Africa Big 5 animals is a term coined back in the 1800s by trophy hunters, referring to what they considered the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot. These include the African Elephant, Lion, Leopard, African Buffalo, and Rhinoceros. Today the term is primarily famous with Africa safari travelers who now shoot the big five with a camera rather than a lethal weapon of choice. The Africa big 5 animals are all present in Uganda and can easily be seen in all savanna parks.
The phrase today is commonly used to market safaris. However, back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, everyone from European royalty to American presidents wanted to bag an African hunting trophy—the larger and more unpredictable the beast, the better – how the Big Five became famous.
The big 5 animals are still hunted today, especially in South Africa, where legal game hunting is a big market with the elite and privileged. Outside of hunting cliques, public opinion leans towards disgust over the killing of the Big Five, and we may see the practice dying out. But a shift toward tourism has also made seeing the Big Five an “awe-inspiring” goal for any safari-goer.
The name Africa Big 5 may sound intimidating and dangerous, but these mammals may need our help to survive extinction. African lion, leopard, and elephant are all classed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Due mainly to poaching for their horns, the western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011. The last male northern white rhino died in 2018, with only two females remaining—making that subspecies functionally extinct. Conservation efforts have helped keep Uganda’s Northern white rhino alive in the heavily protected Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
The Cape buffalo is of minor concern in conservation, but this also makes it the most popular animal to hunt. Hunting, poaching, and habitat loss combined mean the Cape buffalo’s population is also declining.
According to WCS, less than 468 lions remain in Uganda (down from 600 two decades ago). At the same time, leopard numbers dwindle with leopards in Lake Mburo alone last estimated (2007) to between 26-37 individuals according to CITES.
Where can you find the Big Five in Uganda?
Apart from the Northern White Rhino (which can only be seen in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary and Entebbe UWEC Zoo), tourists have a good chance of seeing the other members of the Africa Big 5 in any of the four savanna parks.
A savanna safari game drive in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, Kidepo Valley, and Lake Mburo will put you in the center of nonchalant herds of cape buffalo, African elephants hunting pride of African lions. For the shy leopard, a relaxed and patient early or late evening savanna drive may lead you to its hunting joints.
A boat safari on the Nile in Murchison Falls NP or on the Kazinga channel is a great way to spot the Africa big 5 in Uganda. Especially in the dry seasons (December to February and June to July), heat is sure to bring them out to the shores to catch a sip of the fresh waters.