Quick! Can you name Africa's Big Five? Lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo are the members of this exclusive club. But what exactly makes them so special, and where can you find them? Originally a term coined by early 20th century trophy hunters to designate the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot, today The Big Five is safari shorthand for the group of animals people most want to see on their African safari.
With the exception of the Cape buffalo, these animals are all threatened in varying degrees, making sightings of them in the wild even more precious.
The case of the world's remaining 20,000 rhinos is the most dramatic. Save the Rhino International reports that in 2014 1,215 rhino poachings were recorded in South Africa, home to the majority of white rhinos. If rhino poaching continues to escalate unabated, white rhino deaths are expected to overtake births by 2016-2018. Given their small population, and responsible camps' valiant efforts to conceal them from poachers, rhinos are hard to spot, and it is a great privilege when you see one.
After the rhino, the next most difficult of the Big Five to spot is also the smallest of the group: the famously elusive leopard. If you are lucky enough to see one of these nocturnal hunters, it may likely be up a tree, where the strong and graceful felines often haul meals as large as a 280-pound, young giraffe.
Far more social than their leopard kin, lions are magnificent to spot on their own and fascinating to watch interacting. If you're especially fortunate, you may see them put their fellowship to work in a coordinated attack on prey. Sadly, however, habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict are taking their toll on even the iconic king of the beasts, with fewer than 35,000 lions remaining in the wild.
Elephants, too, are as remarkable to watch for their social interactions as they are to behold in their sheer mass. Healthy elephant populations are a delight to see, as animals ranging from the very young to the very old greet one another, entwine trunks, or settle disagreements. Elephants are such clear communicators that seasoned guides can rely on very clear body language when they approach these animals.
5. Cape Buffalo
The last of the Big Five, the Cape buffalo, is more than just a placid grazer. Weighing up to 1,900 pounds, and shielded with formidable horns, it will attack a lion if provoked. Although it's disconcerting to be the subject of the buffalo's fixed stare, your encounter will be rewarded when you observe some possibly quite large herds, which are fiercely protective of their members.
No animal sighting is ever guaranteed. Nor should you let your intensity in tracking Africa's Big Five detract from the magic of other animals, like cheetahs, hippos, giraffes, baboons, zebras, wild dogs, warthogs and the countless other denizens of the African bush. But, choosing camps that excel in reliable game sightings, with highly trained guides, will increase your odds of quality Big Five sightings on safari, and you will be rewarded with memories that will last a lifetime.