The Big 5 are the superstars of Africa and spotting them in the best safari destinations in the world is is one of life’s biggest thrills. But what is the Big 5 exactly? The term was coined in the 19th century by big game hunters who listed the African elephant, African lion, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros as the most dangerous creatures to hunt on foot in Africa. Fortunately, these incredible animals are now largely protected in national parks and game reserves.
While there are no guarantees of spotting wildlife on safari (especially the notoriously elusive leopard and critically endangered rhino), there are some destinations in Africa that are renowned for their Big 5 populations. If you’re ready to tick an African safari off your bucket list, look no further than these top safari destinations for spotting the Big 5.
1. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Serengeti National Park is an icon of Africa and one of the best safari destinations in the world for spotting the Big 5 and so much more. Located in northern Tanzania, this UNESCO-listed national park is one of the oldest ecosystems on earth. It’s filled with plants and animals that have barely changed over the past million years.
The park is an epic expanse of plains and grassland, dotted with all of the Big 5 and other safari favourites like giraffes, zebra, hyenas, cheetah and the rare African wild dog.
The Serengeti is also famed as the home of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ – the Great Migration. Over two million wildebeest, zebra, impala and gazelle cross the Mara River in a thundering mass each year in search of greener pastures. The migration sets off annually around July towards the Masai Mara in Kenya. The herd then makes the 1,000km journey back to Tanzania around October or November when the rains set in.
The wildebeest must dodge stalking predators like lions and leopards on their journey, while huge clouds of migrating birds fly overhead. As the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, it’s an astonishing sight to behold.
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2. Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Venture over the border of the Serengeti into the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya, the other half of the mighty Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. As one of the best safari destinations in the world, the Maasai Mara dishes up extraordinary wildlife viewing, including all the Big 5.
You’ll also likely spot giraffes, hippos and crocodiles lurking in the rivers, along with more than two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle that arrive in a thundering mass during the Great Migration.
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Besides the incredible wildlife, the Maasai Mara is renowned for its rich culture. You can visit a traditional Maasai village where you’ll meet the Maasai people and witness their colourful traditions.
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3. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Kruger National Park is the oldest and most iconic national park in South Africa. It’s also one of the top bucket list experiences on the whole continent. Covering a staggering two million hectares (the size of Israel or Slovenia), you’ll have a good chance of spotting the famous Big 5, the unique Little 5, and everything in between.
There’s also reliable sightings and a high density of animals in the private reserves around the Kruger National Park. One of our favourite areas is the Karongwe Private Game Reserve. Here you can spot all the Big 5 and learn about the traditions and local deliacies of the Shangaan people at a local village.
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4. Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of the continent’s best safari hotspots. Located in the Crater Highlands of northern Tanzania, Ngorongoro is an ancient volcanic crater spanning 260 square kilometres. The crater is surrounded by a 600-metre high wall, and it’s the largest intact and unfilled caldera in the world.
It’s home to over 25,000 large game animals, including all the Big 5. The conservation area protects Tanzania’s last remaining population of the endangered black rhino. You can also spot cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, spotted hyenas and the critically endangered African wild dog. The crater is also dotted with sparkling soda lakes where you can see hippos and massive pink flocks of flamingo.
Ngorongoro has also been home to humans for around three million years and occupied by pastoralist tribes, like the Maasai, for the past 2,000 years. You can visit a Maasai village and even see casts of the fossilised footprints found at Olduvai Gorge. These famous footprints prove humans were walking on two legs at least 3.7 million years ago.
5. Etosha National Park, Namibia
Etosha is the greatest national park in Namibia, famed for its striking desert landscapes and abundant wildlife. You’ll have the chance to spot four of the Big 5 as there are no buffalo in Etosha, however you can spot them in the nearby Waterberg Plateau and Caprivi Strip. Meanwhile, the huge populations of lions and elephants make up for it.
Etosha is also one of the best places in Africa to see the white rhino and critically endangered black rhino. These precious creatures have been poached to near extinction on the continent, but you can still find them around the waterholes of Etosha.
The waterholes are also a great place to spot lurking lions, leopards, cheetah and hyena. You can also spot herds of elephants coming to get a drink and bathe in the water. With its unique desert-adapted animals, Etosha is undoubtedly one of the best safari destinations in the world.
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6. Chobe National Park, Botswana
It’s all about elephants in Chobe, and this national park is one of the best safari destinations in the world to see these majestic creatures. There are around 120,000 elephants in the park and we love spotting them on a Chobe River cruise.
You’ll have the chance to see elephants, buffalo, lions and leopards come to the river bank to drink, while birds like the kingfisher hover over the water. The best time to spot the huge elephant herds is the dry season from May to October. Wildlife viewing is at its absolute best from August to October.
Unfortunately, rhinos are extremely rare to spot in Chobe after having their population decimated over the years. The good news is they are slowly being reintroduced to private areas of the park.
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7. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
Take a journey into the wild bushland of the Samburu National Reserve on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. Here you’ll have the chance to spot a unique kind of Big 5 – the ‘Samburu Special 5’. These five rare animals can only be found in the Samburu ecosystem and include the Reticulated giraffe, the Grevy’s Zebra, the Beisa oryx, the Somali ostrich and the gerenuk.
You might even get to spot some of these animals on a special guided nature walk. You’ll be accompanied by an expert naturalist, who will share their wealth of wisdom on the plants and animals found in the area.
Along with the Samburu Special 5, you’ll also have the chance to see more famous animals including elephants and lions just like Elsa, the lion cub made famous in the award-winning book and movie ‘Born Free’. Samburu National Reserve was one of two areas where conservationists George and Joy Adamson raised the lion cub.
You can get to know more about the region’s conservation and anti-poaching efforts in the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.
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Have you visited any of the best safari destinations in the world? Let us know in the comments below!