Our Guide to Big Five Safaris in Africa

Everything you need to know about going on a Big Five safari in Africa
Written by
Amie Larsen

Published on: January 9th, 2023

Last modified: December 11th, 2023

An African Big Five safari is often at the very top of our travellers’ bucket lists, in particular first-time safari-goers. The continent’s most iconic group of wildlife species can be found in national parks and private reserves all over east and southern Africa.

The best way to see the Big Five African animals is on safari in destinations such as Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe , with each of them offering unique experiences including hot air balloon safaris. But with so many incredible destinations across Africa, it can be hard to narrow down which is the best place to visit to maximise your chances of seeing the Big Five animals.

For inspiration, we’ve put together this guide where we cover the best African safari destinations to spot the Big Five animals, according to our team of expert travel designers. We will also give an introduction to the term ‘Big Five’, how to protect those animals and all the other fascinating animals you can see while on safari in Africa.

And once you’ve ticked off Africa’s Big Five animals from your bucket list, our team of experts is ready to help you plan your next safari adventure. This time, you could embark on an adventure of a lifetime to see the iconic annual Great Migration, where millions of wildebeest sweep through the Maasai Mara in Kenya, making their way to the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Or head off to Rwanda to see mountain gorillas in the wild before exploring other safari destinations outside Africa.

What are the ‘Big 5’ animals of Africa?

 

Africa’s Big Five animals include the elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard. Game hunters of the early 1800’s considered these creatures to be the most fearsome and dangerous in Africa. Coining the term ‘Big 5’, hunters set out to show their bravery and skill by defeating these awesome animals.

Fortunately, there are no guns involved in shooting’ the Big Five’ today. At Jacada we’re careful to visit places that protect wildlife. Private reserves, concessions and national parks such as the Kruger and Masai Mara now protect these animals against hunters and poachers, conserving wildlife and protecting their natural habitats. 

In Namibia you can join the Save the Rhino trust and track rhinos on foot, while in Botswana’s Okavango Delta silent mokoros get close to wildlife without startling them. Hot air balloon safaris at Wilderness Vumbura give you a privileged bird’s-eye view of herds of elephants, buffalos and prides of lions.

Where to Experience the Big Five Safari Animals

 

You can find the Big Five on safari excursions across Africa’s parks and reserves. Exciting game drives and hot air balloon safaris take place in places such as the Kruger and Serengeti. In the private reserves and concessions, where visitors are restricted and wildlife is protected, there is also the possibility to go on night time safaris, bush walks and even camel safaris on the Laikipia Plateau.

1. Kenya - Solio and Maasai Mara

All the Big Five animals flourish in Kenya’s protected parks and reserves. The best place to visit to see rhinos in Africa is Solio – a successful breeding sanctuary which has recorded sightings of up to 40 rhinos at one time. Further south, in the Masai Mara, majestic lions prey on tired wildebeest, searching for fresh pastures on their Great Migration, resulting in plenty of dramatic big cat sightings.

2. Tanzania - Katavi National Park and Serengeti National Park

Katavi National Park has the biggest buffalo herds in Africa. Up to 2000 of these powerful beasts can form mega herds for intense wildlife encounters on a Big Five safari. Throughout the year in the Serengeti National Park, lions can be found preying on young or weak wildebeest, particularly during the dramatic river crossings and calving seasons of the Great Wildebeest Migration.

Our travel designers are often able to time your visit to see one of the world’s most impressive natural spectacles.

3. South Africa - Sabi Sands, Madikwe and Tswalu Private Reserves

South Africa is best for allusive leopard sightings; Sabi Sands private reserve has an impressive 12 leopards per 100 kilometres. With restricted visitor numbers in the reserve and glamorous lodges, you can expect a truly exclusive safari experience. The malaria-free wildlife havens of Madikwe or Tswalu are best for families – perfect for little children, searching for big wildlife.

South Africa has many highlights; Great White Sharks and Southern Right Whales make South Africa’s Magnificent 7. Find the sharks on exhilarating cage dive excursions just outside Cape Town and whales on the boat trips from the Whale Coast. You can also combine your safari with the wine region for delicious tastings in stunning vineyards or cosmopolitan Cape Town for high end restaurants and interesting history. 

4. Zimbabwe - Hwange National Park

The massive, untouched wildernesses of Zimbabwe attract all of the Big Five animals. The elephant sightings in Hwange National Park are particularly impressive. An estimated 44,000 elephants live here and during the dry winter months massive herds congregate at sparse water sources. Sightings of a hundred elephants at one time is often possible.

5. Namibia - Etosha National Park and Damaraland

Namibia has a lot to offer in terms of a Big Five safari. Covered with sand dunes, this arid land is home to fascinating, unique desert-adapted lions, elephants and rhinos – who have learnt to survive in the dry conditions. In Damaraland, with the Save the Rhino Trust, set out on foot for close encounters with Africa’s endangered black rhino. While in Etosha National Park you might be lucky enough to spot a leopard.

To avoid the rainy season, our travel designers recommend visiting between July and September, the best time to see rhinos in Namibia .

6. Botswana - Linyanti and Mombo Private Reserves

Botswana is known as Africa’s premier wildlife destination, and for good reason. It’s full of private reserves and concessions and with 37% of the country protected, wildlife can fully flourish here. Experiences are more varied in private reserves – you can set off on walking safaris, boat trips and cultural excursions. 

The Linyanti Private Reserve has one of the world’s oldest elephant herds traversing its lagoons, grasslands and forests, sometimes walking right through Wilderness Dumatau Camp. Mombo Concession is known as the predator capital with lion and leopard sightings increasingly common. 

Other Animals to see on Safari

Away from the iconic Big 5 there’s plenty more wonderful wildlife to discover in Africa. Not as majestic, but no less important in the circle of life are hyenas, vultures, Marabou storks, warthogs and wildebeests who together, make up Africa’s Ugly Five, the alternative collection of creatures to spot on safari. Then there’s birding; from the elegant flamingos at Lake Nakuru to the 450 species that live alongside the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Plains game, another term coined by hunters referring to ‘fair-game’, completes any safari picture-postcard. Zebras, giraffes and antelopes sweep across the great plains of Tanzania and Kenya or dance through the waterways of Linyanti and Okavango Delta, iconic in their own way. Watch crocodiles spring to life as they prey on wildebeest crossing the Mara river during the Great Migration.

There’s a long list of endangered, unusual and hard to spot creatures in Africa too. Trekking to find the protected, yet fragile families of mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda is an incredibly rewarding experience. In the dry deserts of Tswalu private reserve you can hope to find African Wild Dogs – some of the world’s most endangered mammals. Spotting their low lying, padding packs is a true privilege. 

How to Help Protect the Big 5

 

Responsible, sustainable travel choices have never been so important. Protecting the Big 5, and indeed all of Africa’s wildlife, is imperative if we’re to preserve it for future generations. Huge inroads have been made by organisations such as our parent company, Wilderness, whose conservation efforts reach across five countries.

Travellers can make a difference when it comes to protecting the Big 5. Choosing protected, private reserves such as Moremi in Botswana helps to lessen the environmental load on more popular parks as higher footfall in busy parks can overwhelm wildlife. Our expert travel designers make sure to choose accommodations that spearhead conservation or research efforts, such as Kings Pool Camp in Botswana which fulfils a vital role in the area’s biodiversity conservation.

While you’re travelling, seek out sustainable experiences such as walking safaris or assisting with wildlife conservation programs. And, perhaps, move away from the Big 5 for a while, concentrate on lesser known species which are equally as rewarding to find. 

Get in touch to start building your Big Five safari adventure