Most people want to see the Big 5, especially when they are booking their first safari. The name "The Big 5" has quite a significant history, it goes all the way back to the hunting days when the Big 5 were the 5 most dangerous animals. In those days hunting parties travelled by foot, and a lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard or rhino could potentially kill you.
Nowadays we find people are hunting the Big 5 for very different reasons; hunting with their cameras for the best shots of these impressive animals, a treat to get in front of your lens. Knowing where to find them might help you narrow down the places you want to visit Africa on your first safari.
From the Big 5, the two most elusive animals on a standard safari, are the rhino and the leopard, for different reasons. The rhino has unfortunately been wiped out in a lot of places due to poaching for its horn. The leopard is incredibly good in hiding, and that makes it hard to spot them, even though they can be found in most national parks, private conservancies and reserves.
The list below focuses on where the rhino can be found in East Africa as this is often the limiting factor of a complete Big 5 viewing. The overview first concentrates on locations where all five can be found. And we have also included a few places where the rhino can be spotted, but not necessarily the other four, as you can relatively easily find the others in most other areas. That being said finding the leopard is never easy and a good dose of luck is needed to capture them.
Tips to Find the Big 5: Giving Lady Luck a helping hand
As with all things in life, you can help luck when on safari. Don’t let your guide do all the spotting. Guides are good and often have eagle-eye spotting abilities, but extra pairs of eyes scanning the bush always increases the chance of finding something.
And, this might sound very obvious, spend time out there. It might be hard work to get up early on your holiday to be in the car around sunrise (usually between 6 and 6.30), but by spending more time in the vehicle, especially the early mornings and the late afternoons, you significantly increase your chance of seeing more animals, including the Big 5.
Having said that, occasionally incredible sightings happen in and around accommodation too, so always keep your eyes and ears open when you are in your lodge or campground.
Spotting the Big 5 in Kenya
Kenya is an excellent choice for a first safari and it offers many locations where you can try your luck at finding the Big 5. From the countries in East Africa, it has the most locations where all Big 5 can be found, as well as of course loads of other animals, including more than 1,000 birds…
The most popular safari destination in Kenya is the Masai Mara, very famous for the wildebeest migration that passes through here annually. But don’t rule out the conservancies around the Masai Mara. From the conservancies you can do a game drive in the Masai Mara too. And also have a look at the lesser known other locations in Kenya for finding the Big 5, all listed below.
1. Masai Mara National Reserve
The famous Masai Mara in Kenya, well known for its role in the annual wildebeest migration, also offers visitors a chance to see the Big 5. Rhinos are not seen very often, but they do make an appearance regularly, as well as leopards. The lions, buffalo, and elephants are easily found here with a bit of perseverance and a good guide. The Masai Mara is an excellent choice for first-time safari-goers looking for their Big 5.
The Mara Triangle is located in the western part of the Masai Mara National Reserve, on the ‘other side’ (west) of the Mara River. This area is well managed and the Big 5 can be found here. Rhinos are regularly spotted, elephants, buffalo and lions are part of the daily sightings and even leopards are seen here quite often. Although, like everywhere else, you need to be lucky to see this beautiful cat. The Mara Triangle is a relatively compact area and should be high on the list for those wanting to tick off the Big 5.
African lion couple at Mara Triangle
2. Nairobi National Park
Technically I am cheating a little when I add the Nairobi National Park to the list of places where you can see all of the Big 5, but it is possible. And as this is such an easy place to visit, plus it gives visitors a very good chance of spotting a rhino or even a few, I will tell you how you can see all Big 5 here.
Buffalo, lions (regularly even seen in a tree), rhinos and sometimes even leopards, can all be found in the NairobiNational Park. You go on your game drive, keep your eyes open and hope you will find them all.
Elephants however, cannot be seen on a normal game drive in the national park, but they are there… The David Shedrick Wildlife Trust (better known as the elephant orphanage) uses a section of the national park for the elephant nursery. So, although you can’t see the elephants on your game drive, you can see them in the national park. You just have to make your way to the elephant orphanage at 11am and watch them being fed their milk bottles (the elephant orphanage cannot be visited from inside the national park, you have to exit and drive around to the separate entrance). Two bottles of two litres each, and they gulp them down in seconds!
