Big 5, little 5, ugly 5, shy 5 and impossible 5

Solitary Lion in Namibia

The Big 5 in Africa refers to five large mammals which are the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and cape buffalo.  So why not a hippo, or a giraffe, they are quite big aren’t they? The hippo certainly is.

Why are they called the Big Five in Africa?

The reason for the Big 5 name is that these five animals were the hardest to shoot by big-game hunters as they are particularly ferocious when cornered and injured.  Tour operators and guides have picked up the phrase and used it as a marketing term and it has very cleverly stuck. Most people who request to see the Big 5 are unaware of the origin of this terminology, if they did, I wonder whether it would be as used as much.

elephant in AfricaIt is a bit of a shame as sometimes guests are obsessed in seeing the Big 5 and forget to pay attention to all the other amazing sights and sounds that Africa has to offer. So consider giving some time to giraffe, zebra and impala as well as the colourful birds and the smaller quirky animals.

Where to see: the Big 5 can be seen in many reserves in Africa but it is worth doing your research. Make sure that you are visiting the right places for your chosen animal.  Eswatini is a great place to see rhino, in fact if you don’t see rhinos in either Hlane or Mkhaya, you probably will have had your eyes closed for the duration.  Chobe in Botswana is one of the best places to see elephants, there are around 100,000 there so you should really see them. Migrating herds of buffalo can often be seen in Moremi, Botswana, along with leopard which are roaming their territory. Savuti, also in Botswana, is very good for large prides of lion.

The Little 5 – Big 5 in Africa

The Little 5 are not necessarily rare in the African wilderness. They were created by guides who wanted visitors to look at the smaller and more elusive species. Therefore the names for the Little 5 is a contradiction in sheer size to the Big 5 animals. They are the ant lion which is often found in sandy areas and is the size of an ant, the leopard tortoise, the elephant shrew which is an insect eating mammal with a long nose, the rhino beetle and buffalo weaver.

Where to see:  with a bit of help you could probably see these animals in Southern Africa with a knowledgeable guide. You can easily see the antlion in any sandy area, just search for small conical indentations in the sand. The elephant shrew is very shy but can be found around Rhodes grave in Matopos, Zimbabwe.

elephant shrew

The buffalo weaver is a common bird and is often seen in acacia trees. The rhino beetle can be found with some help from your guide. Rhino beetles are part of the largest species of beetles in the world reaching 6cm in length. They have two large horns on their bodies which the males use in fighting.

The Big 7

The Big 7 is another marketing ploy by the tourism industry by adding another two enormous animals, the great white shark and the southern right whale. Both are pretty spectacular to see and worth a trip to the coast.

great white shark

Where to see: South Africa has an incredible diversity of wildlife as it is possible to see all of the Big 7 here. The great white shark can be found off South Africa’s coastline all year round whereas the southern right whale is seasonal and comes to the warmer waters to breed from June to October.

The Ugly 5 – Big Five in Africa

I think is the real shame that the Ugly 5 have been given this name. Surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder!  They are the underdogs on the African plains and they have just as an important role as any other African animal. The members of this most exclusive of clubs are the hyena, wildebeest, vulture, warthog and the marabou stork.  There are numerous documentaries about their antics, migration and unusual habits of these species. These animals are certainly worth a tick in the book. They add to your African experience and are wonderful to see. How can you call this lovely cute hyena ugly?


Where to see:  These mammals are relatively common throughout southern and eastern Africa. Most people will know that one of the best places to see wildebeest is on the during the migration in Kenya. You can see hyena in Botswana around the Delta and in the Linyati area. Hyenas are attracted to carcasses along with their friends the vulture and marabou stork.

The Shy 5

The Shy 5 are a completely different set of animals highlighting those more elusive and lesser-known species which include the largest rodent in Africa. They are the meerkat, the aardvark, the porcupine, the aardwolf and the bat-eared fox. All are nocturnal animals, except for the meerkat, which makes seeing these animals even harder to spot, but very rewarding when you do. These sightings are ones that will stick in your mind and as a result, getting a great photo of them also proves to be an enormous challenge.



Where to see:  all of these animals are easier to find in sub-Saharan Africa in sandier areas such as the Kalahari. There are a couple of places which are renowned for these species and these include Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and Samara Game Reserve. Consider yourself lucky if you see all of these. 

The Impossible 5 – Big Five in Africa

These are certainly very rare and pretty tricky to see, consequently I have only seen two of these.  They are aardvark, Cape mountain leopard, pangolin, riverine rabbit and white lion (in the wild).  I say white lion in the wild because there are a number of white lions in captivity. Where is the challenge of seeing lions in an enclosure, frankly this is cheating! Remember, the aardvark is also a member of the Shy 5 so consider yourself lucky if you get to see this wonderful animal.

Where to see:  well the term is impossible!

How many of these animals have you seen?  Out of 26.

Jenny Bowen

Author: Jenny Bowen

I live for travel, whether it is at home or abroad. It is a joy to explore new places, meet new people and to have an adventure. There are so many wonderful places to visit and such fascinating wildlife to see, you never know what is around the corner! Live life to the full and restore your soul.