Traditionally the Big 5 are animals who pose the greatest danger to their hunters, the Big 5 – lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard – are still commonly found throughout East Africa, South and Southern Africa and their collective presence in a national park or game reserve adds an exhilarating edge to your safari experience. If there’s one thing Africa does better than anywhere else in the world, its wildlife and there are few wildlife experiences that can beat the undiluted thrill of a face-to-face encounter with a member of Africa’s Big 5.
Our Big 5 safari destinations range widely and we advise planning carefully with our safari experts to ensure your expectations are met. Safari first-timers would do well to chooseUganda, Kenya,Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater or private Kruger reserves such as the Sabi Sands which deliver virtually faultless Big 5 safaris where you’re more than likely to tick off each of the Big 5 after a couple of game drives.
For something wilder and more remote Zambia’s South Luangwa is not only known as the birthplace of walking safaris but also for its intense concentration of big game including an abundance of four of the Big 5 – don’t expect to see rhino. The same is true of the wetlands and grassy plains of Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve: consistently good leopard sightings, big herds of elephants, lions, cheetah and packs of wild dogs, although once again no rhino.
But we know how important it is to see Africa’s signature animals, which is why on our recommended Big 5 tours and safaris you have a good chance of seeing all of Africa’s Big 5. We also know where to go and at what time of year: Botswana’s Chobe River during the dry season for example sees concentrations of elephants and buffalo that are hard to comprehend, we can tell you the top destinations to see rhino and leopard, or the best time to go on a Serengeti safari to catch the huge herds of migrating wildebeest with big cats hot on their hooves.
We have selected our Big 5 safari destinations on the basis that each one – with the exception of Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park(no rhinos), Namibia’s Etosha National Park (no buffalo) – contains populations of lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. What is important to remember however is that there are no guarantees when it comes to actually seeing all members of the Big 5 while on safari: leopards are notoriously elusive for example, and rhino numbers are dwindling all across Africa.
Uganda- Murchison Falls & Queen Elizabeth National Park
With all the attention focused on Gorilla trekking, Uganda’s Murchison falls& Queen Elizabeth national Parks are often over looked. Both parks offer huge open grasslands favouring grazing herds of more elephants in comparison to other animals but the sheer abundance of wildlife will more than make up for missing out on a member of the Big 5.
Kenya – Masai Mara
With all the attention focussed on the wildebeest migration, the fact that the Masai Mara is a Big 5 destination is often overlooked. Head for the private conservancies for exclusive Big 5 sightings, and if you time your visit to coincide with the August to November migration, your chances of seeing lions on the hunt are high.
Tanzania – Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater
The Serengeti’s huge open grasslands favour the grazing wildebeest and zebra herds more than elephants and rhinos but the sheer abundance of wildlife will more than make up for missing out on a member of the Big 5. With the migration rolling through the Serengeti from November to July, your chances of seeing a lion kill are high, and the lack of trees means that leopards are easier to see than you might think.
Namibia – Etosha National Park
Namibia’s flagship reserve may lack the presence of buffalo (though they are in the nearby Waterberg Plateau and Caprivi Strip) but the abundance of elephant and lion more than makes up for it. Etosha is also the best place in Africa to see black rhino; stake out waterholes at night and check them again during the day – both lions and leopards often use them as ambush points.
Malawi – Majete Wildlife Reserve
The open woodlands of the Lower Shire Valley were always classic Big 5 country and this fully restocked 70 000 hectare reserve close to Blantyre means that Malawi can once again offer a Big 5 safari experience. You’ll also see plenty of hippos and crocodiles in the Shire River – not to mention a huge range of birds – and seeing that dazzling Lake Malawi close by, makea safari and beach combination holiday is easy to arrange.
Botswana – Chobe National Park & Okavango Delta/Moremi Game Reserve
You might well struggle to tick off a rhino in Botswana’s two heavyweight safari destinations but since the country boasts Africa’s largest elephant herds, massive numbers of buffalo and lion and healthy populations of leopard, you probably won’t mind too much.