Image courtesy: Eastafricanjunglesafaris
3. Meru National Park
Meru National Park is not on most people’s radar when they are selecting where to go for a safari, especially not a first-time safari. Meru National Park does give visitors a good chance of getting a rhino, or several, in front of their lens as it has an excellent rhino sanctuary. Both black and white rhinos can be found here, although the white ones are more regularly spotted.
Other wildlife can be hard to spot in Meru National Parkas it is very forested which makes it easy for animals to hide, or simply not to be seen. However, with a good guide you are very likely to see a lot of animals, including a good chance of spotting the other four animals making up the Big 5.
Rhinoceros at Meru National Park
4. Borana Conservancy
The Borana Conservancy is proof that a working cattle ranch can thrive together with wildlife. The lodge here is run as a not-for-profit place and all proceeds go back directly to the community (for example primary schools and a mobile clinic) and the team of more than a 100 rangers that are there 24 hours a day to keep the wildlife safe from poachers.
Superb wildlife, the Big 5, and lots of activities make Borana a great place for a safari and a good chance to see the Big 5 whilst exploring this wonderful part of Kenya. Not only do they offer the usual game drives, you can also go horse riding, paragliding and mountain biking here. All with expert guides to keep you safe of course.
Image courtesy: http://www.borana.co.ke
5. Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Like the Borana Conservancy, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a working cattle ranch where wildlife lives in harmony with the domesticated cows. On your game drives you are not likely to see these cows, but it is possible in certain areas. The wildlife here is incredible, and the amount of work the Ol Pejeta does for conservation is enormous. They regularly win awards for their innovative ways of dealing with the environment and wildlife.
At Ol Pejeta Conservancy you have many options for accommodation, ranging from camping sites to luxury lodges and anything in between. You can drive yourself, or use a guide.
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy looks after the last three remaining northern white rhinos, and also has a large number of black and white rhinos on the property. Some are living in fenced off sanctuaries, but several are roaming outside and can be found anywhere. Ol Pejeta shares a border with Borana and they have even removed the fences so wildlife can once again freely migrate between the two properties.
Ol Pejeta also looks after orphaned, and rescued chimpanzees. The only place in Kenya where you can see these primates. Ol Pejeta is a magical place where you have a good chance of seeing the Big 5, although the leopard, as always, remains hard to find.
Image courtesy: Make it Kenya
6. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
The Lewa Conservancy is another private conservancy in Kenya where cattle and wildlife live side-by-side. They are incredibly successful in protecting rhinos and other wildlife, and offer visitors an amazing experience. Once a year you can run a half or full marathon here, raising money for the Tusk charity. It is a hugely popular marathon, through incredible countryside.
It is tough though, as you are running at altitude, on rough, hilly tracks and in the burning sun. But the thrill of running through Big 5 country and helping to raise money at the same time is worth every drop of sweat. Don’t worry, rangers make sure none of the Big 5 are anywhere near the tracks where you run on that day!
At other times you want to find the Big 5 of course, and your chances here are pretty good. Rhinos with sensationally long horns are seen here very regularly. The first time you see a rhino that hasn’t had his or her horn chopped off (for protection against poaching) will always remain in your memory.
Image courtesy: Lewa wildlife conservancy
7. Tsavo East and West National Park
Both Tsavo national parks have rhinos, making them part of this list of places where you can see all of the Big 5 in one national park. The rhinos in Tsavo East are not often seen as they are very good in hiding in the thick bush in certain areas of the park, but you can get lucky of course. In Tsavo West National Park most of the black rhinos are living together in the large Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, which is heavily protected and can be visited for free. Some rhinos have been moved out from this area though, so keep your eyes open outside its fences for rhinos too.
In Tsavo West there is one lodge that feeds a resident leopard small bits of meat, so it is seen almost every night. But even on normal game drives you can find them regularly as the density of leopards in Tsavo West National Park is one of the highest in Africa, with an estimated territory size of around 5,5 square kilometres per leopard. Buffalos, lions, as well as elephants are all present in both national parks too and are seen on a daily basis.
8. Aberdares National Park*
The Aberdares National Park is completely fenced in to eliminate human-wildlife conflict in the area. The park has several different habitats, including the forested Salient and the highlands with moors, fog, spectacular waterfalls and cold air. The rhino, elephant, buffalo and leopard can all be found in the Aberdares, although spotting animals in the dense forest is tricky.
