Family Vacation Bucket List: Spotting the Big 5 in South Africa

big 5 animals

We say “South Africa,” you say “safari!,” right? Of course! Having the opportunity to spot the Big 5 animals is a bucket list item for many. And let’s be honest, it should be. When can you see leopards, rhinos, elephants, African buffaloes, and lions in their natural habitat?

When you’re ready to venture off into the wild on your very first family safari experience, planning can be stressful. Rather than spending your time coordinating numerous plans and excursions from afar, take a look at some bundled trips. These are helpful because they (usually) do all of the legwork for you – including planning, booking, timing, scheduling, and sometimes even transportation.

Adventure seekers, animal lovers, and families alike can embark on these adventures! While they’re appealing to all kinds of people, they’re surprisingly perfect for families. When you’ve exhausted the cruises, beaches, and theme parks, it’s time to really wow the kids. We’ll show you exactly how you can do that – and how easy it can be


The Big 5 animals (also known as the big five and big 5 game) got their moniker from game hunters. Historically, this was because they were the most difficult African animals to hunt, especially on foot. Over term, the Big 5 moniker became ubiquitous with Africa – due, in part, to safari tour operators adopting it for marketing purposes.

We’re obviously not going to South Africa to hunt Big 5 animals. We go to admire – and, in some cases, help – them. You’re invited! First, let’s take a look at which animals comprise the Big 5.

African buffalo.

Also known as the Cape buffalo, these buffaloes aren’t what what you’re used to seeing stateside. The two African varieties (Savannah-type and forest-type) aren’t ancestors of domesticated cattle and are only distantly related to other larger bovines. As far as natural predators, African buffaloes don’t have many. Aside from humans (predominantly big game hunters), large crocodiles and lions are really the only animals that consider them prey. Unsurprisingly, these buffaloes are more than capable of defending themselves (and routinely do so when wounded but not killed by hunters – hence the recognition they get for being most dangerous of the Big 5 animals to hunters).

Big 5 animals

African elephant.

All of the Big 5 animals scream “AFRICA!” in the minds of animal lovers and hunters alike, but maybe none more than the elephant. These magnificent animals are big in both size and intelligence. In fact, the bush elephant is the largest living terrestrial animal, weighing in at up to 11 tons! Fun fact: Elephant trunks are good for more than just nose-breathing. They’re actually a fifth limb, as well as being an important method of touch, and an amplifier of sound.

Big 5 animals

African leopard.

A couple of the Big 5 animals are also what we’d call big cats – the leopard being one of them. With their unmistakeable fur and piercing eyes, this big cat is one of the most beautiful photos you can hope to catch while on your safari. Be warned, though – you’ll have to work on their schedule. They’re most active at night and early dawn. Still can’t find one? Try looking up. African leopards are incredibly strong and this strength affords them the ability to drag their prey (even as large as baby giraffes) high up into trees for safe keeping.

big 5 animals

African lion.

Say hello to the king of the jungle! Another of the Big 5 animals known as a big cat, the African lion is the second largest wild cat (after the tiger). Compared to other cats, lions are unusually social. Since they travel in prides, there’s a good chance that if you spot one, you’ll end up spotting a handful. Have your cameras ready!

Big 5 animals


Rhinos – both black and white – round out the list of Big 5 animals. Contradictory to their names, neither are actually black or white. “Black” rhinos range from brown to grey (and are critically endangered), while “white” rhinos are typically grey. They may look intimidating due to their size and horns, but they’re actually herbivores. Fun fact: African rhinos rely on their lips to grab for food because they don’t have teeth in the front of their mouths.

Big 5 animals


Many African countries are home to some Big 5 animals, but perhaps not all five. South Africa is one of the approximately 13 countries where you’ll find all of the Big 5 animals.

African buffaloes prefer swamps, floodplains, grasslands, and forests of major mountains. While they prefer dense cover, you can still find them in open woodland.

Spread out all over the majority of the country, African elephants live in Sub-Saharan Africa. These generally gentle giants prefer deserts, forests, and woodlands.

While African leopards are widely found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, you may do a double take in South Africa. Leopards find in the Cape Provinces (South Africa) are typically only half the size/weight of its northern neighbors.

Though the African lion population is dwindling, most of the remaining cats can be found in eastern and southern Africa. Your best bet for spotting these big cats is in conservation areas, where they’re shielded from human interference and monitored for disease.

You’re most likely to find black rhinos in South Africa, but you may luck out and see one in Tanzania as well. White rhinos are going to be easier to spot, as South Africa is where they’re most prevalent (93% of southern white rhinos live here!).


Visiting South Africa to see Big 5 animals isn’t complicated at all. You could book flights, find hotels, research safari & tour companies, set up private tours for yourself, schedule in-country transportation, hire a guide to stick with you for the entire trip, and so on.

Or, you could simply choose a pre-planned, done-for-you vacation. We have two suggestions, depending on which type of volunteering you prefer. Both trips put your in a front row seat for seeing Big 5 animals!

South Africa – Wildlife Volunteer Adventure

This newly introduced adventure has a little bit of everything. After spending your first two days learning about South African culture  in sunny Durban (right on the coast!), you’ll move up the coast to Somkhanda Game Reserve. There, you’ll have five days to learn about and monitor the park’s indigenous wildlife as you volunteer. When you have down time, feel free to unwind by the pool or do a little exploring of your own! To wrap up your adventure in style, we’ll bring you to a luxury tented camp in Nambiti Game Reserve for two nights. This is where you’ll find Big 5 animals. See how many lions and rhinos you can spot before we head back to Durban to depart!


South Africa – Wildlife Conservation Experience 

This conservation experience is all about the animals! Become part of the efforts to protect the animals of the Greater Kruger National Park region. In addition to meeting and learning from conservationists who work hard to protect endangered animals, you’ll personally lend a hand to leopard protection efforts. This trip takes you beyond the safari – you’ll become part of the wildlife conservation movement! You won’t just watch for Big 5 animals here. Landmarks like God’s Window, Wonder View, and The Pinnacle will make for memories not soon forgotten. And don’t forget the “adventure” part of this adventure, which includes traversing through the Blyde River Canyon (the world’s largest ‘green canyon’)!


Which of the Big 5 animals would you most like to see in South Africa? Tell us in the comments below!

big 5 animals

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