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What are the Big Five of Africa?

If you’ve gone on an African safari, chances are you’ve heard of the Big Five, the must-see list of iconic megafauna.

Lions, leopards, elephants, African buffalo, and rhinoceroses are “what people think of when they think of Africa and wildlife,” says Natalia Borrego, a research associate at the University of Minnesota Lion Center.

The term, coined in the late 1800s during Africa’s colonial period, refers to what trophy hunters considered the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot.

These animals are still hunted today, but a shift toward tourism has also made seeing the Big Five an “awe-inspiring” goal for any safari-goer, Borrego says.

That’s especially true because all of these species are decreasing in population—lions in particular are struggling, having lost 94 percent of their original habitat. Only about 20,000 of the big cats remain in the wild.

Here’s are some fascinating facts about the Big Five.


This is the most elusive, and also the smallest, of the five. “I call them ninja cats because they’re just sneaky and they’re harder to spot,” Borrego says.

Speaking of spots, most leopards are light-colored, with distinctive dark spots that are called rosettes. Black leopards, which appear to be almost solid in color because their spots are hard to distinguish, are commonly called black panthers.

The solitary big cats haul large kills, such as zebra or antelope, into a tree to eat alone, in peace.

There’s another reason for leopards to stay aloft: They don’t exactly get along with their fellow Big Fiver, the African lion. If a lion has a chance to kill a leopard, it will. (Related: “A lioness killing a leopard floored these filmmakers.”)

African lion

Lions are the only social big cat, but don’t expect to see the king. There isn’t one.

These big cats are “not born into a rank,” Borrego says. “They are egalitarian, which means they don’t have a permanent social hierarchy.”

One male may be dominant over the others, but that can change at any time.

Lion society is also matrilineal, “so the females hold the territories,” and stay with the pride into which they’re born. (Related story: “In real life, Simba’s mom would be running the pride.”)

African buffalo

These hefty, cow-like animals often congregate by the thousands in the Serengeti; forming large groups is one defense against predators.

Male and female buffalo both have horns, but the males’ curve upward and fuse together in the center, forming a solid bony plate called a boss. It’s a helpful defense—as is being more than three times heavier than their lion adversaries.

That’s why a lion that attacks a buffalo is taking a huge risk of dying. Buffalo can be aggressive, and frequently come into conflict with humans outside of protected areas.

African elephant

The biggest of the Big Five is the African savanna elephant, which can weigh up to seven tons. The African forest elephant, which is about three feet shorter and lives in the forests of the Congo Basin, was declared a separate species after genetic testing in 2010 showed big differences between the forest and savanna dwellers.

Savanna elephants are large enough to change the landscape, pulling up trees to make grasslands, dispersing seeds, and overall increasing biodiversity.

Long sought after by poachers, elephants have a fragmented range throughout central and southern Africa.


There are two species—the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros—and five subspecies between them left in Africa. Those include…

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