The Okavango Delta and Savute region of the Chobe National Park are fantastic for elephant, buffalo and lion at any time of year but the Chobe River is at its elephant-packed best from August to late October.
South Africa: Kruger National Park & Private Reserves, Eastern Cape & Madikwe
Long a stronghold of the Big 5, South Africa offers perhaps Africa’s most reliable Big 5 sightings in the private reserves that border the Kruger National Park, itself a famous Big 5 hotspot. The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve is exceptional: leopards are relatively common and the reserve generally delivers all the Big 5 within a couple of days.
Private game reserves in the Eastern Cape as well as the far northern Madikwe Private Game Reserve offer fantastically easy Big 5 game viewing in a malaria-free, family-friendly environment though it should be noted that leopards are extremely elusive in these reserves. Some of our recommended destinations deliver better and more guaranteed sightings than others and we can also advise you on where to go for the best chances to see a specific animal, such as leopard, or for the most dramatic Big 5 sightings like huge herds of elephant or buffalo-hunting prides of lion.
Additional information and advice on specific destinations is available simply by clicking through to whichever country or regional destination you have in mind for your Big 5 safari. Make sure you’re well-prepared for your encounters with Africa’s most dangerous animals.
The Best Time for a Safari
Africa’s seasons have a huge impact on the movement, behaviour and concentrations of animals – including the Big 5 – and it pays to know where to go and at what time of year. The most guaranteed game sightings are traditionally during the dry seasons when the vegetation has thinned out and many animals are concentrated around permanent water sources. It’s the most comfortable time to travel – dry weather, cool nights and warm days – but it’s also the period that sees the highest visitor numbers and correspondingly high prices; out-of-season Big 5 safaris can be just as rewarding in terms of sightings not to mention the saving you’ll make – and you may have the place much to yourself.
Safety on Safari
The Big 5 are traditionally regarded as most dangerous animals in Africa but that’s from a hunter’s perspective – as a visitor armed with nothing more dangerous than a camera and seated in a sturdy 4X4 with a professional guide and tracker as company, the risk posed by encounters with the Big 5 is absolutely minimal.
Nevertheless, remember that lodges and camps in Africa’s national parks and game reserves, particularly outside South Africa, are rarely fenced and it’s not unusual for animals such as elephants to wander through the grounds of your safari lodge. You will receive a safety briefing on arrival at your accommodation as well as a set of instructions issued by your driver/guide when on game drives. Furthermore, while at your accommodation, you can make use of a lodge guard or indeed your guide to escort you safely to and from your room or tent, something you may want to consider at night.
The Big 5 may have gained notoriety as the most dangerous animals in Africa but the truth is that the malarial Anopheles mosquito is far more of a health risk. Many of our classic Big 5 destinations lie within Africa’s malarial belt and although the risk is often minimal or seasonal, you are strongly advised to work with your medical practitioner or doctor to identify the severity of the risk plus what steps and what medication to take to avoid contracting the disease.
Alternatively, we have a wide range of excellent safaris and accommodation in malaria-free Big 5 destinations in South Africa’s Eastern Cape as well as the country’s Pilanesberg National Park and Madikwe Private Game Reserve. Ideal for families and safari first-timers, you’ll get all the thrills of a Big 5 experience but without the risk of malaria.
Adventurous Walking Safaris in Big 5 Country
If little beats the thrill of game drives in Big 5 country, imagine what a walking safari in such a destination is like. With the prospect of an encounter with any number of large and potentially dangerous animals literally around every corner, a Big 5 walking safari is undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating experiences you’re likely to have. You’ll be under the professional care of an armed guide who, backed up by rangers and trackers, will ensure your safety is paramount. Standards of accommodation, food and comfort are surprisingly high on our selected Big 5 walking safaris and the standard of guiding is perhaps the highest in Africa.