African Safari: The Big Five

Leopard, Zambia

It is a pleasure to share highlights of the classic “Big Five” animals of the African savannah: leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros, and buffalo. Here are a few personal experiences I have had with the Big Five.


In an earlier era they were so-named because they were the five most challenging animals to shoot. Fortunately, the trophy game hunters are the minority these days.


Most safari visitors of today cherish these animals; and the only capture is simply via cameras.


Elephant cow and calf, Botswana

Lion, Botswana

Most of us know about the ongoing problems with habitat destruction and unprecedented poaching. To read about it, here is a New York Times article: The Big Five.Β 


White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa


Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

1. The African Leopard. A cat of extreme stealth and strength, the leopard hunts primarily at night. With a diet that is least particular of all African carnivores, they have been found to have 30 different prey species in Serengeti National Park alone. In addition, they will attack and take down an animal three times their size.

Leopard Pair, Zambia

I came to breakfast one morning, wondering about a sound I had heard right outside our tent during the night, asked the guide at our table. He stopped eating his scrambled eggs, and proceeded to make one animal sound after another, pausing between each one. It was an impressive, and amusing, repertoire.


When he made the gruff sound of a rhythmic saw going back and forth through a piece of wood, I piped, “That’s it.”

He replied, “Leopard.”

Leopard, Zambia

Leopard kill prey so big they cannot always eat them at once, and often cache it in a tree for later consumption. Sometimes, they can be found in the tree during the day, sleeping.


Leopard Wikipedia.


African Elephants, Zambia

2. African Elephant. What I like best about this behemoth: watching them use their trunks in a myriad of ways; listening to their steady breathing and conversations; and watching a herd of cow elephants teach their young. Their enormous size, and trumpeting signals, rate high on my list of thrills, too.

African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants, Tanzania, Africa


Elephant juvenile, Botswana

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

Elephant Wikipedia.


3. African Lion. The first time I saw a wild lioness, she took my breath away. The golden eyes and her lustrous coat were stunning to look at; but it was the courage and confidence of her swagger that has remained with me.

Lioness, Botswana

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

Lion cubs, Serengeti

In lion prides, the lioness is the hunter, and there is much to learn from her wisdom. So many times we watched a lioness stalking prey, quietly sneaking up, and ready to prance. And then, more often than not, she subsequently aborted the mission.


Lionesses are constantly strategizing the potential for success in each endeavor–if the expenditure is more than the prize, she will do nothing and move on, confident of a better opportunity.

Lioness contemplating buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion, Botswana

We often came upon lions in the morning, after they’d had a night of successful hunting. They laid in shade or by a pond with full bellies, sleepy eyes, and fresh wounds.


Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion Wikipedia.


4. African Rhinoceros. Seeing a rhino in the wild is a thing of the past, due to illegal poaching that has drastically reduced their populations. But there are still some parks where they are fiercely protected.

White Rhino Family, Kenya

Rhinos are unique-looking, with their heavy, barrel-shaped bodies on short legs, two horns, and prehistoric presence. There are two African species, the white and black; and neither are white nor black, but varying colors of gray and brown.


It is the white rhino, a grazer, we see on safaris and photographed here.

Rhinoceros Wikipedia.


Buffalo, Zambia

5. African Buffalo. I shiver just looking at photos of this beast. Their prominent horns cover much of the face, measuring up to 40 inches across (100cm), used for hooking and goring.


They are grazers, like the white rhino, so you often come across them in the savannah grass. How many times we have come around a corner in the jeep to find a buffalo herd hidden in the tall grass or behind a few shrubs. Every single time, my heart jumps for an instant.

Buffalo herd, Botswana

Serengeti Elephant and Buffalo

Buffalo herd, Zambia

Their non-human predators are few: the crocodile and the lion. Who but a lion would take on the buffalo…and win.


African Buffalo Wikipedia


Thanks for joining us on safari. Or in Swahili, it is “Asante” (thank you).


Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

Athena, Zambia

Jet in purple shirt, Zambia

Countries where you can see all of the Big Five, per Wikipedia: Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi.



