Expeditions blog

Safari Favourites: Fun Facts About Africa’s Big Five

These safari icons make nearly every wildlife lover’s much-see list, but some of their animal attributes may surprise you.
June 9, 2020

LIONS, LEOPARDS, ELEPHANTS, RHINOS, AND CAPE BUFFALO—trophy hunters of the 19th century dubbed these African animals the “big five” for their difficulty to vanquish. Modern safari-goers still delight in capturing these charismatic creatures—in photographs and indelible memories. Learn more about these headliners of the African savanna, then discover the array of ways to encounter wildlife on safari with National Geographic Journeys.


African queens: Forget the king of the jungle. In the lion kingdom, the future is always female. A matrilineal society, each pride is made up mostly of related females—some 99 per cent. Male lions come and go, since they’re related to most of the females in the pride into which they’re born. Even so, the scene come dinner time may feel familiar: Once female lions return from a kill, the males in the pride feast first.


Don’t mess with buffalo: Forgive and forget? Not a chance when Africa’s Cape buffalo are involved. The notorious grudge holders have been known to attack people years after an offence. The behemoths also sometimes kill lion cubs as preventative punishment. That said, they’re not always grumps. Buffalo cuddle and groom each other—a practice uncommon among African ruminants.


Chewing the cud: The massive Cape buffalo can weigh nearly a ton. Keeping their bulky figure intact by chowing down on as much grass as they can find, these mighty plant-eaters are said to be four times stronger than an ox—powerful enough to tip over a car.


Bird on their shoulder: It’s a common sight on safari to spot birds hitching a ride on the backs of buffalo or rhinos. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: Birds like oxpeckers eat lice, fleas, and other parasites that latch onto the creatures’ skin.


Keep ’em on their toes: Though their feet measure more than four feet in circumference—and their legs resemble stocky tree trunks—elephants walk daintily on their tiptoes. The massive mammals also run faster than people, at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

Heavyweight champ: Weighing in at some seven tons, the African elephant takes the prize for the largest living land animal. To put the creature’s size in perspective, a single elephant tooth can weigh as much as a bowling ball, and the head in its entirety clocks in around a thousand pounds—equivalent to four adult giant pandas.


Beating the heat: An elephant’s wrinkles could be called wisdom lines—but not just for vanity’s sake. Unlike some mammals, elephants don’t sweat, so the creature’s signature cracks and crevices hold mud and water to keep them hydrated and regulate their temperature.


No water cooler needed: White rhinoceroses gather around communal dung piles in order to get their gossip. Called a midden, these giant piles of faeces can be up to 65 feet across and offer chemical clues on the age, sex, general health, and reproductive status of each rhino that has left a contribution.


The hard truth: Rhinos look prehistoric, but they’re more similar to us than you might expect. Coveted for their purported medicinal properties and rich in mythological lore, rhino horns actually consist entirely of keratin—the same protein in human hair and fingernails.


Stronger than they look: Leopards prefer to dine solo. After making a big kill, the solitary creature hauls the unlucky gazelle or antelope up a tree to eat in peace. So primal is this tendency that leopards feature shoulder blades built for climbing. Leopards may be the smallest of the big cats, but they pack a mighty punch, with ultra-strong necks and shoulders that can carry more than their weight into trees—high above the fray of other predators.

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