African Safari: What Are the Big 5?

A safari in Africa is not the same as it was way back when. “Real” men with large guns set out to slaughter dangerous animals for the pure sport of it. They set up camps with supplies that were carried by locals hired for that purpose. Simply put, if they did not bring it with them, they did not have it. Ah, the myth of the Great White Hunter who was never more than a few feet away from his gin and tonic.

Nowadays, things are quite different. Most of the safari camps are rather permanent with running water, electricity and, often, air conditioning. The rooms can often be among the highest luxury resorts found anywhere in the world. Dinner will not be whatever you catch or brought with you in a can. Fine (or at least very good) dining is often the norm.

While there surely are safaris where hunting and killing animals for sport are still available for booking, most safari “hunters” shoot the beasts with nothing more deadly than a new digital camera.

A ranger once told me that while everyone has a “must see” list of favorite animals. Everyone, it seems, wants to see the “Big 5.” But he confessed that he was always amazed by how these guests who traveled so far for the safari experience did not always know which animals made up the “Big 5” or why they were called that!

So? Who are the “Big 5”? Chances are that you can guess most of them: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and the cape buffalo. Bet that last one threw you. You were thinking of a hippo, I bet. The hippo is big, that is for sure. But the poor guy just does not qualify to be a part of the “Big 5.”

If the hippo doesn’t make the cut, what defines the “Big 5”? If you recall that safaris were once only hunting trips, the answer may come to mind. These five magnificent beasts were considered the most dangerous to hunt on foot. The key part of that description is “hunt on foot.” While on foot, the hunter is at his most exposed.

Think about them for a moment. The lion and leopard are hard to see and could easily be hunting you. Not a good thing with their claws, teeth and speed. The elephant is huge. If you’ve ever seen an elephant charge and trumpet (even on TV), you understand why they make the list. The rhino knows how to use his horn and can get up to amazing speeds in merely a few steps. None of these animals would be fun to deal with while on foot. The cape buffalo is a special case. I have been told that if the hunter only wounded the buffalo, the buffalo would stalk the hunter! Big, scary and with a set of horns on its head that could throw a man hundreds of feet in the air. One missed shot and the cape buffalo earn their place in the “Big 5.”

I’ll stick to my digital camera. The only wounding I do to the animals is that occasional bad photo.