108 thoughts on “African Safari: The Big Five

    • Yes, exhilarating is the word for it. African safaris are one of my very favorite activities. Photos here were from three trips. Glad to have shared the Big Five with you, Ingrid, thanks so much.

    • I would imagine your life in South Africa affords lots of views of all them, and based on your photos, my guess is you never get tire of the Big Five…or all the other creature delights of the African savannah. Many thanks for your visit, Dina — always a pleasure.

    • I always liked that show, too, Jill. I’m glad to have brought you some Wild Kingdom today, and good memories. Thank you for your visit and reminder. πŸ™‚

    • I agree, David, and a joy to bring the marvel of these creatures home to share in their lively existence. Thanks for the humongous hugs, always appreciated, my friend. Cheers to you and your family–

  1. Pingback: Africa’s Big Five! |

    • Yes, sunrise and sunset are the greatest times for many of the nocturnal mammals and photo light, too. We don’t sleep much when we go on these trips, because night drives and daytime drives are great for other creatures. Thank you, Jan, always a joy.

  2. Oh Jet, I simply love how the photos of all the incredible sights you’ve seen and experienced take me down my own trip of memory lane – thank you!

  3. What fabulous beasts, every one of them. I think like the shots of the the leopard and the buffalo best. Wonderful creatures. Have you thought about writing a book based in Africa?

    • Both the buffalo and leopard have stopped me in my tracks, so it’s possible you caught that drift, Alastair. They are, as you say, wonderful creatures. Funny you ask about the book because I wrote a whole mystery novel based in Africa, but it needed some more shaping, which I was deep into last year when the fires hit. So I do have one, it’s called Sinister Safari. And when we get out of this disaster mode, perhaps I will resume. It’s an intriguing topic, as you can imagine. Sending smiles your way, my friend — I hope your weekend is pleasant.

  4. As always…very informative post and Athena’s pictures are stunning. I would love to go on a safari….the animals are so beautiful especially in their natural environment! Thanks for taking us along!!

  5. Beautiful photos and somewhat chilling thoughts of how small and weak we are compared to them. Glad the leopard didn’t venture into your tent!
    I once camped on a raised platform in the Amazon and in the middle of the night heard a jaguar (similar gruff huffing) pass underneath. Scared as I was, I was relieved to know that I was in the middle of the huddle of bodies, so in the event of an attack, I’d not be the first plucked off the platform, lol!

    • You nailed the true essence of camping in these raw and wild places, Eliza. Gave me a chuckle. There are not too many places left on earth where humans are prey, and this is what I love about Africa and the Amazon. I just re-read your comment and the assurance you gave yourself while trying to fall asleep, made me laugh again. We have these thoughts in these situations, and it’s funny to think about them later, when we’re in safety. Many thanks–

    • There is extreme poverty in Africa and people are driven to desperation, i.e. poaching. But there are also many, many people who are working hard, and making huge sacrifices, to keep the population of these animals going. I’m with you in hoping for the best…and of course, we can always donate to the cause. Glad you enjoyed the post, Anneli, thank you for your hopeful comment.

  6. Thank you for this one, Jet! As I scrolled down, I was thinking “This one is the most magnificent. No, this one. No, this one!” Then I realized they are all spectacular, so why choose? But the young elephant might be my favourite…
    Wonderful post, and I always enjoy reading about your amazing African adventures!

    • It is always a thrill for me to write about Africa, pc. So I am delighted you enjoy the readings. For this post I knew not to write too much, because the photos speak for themselves. It is such a lovely breath of fresh air when you visit, thank you so much. A joy to have you along on the safari….

  7. When we went on a safari we were a little blasΓ©. Maybe we didn’t really expect to see so many animals? It was an absolute thrill, we can tell you, and your narrative and photos remind us of the excitement of that great safari. Well done!

    • Thanks so much, Beth and Joe. Africa is incredibly unique–the landscape, wildness, animals, people, lifestyle. There is, as you say, much thrill. I am happy to have reminded you of your happy safari times.

  8. I really enjoyed your photos and commentary about the Big Five. I got to relive my own experience in Tanzania through this post. Each sighting was a thrill. The leopard was the one that proved most difficult for us to see – so elusive. We could catch them only in the distance in the trees. It would be a little unsettling to discover that one had been outside my tent during the night!!

