If you have researched safaris and wildlife, including how to volunteer with animals abroad, then you are sure to have come across The Big Five animals of Africa. But what exactly are the Big Five? The term ‘The Big Five’ includes the African lion, the black rhinoceros, the African elephant, the African leopard and the Cape buffalo. Surprisingly though, the term The Big Five does not refer to their size. It was actually given to these amazing African mammals by big game hunters who thought them to be the most dangerous and difficult to hunt.
Unfortunately, in Africa, the Big Five includes animals are now some of the most endangered animals on the planet. Illegal poaching, increasing conflicts with the human population and damage to their environment has all led to pressures on wild populations of these animals. This is why it’s vital for us to develop ways as to how we can help endangered animals.
Although poaching and environmental pressures threaten all of The Big Five animals, there are differences in conservation status among them. Rhinos are critically endangered, whereas lions, elephants, and leopards are vulnerable and Cape Buffalo are the least threatened. All of these species require support to help make sure they can thrive.
Let’s take a closer look at these amazing animals, looking in detail at what are The Big Five.
The African Lion
Living in the grasslands, scrub, and open woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, Panthera Leo, or the African Lion is perhaps one of the most famous and powerful creatures of The Big 5 animals. The African Lion is often known as The King of the Jungle, and it’s easy to see why! The African Lion weighs between 265 to 420 lbs and is between 4.5 to 6.5 feet tall, making them an intimidating animal.
Lions are the only cats that choose to live in groups, which are called prides. These are family units that include males, females and their young. Although the young males eventually leave the pride to establish groups on their own, the female cubs tend to stay with their birth pride, even as they age. The female lions are the pride’s main hunters, often working as a team with each other to prey upon animals in the wild such as antelope, zebra and wildebeest.
Male lions are the only lions with the distinctive mane, and they defend the pride’s territory with deafening roars and intimidating behaviour. Their territory is often as big as 100 square miles, and they are fiercely protective of it.
Once roaming across large areas of the globe, the effects of human behaviour, destruction of habitats and illegal poaching mean that the majestic African Lion is now found mainly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa only. It’s absolutely essential that we identify how we can help endangered animals such as the African Lion before they face extinction.
The black rhinoceros is a species of rhino native to eastern and southern Africa, including Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbawbe and Zambia. One of The Big Five animals, these amazing mammals can weigh up to 1400kg, measure up to 1.8 metres tall and live up to 50 years old. Black rhinos can also reach speeds of up to 55 kilometres per hour when running.
Adult black rhinos are mostly solitary animals, with mother and daughters often living together for large periods of their lives. Rhinos are also fighting animals, using the larger of their two horns to impact damage during fights. Often, conflicts over a female rhino may actually result in the death of one of the competing males.
The White Rhino is the third largest land mammal. The white rhino is bigger than the black rhino, with bulls weighing up to 2kg. These rhinos are grazers, feasting on grass and scrubland in their natural habitat. Despite their size they can also run extremely fast for short distances, making them intimidating creatures.
Rhinos, both black and white are one of The Big Five animals in Africa that has been particularly affected by illegal hunting and poaching for their horns. Powdered rhino horn is sought after for use in traditional Asian medicine, mainly in China, and their horns are demanded by upper-middle class citizens in Vietnam.
Rhinos have been killed in increasing numbers in recent years as organised criminal networks have become more involved in the poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn. The species is critically endangered and so effective conservation is vital to continue to protect current rhino herds and increase the population numbers for the future.
The African Elephant
When people wonder what The Big Five are, they will often already know about the beautiful African Elephant. These stunning animals roam throughout Africa, but they are critically endangered due to poaching, habitat loss and human population impacts. Illegal ivory trade has greatly impacted elephant populations for decades.
There are actually two subspecies of African Elephants, with the savannah elephant being the largest. These live in grassy plains and woodlands, whereas the smaller forest elephant roam through the forests of central and western Africa. All elephants each leaves and branches.
African elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet. The biggest elephant can be up to 7.5m long and weigh 6 tonnes. Their trunk is used for communicating and handling objects and their well-known tusks are used by the elephants as tools, for feeding and for fighting. Their distinctive large ears are very clever- they allow them to radiate excess heat from their body, cooling them down very effectively.
Elephants can live up to 70 years old and live in a complex social structure which is based around a system of herds made up of related females and their young, while male elephants tend to live alone. A female elephant is pregnant for approximately 22 months.
Shockingly, up to ten thousand elephants are illegal killed every year for their ivory tusks and meat, with China being one of the biggest illegal consumers. An expanding human population also creates more opportunities for conflict between elephants and humans, threatening their survival. Wildlife volunteering programmes that are dedicated to preserving existing elephant populations while helping them to thrive in the future are really important.
