Why are the Big Five animals on South Africa’s Banknotes — Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Buffalo and Elephant?

For many tourists and travellers, South Africa’s banknotes are a colourful and beautiful surprise when visiting the country for the first time. And, in 2023, the South African Reserve Bank released new banknotes and coins, showcasing the country’s ‘family bonds’ and ‘deep ecology’. Although some design changes were made (with the big five getting a “family-makeover”), South Africa’s banknotes continue to proudly feature each of the big five animals on the back and former president, Nelson Mandela, on the front — earning the paper currency the locally-coined ‘Randela‘ nickname.

“The upgraded banknotes continue to pay homage to South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, with his portrait featured on the front of all five denominations while the Big 5 animals are depicted as a family.”

The South African Reserve Bank, 2023
South Africa’s new banknotes, released on 3 May 2023. Picture Supplied: The Reserve Bank

But Why are the Big 5 Animals on South Africa’s Banknotes?

The the Big Five animals are easily recognised on the back of South Africa’s paper currency. Their first appearance on the South African Rand (ZAR) banknotes in the early 1990s, between 1992 and 1993 with the introduction of the fourth issue of the Rand currency, marked a significant redesign following the end of apartheid. But why are the big five animals on South Africa’s money? Well, the Big Five animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo) are featured on South Africas banknotes for a few reasons:

1. Tourism

The Big Five are a major draw for tourists visiting South Africa. Their presence on the currency highlights the importance and contribution of safaris parks and game reserves to the country’s economy. In Africa, wildlife tourism employs more than 25 million people. Tourism also drives 8.6% of South Africa’s economy, and continues to grow. The Big 5 animals contribute so much to the country’s economy, it’s no surprise to see them featured on South Africa’s paper currency.

2. National Pride

The big five animals are a source of national pride for South Africa. Having them on the currency showcases a part of what makes the country unique. The Big Five animals are something nearly every South African knows — with even children learn about them in school. The big five have become entwined with South Africa’s national identity and its people are proud to be a nation blessed with such incredible wildlife.

3. Cultural History

South Africa has a rich and diverse wildlife heritage, and the Big Five on the country’s banknotes pay homage to the importance of the nation’s wildlife throughout the history of our country and its people. Many iconic African animals, for example, like the leopard and lion, are prized for their status and symbolism in traditional African dress and ceremony.


Why the Big Five animals are on South Africa's banknotes: White rhinoceros featured alongside the front and back of South Africa's R10 banknote.

The White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is featured on South Africa’s R10.00 (ten rand) banknotes. The ‘green note’ features two rhinos, a mother and its calf, signifying the strength and unity of familial bonds in South Africa. This is only fitting as these large and sturdy animals represent strength and resilience and are a prominent member of South Africa’s Big Five animals.

Sadly, rhinos are critically endangered due to poaching for their horns. Despite various anti-poaching efforts, these sturdy creatures are surprisingly vulnerable. During 2023, 499 rhinos were poached across South Africa. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect these magnificent creatures, and their depiction on the R10.00 banknote serves as a solemn reminder to protect South Africa’s wildlife.

Why the Big Five animals are on South Africa's banknotes - African Savanna Elephant featured alongside the front and back of South Africa's banknotes (R20.00)

The African Elephant is the largest land animal in the world. Featured on South Africa’s R20 (twenty rand) banknote, the African Bush Elephant (a sub-species of the African Elephant) is a highly social and intelligent creature. Growing over 4 metres tall (13 feet) and weighing between 3 to 6 tonnes (5000 to 13,000 pounds), these impressive animals really put the ‘big’ in the big five.

Most famous for their long trunks and ivory tusks, African elephants are a proud and prominent figure in South Africa’s wildlife heritage. Did you know that South Africa’s National Coat of Arms, first introduced on Freedom Day, 27 April 2000, features two pairs of elephant tusks curving inwards — forming the sides of the shield or “coat of arms”. Elephants are known for their matriarchal social structures and complex emotional behaviours, making them a symbol of love, wisdom and strength.

Why the Big Five animals are on South Africa's banknotes: Male African Lion featured alongside the front and back of South Africa's R50 banknote.

The African Lion (Panthera leo) is featured on South Africa’s R50 (fifty rand) banknote. The ‘King of the Jungle” is the apex predator in South Africa’s wild and represents courage, strength and loyalty. Lions are usually at the top of everyone’s safari bucket list and are a major draw for tourism and Big Five safaris tours in Southern Africa.

These majestic animals live in prides and are best known for their impressive manes (hair) and powerful roars that can be heard up to 8 kilometres away. Their presence on South Africa’s banknotes is a testament to their importance and national symbolism of power, family bonds and leadership.

Why the Big Five animals are on South Africa's banknotes: Male African Buffalo featured alongside the front and back of South Africa's R100 banknote.

The African Buffalo, a formidable-looking herbivore, is featured on the R100 (one-hundred rand) banknote. The Southern Savanna Buffalo and Cape Buffalo, which are both sub-species of the African Buffalo, are found in South Africa. Hardy and able to survive in the country’s harshest terrains, these grazing-machines live in large herds of up to 1000 or more buffalo.

Did you know that buffalos are the most feared of all the Big Five animals? They are said to have killed more hunters in Africa than any other animal. Known for their unpredictable nature and impressive horns, buffalo are symbols of tenacity and survival in the wild. Their inclusion on South Africa’s R100 paper currency highlights their role in the natural ecosystem and the respect they command within the Big Five.

Why the Big Five animals are on South Africa's banknotes: African Leopard featured alongside the front and back of South Africa's R200 banknote.

The African Leopard is a stealthy and nocturnal big cat, featured on the R200 (two-hundred rand) banknote. Easily recognised for their incredible ‘rosette’ spotted coats, leopards possess incredible strength and can drag large prey (weighing up to three times their own body weight) up trees over 6 metres (20 feet) tall.

Although leopards are agile tree climbers, capable of hunting and napping in trees, they do not live in trees. Leopards are solitary and elusive animals with expansive territories, making them one of the most challenging Big Five animals to see in the wild. Their depiction on the highest denomination banknote pays homage to their elegance, symbolism and high value in traditional South African cultures.


See South Africa’s Big Five Animals Up Close and In Person

Wildlife travel seekers, tourists and local South Africa’s have the incredible opportunity to see South Africa’s Big Five animals not only on the country’s banknotes, but within national parks and game reserves all over the country. As Cape Town’s closest Big Five safari destination, Aquila Private Game Reserve and Spa is proud to be on the frontlines of conservation and wildlife rehabilitation in the Western Cape.

For the ultimate Big Five day trip safari or overnight safari adventure that fits perfectly in your Cape Town city itinerary, book now or browse our seven different day tour options — from early morning safaris, horseback trails, quad bike safaris and sunset game drives through Aquila’s wild and stunning 10 000 hectare reserve.

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