    From the look of the photos of the leopards, it looks like you were able to take a night time safari?

    • Great to hear your Tanzania experiences, Joanne. Tanzania is one of my favorite places in the world. Leopards, as you say, are elusive and difficult to see. And the night shots here were taken in a park where night-time observing was allowed, in South Luangwa Park in Zambia. Not only are leopards elusive, but there aren’t always many around, and they sleep during the day and have excellent camouflage. We were really lucky to have seen that pair that night, they were on a date.

      • Wow! You did get to go on a night safari! That must have been very exciting. The world is different at night when the nocturnal animals come out. Jealous!! …. I say that but I’d probably be too scared to go out πŸ˜‰

  9. Jet the post took my breath away and transported me back to Africa. Without a doubt the safari was the best part of visiting Africa and we felt so fortunate to see the big five while we were there. Although the name has stuck I too am glad it is now cameras that do most of the shooting. Astounding photos taken by Athena with all your f your fascinating narrative woven between makes this a brilliant article. A wonderful collaboration. Best wishes to you both.

  10. I am absolutely delighted you enjoyed the post, Sue, and could vicariously join Athena and I on safari. The term the “Big Five” comes up on every safari, as you know, the tourist industry builds that into the experience. But fortunately most of us are out there just observing and revering these animals. Warm thanks and big smiles for your lovely comment. Wishing you two the best, hope all is well.

  11. from the comfort & safety of home
    you’ve brought me to wild places,
    making my heart smile
    of your imagery & descriptive stories
    of those impressive noble 5, dear Jet!
    may they long roam this earth.
    may i go back to feeling safe
    walking in nearby hills πŸ™‚

    • Dear David, you bring up the joy of being safe in our hills, which is something we don’t often think about, until you have the rare opportunity to find oneself as prey in Africa. Your lovely words gave me a big smile on this Sunday morning, thank you.

    • Yes, it is truly amazing to see these animals in the wild, Andrea. It was so wonderful that for a decade we would work hard, save all our money, spend it on a trip to Africa, then repeat the cycle. I’m glad you enjoyed the visit to Africa today, Andrea, thank you for your visits.

  12. Every beast more magnificent than the last. I love how you zoom in on and so clearly articulate their varied and unique traits. What a joy to have these experiences – while sitting quietly and comfortably at my computer…

    • As I wrote this post, I realized I had many experiences with each of the Big Five, which was a wonderful discovery. I narrowed it down, and had great fun writing it, I’m glad you enjoyed the safari Nan. Thanks very much for your visit.

    • That’s right, Wayne, there’s no forgetting the safaris. The photos from this post were from three different month-long trips to Africa, over an eight year span. Very nice to “see” you here, Wayne, thanks for dropping by.

  13. Tell Athena that is one helluva shot of the lioness and nice to see you both out in the field. Thanks for sharing, a friend of mine is going to Botswana later in the year.

  14. Fascinating post, showcased with gorgeous captures! A bit daunting to try to close both eyes at night to sleep in their territories, lol. Thank you for sharing, Jet & Athena! πŸ™‚

    • Yes, you’re right on that, Donna. I don’t sleep much with that kind of night activity. You wouldn’t believe all the sounds as you lay on your cot — hyenas moaning, lions roaring, elephants cracking trees as they tromp through. Glad you could join us, thanks so much for your comment.

  15. Thanks for sharing these fantastic highlights and photos of the Big Five, although a leopard outside of your tent may have needed its own highlight category. All of the highlights are marvelous, but I especially loved your descriptions of the lioness and elephants and the shots from Botswana and the elephants in Zambia. Thanks so much for taking us on safari and sharing these incredible experiences.

    • A total joy to receive your comment, ACI, I’m smiling broadly. There was always stuff going on at night outside the tent, it’s a very active time for some of the animals. But fortunately we didn’t have any tangles with the leopards. ha. Glad you enjoyed the lioness descriptions–I found them so fascinating, and the memories of their courage and confidence have helped me through some tough times. Sending warm smiles and thanks your way, ACI, always a pleasure.

  16. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience. The words and photographs present the allure of the African wild and its Big Five. The taste of it will linger enticingly. Beauty holds the hunger for more rich experience like this.