The Cape Buffalo
There are approximately 900 thousand Cape Buffalo across Africa. They can be found in countries across Africa including Botswana, Kenya, Cameroon, Mozambique, Namibia , Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania. These magnificent animals are often thought of as the most dangerous of The Big Five animals and can be very temperamental. Their distinctive large horns and large size (up to 2kg) make them formidable. Their curving horns form an incredibly thick skull, creating a near-impenetrable bone shield that can deflect the bullets of hunters.
They are also thought to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, reportedly killing more hunters than the hippopotamus. Cape Buffalo also have exceptional memory and have been known to remember hunters that have wounded them, even years after the incident.
The buffalo can forage and graze for grass for up to 18 hours a day. Cape Buffalo live in large herds, often moving in numbers of up to 500 and in well-watered savannahs, herds of up to 1000 incredible buffalo are not uncommon.
Although Cape Buffalo are the least threatened animals compared to the other Big Five species, they do have challenges and pressures on their populations. Increased contact with humans causes conflicts outside national parks in Africa. In addition, habitat fragmentation is also impacting their populations.
The African Leopard
Leopards are classed as a vulnerable species within The Big Five animals. They favour landscapes with dense bush and forest and are currently found across the world, including in Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Rwanda in Africa. Outside of Africa, there are leopard populations in India, China and Central Asia.
Leopards are a majestic and graceful big cat, closely related to jaguars, lions and tigers. The leopard is immensely strong and very comfortable in trees, hunting and pouncing from up above. It often drags its prey to kill into the branches, where its spotted coat allows them excellent camouflage. Leopards stalk antelope, pigs and dogs and as excellent swimmers, they also eat fish.
Leopard cubs live with their mothers for approximately two years. Once they have matured they leave their mothers- leopards are solitary creatures, and unlike lions do not live together. Most leopards have distinctive dark spots. There are also black leopards, which are commonly called black panthers.
As with all animals in The Big Five, leopards have challenges for their survival. They have been illegally hunted and poached for their soft fur, but also for their claws and whiskers. Leopard habitats are also threatened by human conflicts and environmental damage.
Other endangered animals
Sadly, The Big Five animals in Africa are not the only species of animal that are under threat. Many animal populations across the globe are threatened due to environmental pollution, increased human populations and illegal hunting. These species include:
Gorillas are amazing animals, both intelligent and strong. Gorillas live in troops, with an average life span in the wild of 35 years. They are between 4 to 6 feet high, weigh up to 485lb and eat roots, shoots, fruit, wild celery, tree bark and pulp.
Unfortunately they are also critically threatened. As of 2014, the number of gorillas left in the world is around 100,000, with their population steadily decreasing. It is vital to preserve and promote these amazing animals. Gorillas, like all wild animals, play an important role in their environment, and without these large scale grazers, the natural habitats in which the live will become unbalanced.
Both species of gorilla are threatened across the globe, with only 600 mountain gorillas left in the wild. The impacts of poaching, civil war, environmental destruction and conflicts with human populations mean that the gorilla is critically endangered. Currently the mountain gorilla’s habitat is limited to protected parks in two regions of Africa.
Known for their distinctive stripes, the tiger is the biggest species of the cat family. Tigers are an impressive creature, reaching up to 11 feet long and 660lbs in weight. Once they have reached maturity, tigers live alone and can kill animals twice their weight- they are a feared predator in the wild. Subspecies of the tiger include the Sumatran Tiger, Siberian Tiger and the Bengal Tiger.
Happily, a century of declining numbers, tiger numbers are now rising again. At least 3,890 tigers remain in the wild, but much more work is needed to protect this species that is still extremely vulnerable to extinction. As with many endangered species, tigers face pressures from poaching, illegal trade in their fur, habitat loss and conflict with ever growing human populations.
Sea turtles are one of the earth’s most ancient creatures, with their species dating back to the time of dinosaurs over 100 million years ago! There are seven species of sea turtle, including the Loggerhead, Leatherback and Green Turtle and worldwide, nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as endangered. Sea turtles are killed for their meat, eggs, skin and shells. They also face pressures from poaching, habitat destruction from environmental pollution and capture in fishing gear.
How can we help endangered animals?
It’s essential to these amazing species, including The Big Five that we address ways in which to make sure their populations are conserved and allowed to thrive. Volunteering with animals is a great way to really give something back, making sure these animals including lions, rhinos, elephants, tigers, gorillas are protected for future generations.
If you’re inspired to volunteer with animals, then take a look at our wildlife volunteering programs in Africa. Our programs provide you with once in a lifetime opportunities to work in Africa with The Big Five, making a lasting difference to these amazing animals.