When and Where to see the Big 5 in Africa
While Africa’s Big 5 is surely in need of no introduction, it makes sense for us to give credit where credit is due. There is no disputing that the famous Big 5 – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant – are Africa’s most renowned and highly sought-after wildlife species.
The Big 5 are Africa’s undisputed super stars, its X-FACTOR, the reason why people come back time and time again – they just can’t get enough – and who are we to blame them?
The mere possibility or slight opportunity of getting to witness these majestic animals in action, even for a brief moment, is one of the top reasons people travel to Africa and why avid wildlife enthusiasts and tourists set out so eagerly on dawn and dusk game-viewing excursions, safari drives, and wildlife expeditions – ITS ALL ABOUT AFRICA’S BIG 5!
While some may argue that giraffes and zebras are far prettier creatures than the mighty and rugged buffalo, or that cheetahs can be much easier to spot and find than the wildly elusive leopard, it simply doesn’t matter, because getting to see any of Africa’s Big 5 living wild and free in their natural habitats is, and FOREVER will be, one of the most unforgettable thrills at the top of every travelers’ safari tick list.
**Interesting fact: Did you know that the term ‘Big 5’ was originally coined in the 19th Century by big game hunters who listed African elephants, leopard, Cape buffalo, African lion, and rhinoceros as the five most dangerous creatures to hunt on foot in Africa? Fortunately, every member of the Big 5 are now protected species in all National Parks and private game reserves across Africa. In addition, today’s tourists play a big part in contributing directly to the conservation of these magnificent animals across encroachments like poaching, wildlife trafficking, and habitat destruction.
Where Are the Best Places to See the Big 5 in Africa?
While the various members of the Big 5 are found in different concentrations across Africa, lucky for you, you can find these magnificent wildlife species in several countries across the continent. From Kenya and Tanzania to Botswana and South Africa, here’s a look at some of the best destinations and places to see the Big 5 in Africa.
Long a stronghold of the Big 5, South Africa offers perhaps Africa’s most reliable Big 5 sightings.
The Kruger National Park
Deemed one of the greatest National Parks in the world, the Kruger National Park is not only the second largest park in Africa, but South Africa’s flagship National Park. The pristine wilderness within the Kruger Park is spread across an impressive 2 million hectares of unspoiled African bushveld that stretches for 352 kilometres across the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo in the far north-eastern corner of South Africa. As the oldest, largest, and most established park, the Kruger National Park is home to the highest population density of Big 5 in South Africa. This undoubtedly makes it a staple on any safari-goer’s bucket-list, whether they’re a beginner or a seasoned traveller to Africa.
The Kruger Park is believed to support the world’s largest population of white rhino (one of the mighty members of the Big 5), roughly estimated at 8,000. In addition to the largest population of white rhino, the Kruger National Park is also home to the largest wild concentration of leopards than anywhere else in the world.
Sabi Sand Game Reserve
Boasting one of the richest game populations in the country, Sabi Sand Game Reserve is home to some of the most diverse and unique wildlife species in Africa. While Sabi Sands is most famous for its spectacular leopard sightings, the most elusive member of the Big 5, it is also deemed one of the best, if not THE best, game reserves / places in the world to see the African Big 5 in action. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for travellers and tourists to the Sabi Sands to spot all of the members of the Big 5 in one day. This undoubtedly makes the Sabi Sand Game Reserve one of the best places to see the Big 5 in Africa.
Another major perk of visiting the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa is the fact that in addition to boasting 65,000 hectares of vast untamed wilderness, the notorious park shares a 50km/30mi unfenced border with the Kruger National Park, allowing animals to wander at will and roam freely between the reserves. This ensures an unforgettable and unmatched African safari and wildlife experience.
Madikwe Game Reserve
From a low-yield cattle farm to a flourishing conservation area, Madikwe Game Reserve is a land of wild unapologetic natural beauty, untamed African bushveld, vast grasslands, sloping mountains, and rocky outcrops.
Brushing against Botswana’s border and the tip of the Kalahari Desert, Madikwe Game Reserve boasts an extensive wildlife population with sensational sightings of the iconic African Big 5 being almost guaranteed on any visit to this premium reserve. In addition, the reserve not only provides a haven for all wildlife species, including the Big 5, but it has also been a fierce proponent of community upliftment initiatives.
Chobe National Park:
Chobe National Park boasts an impressive and exceptional population of African elephants, which is said to exceed 120,000 – Undoubtedly making it one of the top places, if not THE top place, on the planet to witness these remarkable gentle giants of the African bushveld in their natural environment.
Savuti region of the Chobe National Park:
Famously coined Chobe National Park’s ‘Predator City’, the Savuti region of Chobe, set at the remote heart of the park, is deemed as one of the best places in Africa to witness the most dramatic predator action. The Savuti region of the Chobe National Park is also notorious for its brutal clashes between lions and hyenas – in fact the intense and extreme rivalry between the area’s lions and spotted hyenas have made Savuti one of Botswana’s and Chobe’s most famous wildlife and safari attractions.
Moremi Game Reserve
Here is a quick guide for the best chance of spotting the Big Five in Botswana:
- Chobe National Park for the highest concentration of elephants.
- Savuti region for excellent lion sightings and encounters.
- Northern Okavango to see the large Cape buffalo.
- Moremi Game Reserve will offer excellent rhino sightings.