    • Lovely comment, Walt, thank you. As you say, beauty does hold the hunger. Thanks for your gift of words, my friend. Happy to have you along on the safari.

  17. Wonderful photos and experiences. I have to say, the cats are my favorite but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for elephants. I’ve reconciled myself to only seeing such wildlife in a zoo. Hope you have the opportunity to return for more such experiences.

    • Wonderful to hear from you, Rosyln. And it does not surprise me that you like the cats, being such a cat person. The LA Zoo sounds huge, so I would guess you would have a lovely experience there. Great to “see” you, thank you.

  18. Oh my goodness, Jet, what an OUTSTANDING post!! The emotions you must have experienced being in Africa as you actually saw these majestic animals I can only imagine! And to think these animals are still today hunted makes my stomach literally sick! How can anyone kill such beauty? How? I couldn’t get enough of your pictures of a world I will not see, not this lifetime. And the hardships you must go through to even go on a safari like this …. again I can only imagine. THANK YOU for sharing with us this great adventure. Another life for me …. perhaps this life I am “practicing” for the photojournalist I will be. LOL πŸ’šπŸ’šπŸ’š

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Amy, I enjoyed your comment immensely. Yes, there are numerous challenges in going on an African safari. Once you get past the challenge of paying for it and taking that much time off work, the safari itself has many ups and downs. We always prefer the safaris where you are in the field from dark to dark–more sightings, more animals–but it is very demanding…and a total thrill. I’m happy I could bring the animals to you.

  19. ‘Asante’ to you too, Jet. What wonderful experiences you have had in Africa. I’ve never been there, but most of all these fine creatures I’d like to see lions in the wild. Sad moth-eaten ones restlessly pacing a cage in a zoo don’t do it for me… RH

    • Glad you enjoyed the safari, Belinda. The leopard sound, its breathing, was one I’ve never forgotten, but you’re right, it didn’t help me to sleep, that’s for sure. πŸ™‚

  20. wow you have had so many great and wonderful adventures–Hope you get to play them many times over in your daily routines. Actually some sounded on the dangerous side–glad you lived to tell about them.

    • Yes, I do keep the wisdom of the African mammals with me in my daily routine, it is comforting. Thanks so much, Bill, always a true joy to have you stop by, I appreciate it.

    • Thanks so much, Eddie. The world is so huge and life is so short, so it’s fun to share the experiences, the telling and the receiving too. Always a pleasure to adventure to your posts as well, Eddie, thank you.

  21. What an adventure, Jet! These photos are fantastic, can’t imagine being there…
    Thank you for the tour. I especially like the image of the Elephant and Buffalo.

  22. Good Lord, Jet!!! What a wonderful life You’re living!!! Wow! Thank You so much for sharing these. African Safari is on the very top of my list. Someday….someday….Cheers!!! πŸ€—πŸ€—πŸ€—

  23. I am so glad I didn’t miss this thrilling post,dear Jet.Fascinating all the photos,Athena did a very good job.
    I am totally delighted I’d the chance to experience such an exciting “armchair safari”,in places that it is difficult for me to reach.How nice to see almost live on my screen those adorable and powerful African mammals.
    Can’t imagine humans shooting them to get a trophy in the past,and today in order to make money.Impossible to work out in my mind that there were people engaged in trophy hunting,it is so shaming and cruel.Thank you for sharing with us your love for nature and your concern about the future of those “gems” in the wild.Nice to see your full size self-portrait and Athena ready to shoot …
    Leaving you with a quotation I love,dear friend.Broad smiles to you & Athena πŸ™‚

    When a man wants to murder a tiger he calls it sport; when a tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity.
    -George Bernard Shaw

    • Wonderful to have you along on the safari, Doda. I so enjoyed your comment and thoughts. And the George Bernard Shaw quote is a good one on its own, and perfect for this post. A warm gift, thank you. I am smiling as I re-read your words here, much appreciated this morning, dear friend. πŸ™‚

  24. Love your photos! I also just returned from a trip. We were on a smaller reserve so didn’t get to see all of the Big 5. I am totally inspired by this post to check out Botswana on a return journey.

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