Going on safari is at the top of many a traveler’s bucket list and we’re so excited to have recently checked that item off our own bucket list. Coming face to face with Africa’s Big Five is truly a memorable and exhilarating experience. You’ve probably heard of them and seen them on TV. The Big Five – the African elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, lion, and rhinoceros – are said to be the animals that safari-goers would most like to see, though the origin of the name is much more sinister.
How did the African elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, lion, and rhinoceros come to be called the Big Five? The name came to be in the hunting heyday of the 19th and early 20th centuries when even American presidents and royalty considered it a rite of passage to go to Africa and bag a dangerous animal as a trophy.The Big Five became known as the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. The name was eventually also adopted by safari tour operators for marketing purposes and hopefully these days the only “shooting” being done is through the lens of a camera.
Synonymous with an African safari, the lion is the most sought after animal of the Big Five to spot while on safari. They are the king of beasts, after all, and have no natural predators, except man. We were surprised to learn that even the king of beasts has a hard life and because of it, wild lions only live to around 12 years of age. They spend up to 20 hours of each day just resting to conserve their energy; they have such little stamina that they need all their energy to hunt.
We saw a lot of sleeping lions, but also were witness to a pride of male lions and one female that had taken down a Cape buffalo earlier in morning feasting on their kill and a male and female lion mating.
The African elephant is the world’s largest and heaviest land animal and they are truly spectacular to see in the wild. Huge herds abound particularly in Tarangire National Park and watching a herd play, splash, swim, and dunk in a watering hole was one of our favorite safari moments. They can weigh up to 7 tonnes and a good safari guide will know their behavior to distinguish a mock charge from a serious one. We saw plenty of mock charges from moms, aunties, and cousins protecting the wee ones of their herd.
It might surprise you to learn that the Cape buffalo is actually the most dangerous of the Big Five. They are very territorial and kill more people than any other animal in Africa every year. It is said that impact of a Cape buffalo’s horns’ collision is equal to that of a car hitting a wall at 50 kilometers per hour.
We were glad that the herds we saw were all more interested in munching away on the grass than charging us. We just had one lone Cape buffalo that was curious about us on a bush walk, but a ranger from Serengeti National Park ensured our safety.
Sadly, the black rhinoceros is classified by the IUCN as critically endangered and one sub-species, the Western Black Rhino, was recently declared extinct with the last one to be seen in the wild in 2006. Less than 5000 black rhinos are estimated to live in the wild and just 26 live in the 260 square kilometers of Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. Poaching of rhinos for their horns is the biggest threat to the black rhino population. We consider ourselves very lucky to have seen even one, though we actually saw eight mostly from a distance.
Leopards are nocturnal and, unlike lions which live in prides of 5 – 25 lions, live on their own. They like to sleep in trees and their spotted coat provides a very good camouflage. They are considered the most elusive and hardest to spot of the Big Five. We saw four and even more rare, we saw two sleeping in the same tree, which our guide said were mother and cub. Leopards are excellent climbers and they’ll even store away their larger kills in trees in order to keep lions and hyenas from stealing their meal.
Our guides told us we were very lucky to spot all of the Big Five and we certainly felt that way! Seeing the Big Five and all the animals is truly an unforgettable experience of a lifetime. Which of the Big Five would you most like to see?
Disclosure: Our trip to Tanzania was hosted by SkySafari by Elewana in order for us to bring you this story. As always, all opinions are entirely our own.