But the two hotels in the Salient offer water holes you can look at from the comfort of a chair. Many animals visit and give you a chance to see them up and close if you sit in the hides at ground level. Leopards are regularly seen, although often just a fleeting glimpse. Rhinos, however, are more elusive here due to the thick forest, but you can always hope one visits the waterhole. The rare black leopard is occasionally spotted in the Aberdares.
There are no lions left in the park as they were moved out to protect the critically endangered bongo (a forest antelope). Lions can easily be found in other places, so this remains a good spot to find some of the Big 5, especially because leopards are regularly spotted.
There is also excellent hiking in the Aberdares, mostly in the western moorland side of the Aberdares National Park.
Image courtesy: wildwingssafaris
9. Lake Nakuru National Park*
This beautiful national park is centred around the lake from which it takes its name. It used to be famous for the thousands and thousands of flamingoes that would feed along the shores, but since the water levels rose dramatically there are not as many flamingoes here as there used to be, although you can usually still see hundreds of them in the shallows of the lake.
It also has both black and white rhino which are all regularly seen. Leopards, lions and buffalo are also around, but you won’t find any elephants here. But as elephants can be seen in lots of other national parks, this is a great place to ensure you will see the rhinos. It is not a guarantee of course, but your chance of finding one or more here is high. Bonus here are the rare Rothschild’s giraffes, in my opinion prettier than the ‘common’ Masai giraffe. More about Lake Nakuru.
10 Solio Game Reserve*
Solio is a private wildlife sanctuary where they run a very successful breeding programme for both black and white rhinos. You are guaranteed to see rhinos here. In fact, it is not uncommon to look around you and count up to 30 or 40 rhinos around you on the open plains.
Although they don’t have elephants here, there are plenty of leopards, buffalo and even lions on the property. If you want 100% certainty of seeing rhinos, this is an excellent choice. Day visitors are also welcome here.
Image courtesy: Kenya getaways
* Locations don't offer the chance to see the Big 5 in one spot, but they do offer high chances of seeing either the rhino or the leopard. As these two animals of the Big 5 often remain elusive, we felt it was a good idea to include these here to give you more ideas to combine places to increase your chances of spotting the Big 5.
Spotting The Big 5 in Tanzania
Tanzania is another excellent choice to find your first set of Big 5 animals, and of course many others, including birds. The most popular two places to search for the Big 5 in Tanzania are the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti National Park, both excellent choices.
1. Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Crater is part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) and although the Big 5 all roam here, the rhino is confined to the Crater area. All other animals of the Big 5 can be found inside as well as outside of the crater.
Like everywhere else, it is the leopard and the rhino that are the ones tricky to find. But as the Ngorongoro Crater is a restricted space you might get lucky here. Lions, buffalo and elephant are seen by most people visiting, and the rhino and leopard occasionally. You might see the rhino from afar, and catch a glimpse of a leopard if you are very lucky.
2. Serengeti National Park
Serengeti is the obvious candidate for most people for their first safari. Partly because it is possible to see the Big 5, but of course also because of the famous migration and the enormous amount of other wildlife that can easily be seen here.
The black rhino is most commonly seen in the north of the Serengeti National Park, close to the border with Kenya’s Masai Mara. This doesn’t mean they are seen every day, but they are regularly seen there. Leopards can be found anywhere in the Serengeti, but a good, high chance of finding one is in the Seronera area (the central area). Leopards are found almost on a daily basis here as they have few hiding places and all those hiding areas are well known. Guides will set out in the morning to try to find these pretty animals, and once found all guides will know where to find it. Radios and mobile phones ensure the message is spread quickly on the savanna.
3. Selous Game Reserve
The Selous Game Reserve is a huge area with only a small part open to tourists, the section in the north. It offers incredible wildlife viewing, hundreds of bird species, and a chance to see the wild dogs.
In theory you can still find the Big 5 in the Selous, and that is why it is listed here. But in reality you most likely won’t. Lions, buffalo, elephant, and even leopard can be found here with the usual amount of luck needed to see them anywhere in the wild. But the rhino will, unfortunately almost guaranteed, not make an appearance.
It is still widely accepted there may be rhinos left in the Selous, but they have not been seen for a long time, nor has their tracks or their poo. However, the hunting area which is off-limits to tourists is huge, so there is, of course, a chance there may be a few left in that enormous wilderness. Nobody can tell for sure. But, due to the incredibly high levels of poaching up until recently, few elephants remain of the thousands that once roamed the wetlands. Unfortunately we have to assume that the rhinos would have been decimated too.