- Mashatu Game Reserve plays host to the elusive leopard.
Masai Mara National Reserve
Amboseli National Park
Tsavo National Parks.
- 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.
The Serengeti National Park
Katavi National Park
Tarangire National Park
Hwange National Park
Mana Pools National Park
South Luangwa National Park
Lower Zambezi National Park
Etosha National Park
Other National Parks, Game Reserves, Wildlife Parks & Safari Destinations to add to your Big 5 African Safari Itinerary?
Here are a few more must-visit destinations to add to your Big 5 Safari:
- Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
- The Nxai Pan National Park
- Central Kalahari Game Reserve
- The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
- Timbavati Private Nature Reserve
- Shamwari Private Game Reserve
- Phinda Private Game Reserve
- Kwandwe Game Reserve
- Balule Private Game Reserve
- Nyanga National Park
- South Gonarezhou National Park
- Lake Kariba
Top destinations, National Parks & game reserves to spot the various members of Africa’s Big 5
Where to see big herds of elephants in Africa:
- Chobe National Park in Botswana
- Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe
- Amboseli National Park in Kenya
- Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa
- Etosha National Park in Namibia
The African or Cape buffalo is a large, horned bovine found in South and East Africa. Both males and females have horns that form a continuous bone shield across the top of their skulls. Buffalo are very unpredictable and quite fearless. A herd of buffalo can easily intimidate a pride of lions and there is footage of a resolute buffalo putting its head down and simply ‘walking off’ attacking juvenile lions.
Where to see big herds of buffalo in Africa:
- Chobe National Park in Botswana
- Addo in South Africa
- Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe
- Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya
About 10 000 years ago, lions were among the most widespread large land mammals after humans. Today, they are a vulnerable species with most of the world’s wild lions living in sub-Saharan Africa. Lions are unusually social compared to other cats – a pride consists of related females, their cubs and a handful of adult males. Prides spend their days dozing in comfort and hunt in the dark hours between dusk and dawn. Females typically hunt together and are considered apex predators.
Best places to see lions in Africa:
- Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve in South Africa
- Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana
- Serengeti National Park in Tanzania
- The Masai Mara in Kenya
- South Luangwa National Park in Zambia
Leopards are solitary creatures that make excellent use of camouflage and are strong enough to drag their prey up into trees, away from rival predators and scavengers. Leopards are one of the fastest big cats, able to reach speeds up to 58km / 36mi per hour. Leopards are masters of camouflage, naturally shy and nocturnal, which is why they are so hard to find and observe in the wild.
Best places to see leopards in Africa:
- Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa
- Moremi / Moremi Game Reserve min Botswana
- The Masai Mara in Kenya
- South Luangwa Nation Park in Zambia
Rhinos range in colour from pale grey to medium brown – it’s not their colour but the shape of their upper lip that determines which sub-species is which. ‘Black’ rhinos have a hooked, pointed upper lip while ‘white’ rhinos have a broad, square upper lip. The species is classified as critically endangered.
Best places to see rhinos in Africa:
- Moremi / Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana
- Phinda Private Game Reserve, Madikwe and Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa
- Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya
- Grumeti Game Reserve in Tanzania
When is the Best Time to See the Big 5 in Africa?
Peak safari season runs from about June to October across Africa. This coincides with the continent’s cool, dry winter season, making it the best time to see the Big 5 in Africa.
Here are some of the top reasons why Africa’s dry season is the best time for extraordinary game-viewing opportunities, magnificent Big 5 sightings and encounters, as well as several safari highlights (among other reasons):
- Prime time for wildlife sightings as game viewing is at its peak (apart from Namibia which is great all year round).
- Optimal visibility due to sparse vegetation. The lack of rain during the dry winter season means that most of the reserves and park’s vegetation dries up and thins out, making it far easier to spot any of Africa’s Big 5, along with a vast array of other wildlife species, compared to the long, dense grass and heavy foliage present during the summer months. This particularly applies to leopards, which spend much of their time in trees – as the trees will have fewer leaves and be far less dense during the dry winter season, it will undoubtedly make these sleek and elusive felines easier to spot.
- The lack of rain during Africa’s dry winter season also means that ponds, streams, puddles, and smaller water sources dry up. This forces animals to congregate around the remaining large lakes and rivers – Resulting in the concentration of wildlife around water sources being at their highest during Africa’s dry season. As wildlife continue to gather around the park’s surrounding water sources, it offers visitors incredible and rewarding game viewing opportunities and sensational Big 5 sightings. Most animals must drink every day, which means that they don’t stray too far away from the remaining water sources. This is particularly true as it pertains to herds of elephants and buffalo, which often migrate to lile-giving rivers like the Chobe / Chobe National Park at the border of Namibia and Botswana.
- Best time of the year for walking safaris; providing visitors with a unique perspective of the region’s wildlife and surrounding scenery.
- Water levels reach its peak in the Okavango Delta, creating waterways and channels Botswana is famed for. This is the perfect time for traditional mokoro safaris, boating & canoe safaris
- Peak migration period for animals to the Okavango Delta resulting in truly spectacular wildlife and Big 5 sightings and encounters.
- Other benefits of visiting Africa during its dry winter season is that visitors can enjoy lovely and mild day-time temperatures as well as minimal rain. The risk of malaria is also at its lowest during Africa’s dry season.