The Big 5: Lions, Elephants, Rhino, Leopards & Buffalo

The big 5 of Africa are wonderful to see and spending time in a big 5 area is a must for AWT Ltd safaris, expeditions and other courses and programmes.


Below you will find information on the Big 5 which you may encounter during your programme in Africa as well as links to other sites such as ICUN, Wikipedia, AWF and WWF for more information should you require it.



Conservation Status: Vulnerable


ICUN Red List of Threatened Species


Gestation period is 108 days. Females begin reproducing at about 2 years old and breed every other year.


The lion is one of the four big cats and some males exceeding 250 kg in weight and is the second largest living cat after the tiger. About 10,000 years ago, the lion was the most widespread large land mammal after humans but have now disappeared from many areas of Africa. The lion is a vulnerable species, having seen a possibly irreversible population decline of thirty to fifty percent over the past two decades in its African range. Although the cause of the decline is not fully understood, habitat loss and conflicts with humans are currently the greatest causes of concern.


Lions live for ten to fourteen years in the wild. Males seldom live longer than ten years, as injuries sustained from continual fighting with rival males greatly reduce their longevity. They typically inhabit savanna and grassland, although they may take to bush and forest. Lions are unusually social compared to other cats. A pride of lions consists of related females and offspring and a small number of adult males.


Highly distinctive, the male lion is easily recognized by its mane and its face is one of the most widely recognized animal symbols in human culture.


– BBC Wildlife Footage – Courtship & Mating Behaviours


 Characteristics & Behaviour


 Distribution & Habitats


 Population & conservation status



Conservation Status: Vulnerable


ICUN Red List of Threatened Species


Gestation period is 22 months. Generally, a single calf is born every two and a half to 9 years


Savana elephants are bulk grazers and are larger than the forest elephants and their tusks curve outwards. The forest elephants are darker and their tusks point downwards and are much straighter. African herds can reach over 1,000 in number in some areas of East Africa. This mainly occurs due to drought, human interference or change brought about in the normal pattern of social life. Size/ Length – 6 to 7 meters, shoulder height – 3.3 meters, weight – 6 tonnes


Teeth/ Elephants have four molars, each weigh about 5 kg (11 lb) and measures about 30 cm (12 in) long. As the front pair wears down and drops out in pieces, the back pair shifts forward, and two new molars emerge in the back of the mouth. Elephants replace their teeth six times. At about 40 to 60 years of age, the elephant no longer has teeth and will likely die of starvation, a common cause of death.


Their tusks are teeth, the second set of incisors become the tusks. They are used for digging for roots and stripping the bark off trees for food, for fighting each other during mating season, and for defending themselves against predators. The trunk an extension of the upper lip and nose. This is used for handling food, communication and breathing. The ears are very large. Main use is to radiate excess heat but are often used in aggressive posturing. Females have a square or pointed forehead, slim tusks, and two breasts between her forelegs. The bulls are taller and heavier, with a bigger head, rounded forehead, and thicker tusks.


African elephants continue to face many threats. Although the poaching of elephants for their ivory has declined since the worldwide ban on ivory in 1989, it remains a widespread problem in west and central Africa. Large quantities of African ivory are still finding their way to illegal markets in Africa and beyond. A more long-term threat to the species is the reduction in habitat available due to expanding human populations.



Conservation Status of the Northern White Rhino: Critically Endangered


Conservation Status of the Southern White Rhino: Conservation Dependent


ICUN Red List of Threatened Species


Gestation period is 16 – 18 months.


The calf will generally be found in front of the mother, particularly when threatened. As grazers, White Rhinos are found in the open and with poor eye sight the calf is more easily protected if in front of the Mother.


The white rhino is a bulk grazer. White rhino males are larger than females. Calves are born weighing 65 kilograms (143 pounds). The white rhinoceros can be differentiated from the black by – longer skull, less sharply defined forehead and more pronounced shoulder hump.


The white rhino is also called the “square-lipped rhinoceros” because of its broad, square upper lip, which it uses for grazing (the white rhino is a ‘bulk grazer’). The front horn is larger than the back horn and averages 60 – 150 centimetres (24 – 59 inches) in length.


The white rhinoceros is not actually white, but slate or brownish-grey, like the black rhinoceros. The reference to “white” resulted from a mistranslation of the Afrikaner word for “wide” (referring to the wide mouth). The white rhino, like other rhino species, has poor vision but good hearing and a very good sense of smell.


The white rhinoceros is found in the long and short grass savannas and woodlands of southern and central Africa. It requires relatively flat terrain, bush for cover, grass for grazing and water for drinking and wallowing in.


– BBC Wildlife Footage – White Rhino Mating Ritual


– Description


– Behaviour & Ecology


– Distribution


–  BBC Wildlife Footage – Mating, Fighting & Pregnancy



Conservation Status: Critically Endangered


ICUN Red List of Threatened Species


Gestation period is around 15 months. Females calving interval is between two to three years.


The black rhino is a browser and therefore generally found in thick bush. As a consequence, it is safer for the Black Rhino calf to follow its Mother as she makes her way through the bush.


The species is distinguished from the White Rhino by a prehensile upper lip (hence the alternative name of hook-lipped rhino), which it uses to feed on twigs of woody plants and a variety of herbaceous plants.


When European settlers first began moving into the interior of east and southern Africa in the 19th century, the savannas teemed with wildlife. Even black rhinos, largely solitary animals, were so plentiful that it was not unusual to encounter dozens of them in a single day. However, due to relentless poaching, the numbers and distribution of black rhinoceros quickly declined in Central, West and Eastern Africa. Poaching pressure escalated during the 1970s and 1980s as a result of the rising demand for rhino horn in Asia and the Middle East and between 1970 and 1992, the black rhino suffered a 96% decline in numbers.


The black rhino feeds on woody twigs and legumes, and a wide variety of plant species, with a predilection for acacias. When water is available the rhino will drink every day. Mineral licks are visited regularly.


– Description


– Distribution





Conservation Status: Near Threatened


ICUN Red List of Threatened Species


Gestation period is 90 – 105 days.


Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2–4 cubs but usually no more than 1–2 cubs survive their first year.


The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the shrewdest. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the large cats and capable of killing prey larger than itself. Leopards are one of the prize sightings on a safari. Stealthy and elusive, they are also surprisingly well camouflaged. The twitch of a tail may be the only give-away to a leopard resting in the branches of a tree. Dense bush in rocky surroundings and forest rivers are their favourite habitats, but leopards adapt to many places in both warm and cold climates. Their adaptability, in fact, has helped them survive the loss of habitat to increasing human settlement. Leopards are primarily nocturnal, usually resting during the daytime in trees or thick bush.


– BBC Wildlife Footage – Camouflage & Hunting Methods


 Physical Characteristics


 Biology & Behaviour


 Leopards & Humans


 African Wildlife Foundation Info



Conservation Status: Least Concern


ICUN Red List of Threatened Species


Gestation period of 11.5 months


Cows first calve at five years of age. Newly born calves remain hidden in vegetation for the first few weeks while being nursed occasionally by the mother before joining the main herd.


African buffaloes are immensely strong and imposing animals of the African savanna but today few populations exist outside the confines of National Park. Females often form protective herds of 1,000 individuals or more whilst males are mostly solitary, only returning to the herd for mating.


Buffaloes are ruminants, bulk grazers and the only wild cattle species and bonds between the females are very strong. If one individual is under attack from a predator, the herd will rush to the victim’s defence. A herd is easily capable of driving away an entire pride of lions.


– Description


– Ecology


– Behaviour


– Relationship With Humans




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