4. Mkomaz National Park
Hardly anybody has heard of Mkomazi National Park. Although located in the north, it is not part of the northern circuit and very few people go there. It is however quite an interesting park as you will find different animals here that you won’t find in many other locations in Tanzania as they are usually seen further north in Kenya. Animals like for example the gerenuk, the vulturine guineafowl, and the fringe-eared oryx. Apart from those unusual animals, Mkomazi National Park, of course also offers sightings of the usual animals seen on safari.
It is possible to spot the Big 5 here, but it is unlikely. Elephants are not very common, and the rhino is rare. They do have a breeding sanctuary here for black rhinos, but it is not easily possible to visit.
Spotting the Big 5 in Uganda
Uganda is not a country that comes up often when people talk about wanting to spot the big 5, but it is definitely a country that should not be forgotten when planning your first safari.
Although no national park or wildlife area offers the chance to spot the Big 5 together, Uganda has several places where the buffalo, elephants, lions and leopards can be found. And if you add the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary to your itinerary then you can complete your list in Uganda too.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
In the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary they have several southern white rhinos, and you can go on a walking safari to get up close and personal with these giants. They offer other activities as well, for example canoe trips, night walks, and birding. Twitchers will be impressed by the long list of birds that can be found here.
Image courtesy: Rhinofund.org
The Big 4
Once you have listed the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary on your itinerary, conveniently located on your way from Kampala (or Entebbe where your flight most likely will land) to Murchison Falls National Park, you will have to decide in which one of the other parks you want to try to find the remaining 4 animals of the Big 5. Or visit all to increase your chances.
Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park and the remote Kidepo Valley National Park are all options to find the remaining animals of your Big 5 list; lions, elephants, leopards and buffalo. And of course you can find a whole range of other animals in those parks too.
1. Murchison Falls National Park
Murchison Falls National Park is famous for the falls that are created by the mighty Nile forcing itself through a narrow gap in the rocks, only 7m wide, and tumbling down just over 40m. The boat safaris are a huge attraction. You can cruise up towards the falls and see them from below, possibly getting wet from some of the spray as the falls are that powerful.
Image courtesy: Andafrica
2. Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth National Park is famous for its tree climbing lions. And although this is definitely not the only place where you can see lions in trees, it seems to be a place where they can relatively easily be found relaxing several feet off the ground.
3. Kidepo Valley National Park
Kidepo Valley National Park is remotely located in the far north east of the country. Although previously tourists were advised to fly to Kidepo National Park only (not drive) due to safety concerns, this area has been trouble free for many years now, even though some foreign policies have not been updated yet. Driving there is possible again, recommended for the adventurous souls as the roads can be rough. It is however very much worth the effort and has been listed by CNN Travel as the 3rd best park in all of Africa in 2017 due to its superb scenery and wildlife. Incredible animal sightings and that feeling of remoteness, of an Africa from 50 years ago, are the rewards of those who do venture to Uganda’s least visited national park.
Yes, you can also find the Big 5 in Rwanda. Although most visitors to Rwanda focus on trekking with the gorillas, this small country also has one national park where the Big 5 can all be spotted if you are lucky.
Akagera National Park
To see the Big 5 in Rwanda you will need to visit Akagera National Park (also known with the French name ‘Parc National de l’Akagera’) in the east of the country. Both the lion and the rhino were previously extinct here, but have since been reintroduced. The lions arrived back into the national park in 2015 and the rhinos in 2017. Visiting Akagera National Park also means you can get a 30% discount on a gorilla trekking permit in November and May.
The park is 1200 square kilometres and offers a huge variety of landscapes and habitats. Apart from the Big 5 you can find many other animals here, including the rare sitatunga (an aquatic antelope). Due to the wetlands in Akagera National Park, bird lovers will also be thrilled to know nearly 500 species have been recorded here, including the elusive shoebill, the red-faced Barbet and the swamp flycatcher. As well as game drives to spot the Big 5 you can float on a boat or try your luck at sport fishing.
Image courtesy: akagerapark
There you go, the complete list of all places where you can find the Big 5 in East Africa. Where did you see the Big 5 for the first time? We’d love to hear from you so find us on Social Media @Tripindigocom.