Big 5 Safari Animals and How to Spot Them

The safari term, “Big 5” is an old safari term used to identify the most difficult and most dangerous animals to hunt. While less, unfortunately not all, hunting takes place throughout Africa this term is still used by safari-goers and photographers alike. The big 5 safari animals are big, beautiful creatures, but they’re also some of the most dangerous animals in the world.

Big 5 Safari Animals

What are the Big 5 Safari Animals?

Each of the Big 5 safari animals are listed below. These majestic creatures come in different sizes, some big and easy to spot, others smaller that blend in with their surroundings.


Of all the animals to see on safari everyone wants to try and spot a big male lion with a large mane. You’ll usually see them sitting around or sleeping; they’re kind of lazy. The photo below was taken in Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya. This big guy was lounging in the morning sun, mane blowing in the wind.

big 5 safari animals - male lion

Facts About Lions:

  • Coloring: Yellow to gold in color. Adult males have shaggy manes that range in color from blond to reddish-brown and even black. The length and color of the mane is determined by age and genetics.
  • Average Life Span: 10-14 years
  • Average Speed: 50 mph
  • Diet: Carnivore (Antelope, Buffalo, Zebra, Crocodiles, and even small Elephants.)
  • Nocturnal, Diurnal, or Crepuscular: Diurnal and a bit Crepuscular
  • Fun Fact: Females lions are the ones in the Pride that do the hunting while males are responsible for protecting the Pride.

Pin this Big 5 Safari Animals post for Later

Everyone wants to see all of the Big 5 Safari Animals. Some are easy to find while others are elusive. Learn what they are and how to spot them.

Cape Buffalo

Of the Big 5 safari animals, the Cape Buffalo is the ugliest. They’re usually covered with mud and eating grass.

During my Nairobi National Park Safari there were some pretty close-to-camp and it was a bit scary. They might look like cows, but they are considered the most ferocious of all the Big 5 safari animals. Remember that when you’re watching them chew the cud while on safari.

big 5 - cape buffafo

Facts About Cape Buffalo:

  • Coloring: Dark brown or black with large curling horns.
  • Average Life Span: 20-30 years
  • Average Speed: 35 mph
  • Diet: Herbivore (shrubs, tree, grasses, herbs, and sometimes aquatic plants)
  • Nocturnal, Diurnal, or Crepuscular: Crepuscular
  • Fun Fact: Cape Buffalo herd average is size of about 350. However older and younger males will run in a Bachelor group of about 15-30.


Elephants are the largest land animals in the world. Large and commanding these animals are so majestic to watch in the wild. I was privileged enough to see one, that was a little too close, while on a walking safari in Kenya.

With their large tusks and big ears the moment you see one, they’ll steal your heart. A little tip, be extra quiet when watching them. They get spooked easily, and you don’t want them to charge your safari vehicle.

big 5 safari animals - elephant

Facts About Elephants:

  • Coloring: Grayish black, but since elephants cover themselves with soil to protect against the sun they are usually the color of the soil where they live.
  • Average Life Span: 60-70 years
  • Average Speed: 15 mph
  • Diet: Herbivore (roots, grasses, fruit, and bark)
  • Nocturnal, Diurnal, or Crepuscular: Diurnal and a bit Crepuscular
  • Fun Fact: An elephant’s trunk weighs 400 pounds, but can pick up things as small as a single grain of rice


Rhinos can be difficult to find because of their small numbers. During my time on safari in Tanzania, after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I only saw 1 rhino and it was very far away only seen with binoculars. However, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, I saw dozens, including the last 2 remaining Northern White Rhinos in the world. The photo below is of the first rhinos I saw up-close. The little baby was such a great surprise!

big 5 safari animals - rhino and baby

Facts About Rhinos:

  • Coloring: All 5 rhino species are gray in color with thick protective skin.
  • Average Life Span: 35-50 years
  • Average Speed: 31-34 mph
  • Diet: Herbivore (trees, bushes, and grass – depending on the species)
  • Nocturnal, Diurnal, or Crepuscular: Crepuscular
  • Fun Fact: While rhinos are large in size they actually have very small brains.


With all the safaris under my belt, spotted a leopard during my trip to the Mara Naboisho Conservancy during my safari in Kenya. This mother and cub were my fifth and final Big 5 safari animals to see.

big 5 safari animals - leopard and cub

Facts About Leopards:

  • Coloring: light-colored with dark spots. These spots are called “rosettes”
  • Average Life Span: 12-17 years
  • Average Speed: 36 mph
  • Diet: Carnivore (bugs, fish, antelope, monkeys, rodents, deer, etc.)
  • Nocturnal, Diurnal, or Crepuscular: Nocturnal
  • Fun Fact: Leopards are amazing at jumping. In a single leap, they can jump 6 meters!

How to Spot the Big 5 Safari Animals

Spotting animals is my favorite part of any safari. With binoculars or the naked eye being able to pick an animal out of the bushes or hidden in a tree is so much fun.

During my last safari in Kenya, I asked the 2 amazing guides I had – one of which was the first female safari guide in the Maasai Mara – for some tips on how to spot the animals. This is what they told me.

Tips for Spotting the Big 5 Safari Animals

The Time of Day

Different animals are active at different times of the day. For example, the early mornings and evenings are great for spotting lions.

If you’re able to the in the park, reserve, or conservancy you’re in, do a night safari. While the animals are more difficult to spot you’ll see nocturnal animals like anteaters, honey badgers, and hyaenas.

One of the highlights of a recent safari was getting to see a pack of hyenas steal a wildebeest from a female lion in the early morning.

Look in the Sky

An African safari is a birders paradise. With the larger birds, specifically the vultures, they’ll circle when there is a kill and they can get the scraps.

Watch what direction other animals are looking in

Animals always look in the direction of danger. If you’re out on a safari truck and all, or even some, of the animals (think prey – gazelles, wildebeest, and warthogs) near you looking in the same direction you should look too.

Most of the time, when a predator is in the area the potential prey will be extremely quiet and still, but usually looking in the direction they think there is danger. If this happens you might see the circle of life in action.

Where are the other safari trucks

What are the other safari trucks looking at? This is particularly true for big cats (Lions, Leopards, and Cheetahs) as they can be hard to spot. If there is a large group of safari trucks chances are they’re all looking at the same animal or group of animals.

Look for the little details

Certain animals have little tells when trying to spot them. These are frequently little details that might be missed if you don’t know what you’re looking for. A few of these are:

  • Look for little spots of black: Lions have black fur on the tips of their ears.
  • Use binoculars to look for flashes of white: This could be a few different animals, as several have white bellies that my be showing if they’re rolling around in the grass.
  • Look for a tail: Whether they’re peaking through the grass or hanging from a tree watching for the swinging of a tail. This goes for warthogs too. Their little tail looks like an antenna sticking out of the grass.

Have any good stories about spotting the Big 5 Safari Animals? Share them in the comments.

Love it? Pin it!

Everyone wants to see all of the Big 5 Safari Animals. Some are easy to find while others are elusive. Learn what they are and how to spot them.

Leave a Comment