how to deal with any potential danger and are hugely respected by their herds and sorely missed when they die.
Divided into two distinct species, the rhino is the world’s second largest land mammal. The more common of these rhinos is the white rhino, so called from the Dutch settlers, the Boers who came to Africa and referred to it by its wide or ‘wyd’ mouth. It has nothing to do with colour. In order to differentiate between the two species the second was naturally called the black rhino. Both species are in fact grey in colour. The white rhino is the heavier of the two – sometimes weighing in at an impressive 2500kg whereas the black rhino peaks at 1400kg. Rhinos love to wallow in the mud and are often seen caked in the stuff – the reason for this is twofold – the mud acts as a very good bug repellent and sun screen! Rhinos only bear one calf per birth whom they are hugely protective of.
Not to be confused with the water buffalo from Asia; the Cape or African buffalo is a far more fearsome and dangerous bovine. Unlike its Asian cousins this buffalo has never been tamed. Considered the most dangerous of the Big Five, due to their complete unpredictability – the buffalo is a surprisingly social creature. Living in massive herds, sometimes in numbers of up to 500 the buffalo is probably the easiest of all the Big Five to find and certainly the one you will see the most of. Sporting an impressive set of horns, especially the males whose horns meet at the middle to form a characteristic ‘boss’ shape, they are used mainly for fighting and protecting the herd – sometimes from lions. There have been a number of occasions when younger members of the herd have been taken by lions only for the herd to respond en masse and rescue their young literally from the lion’s jaws! The herds generally get smaller during the dry season when the males tend to join their own bachelor herds, the younger ones returning in the wet season to breed and protect their young.