Meet The Big 5

What are the Big 5 Animals of South Africa?

The “Big 5” refers to the African lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. When you start researching an African safari, the term “Big 5” often comes up. This is because the big 5 animals are widely considered a “must-see” on any authentic safari adventure. 

These five impressive animals are renowned for their size, strength, and dangerous nature. However, because of their formidable reputation and early threat to human settlers, their once thriving populations have severely dwindled as a result of hunting, poaching, and a loss of habitat. To date, sighting these rare creatures is cherished and rare occasion–even on safari!





Aquila's Family-Friendly Big 5 Safari

Welcome to the exciting world of wildlife conservation! Here at Aquila, we believe in providing children with the unique opportunity to see and learn about South Africa’s incredible plants, majestic animals, and unique habitats. By exploring the reserve, children can develop a deep appreciation for nature while learning about the importance of wildlife conservation. From the curious giraffes to formidable hippos, we invite you to embark on our family-friendly Cape Town safari for the chance to see lions, elephants, zebras, ostriches, rhinos, and more.

Reintroducing the Big 5 to Cape Town

"See Cape Town's Big 5 in their natural Habitat!"

Aquila is proud to have re-introduced the big 5 into the western cape and is dedicated to the preservation of wildlife. Aquila’s conservation efforts extend to wildlife rehabilitation and re-introduction, land rehabilitation, anti-poaching programmes, eco-friendly tourism and community support

Approximately 250 years ago, the Big 5 were on the verge of extinction in the Western Cape. The effects of hunting, farming, and loss of natural habitats contributed greatly to the decline of many animal species in the wild. However, Searl Derman, the owner and founder of Aquila, set about searching for the perfect place to re-introduce the Big 5 to the Cape. He was fortunate enough to come across a nature reserve that would one day become the wildlife sanctuary and private reserve we now know as Aquila.

Aquila Big 5 Safari

The African Lion (Panthera leo)

Interesting Fact: Lions are the only social ‘Big cats’. They live in groups called prides, often consisting of one male, related females, and their offspring.

Size: Males weigh around 190 kg and measure up to 2.7 meters in length.

Where They’re Found: Although called the ‘king of the jungle’, lions don’t actually live in the jungle. They can be found in savannahs, grasslands, open plains, and semi-desserts across Africa. 

Two elephants walking through the Karoo landscape as part of Aquila's about us page.

The African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

Interesting Fact:  Elephants have remarkable communication skills and use a wide range of sounds, body movements, and rumbles below human hearing (infrasound).

Size: African elephants are the largest land animals on earth, with males weighing around 5,000 kg and standing about 3-4 meters tall at the shoulder.

Where They’re Found: Elephants are found across Africa, in savannahs, forests, grasslands, and even the mountains.


The African Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Interesting Fact: Leopards are great climbers and like to carry their prey into trees out of reach of other predators.

Size: Leopards vary in size, with males weighing 36 to 91 kg, and measuring about 1.4 to 1.9 meters in length, excluding the tail.

Where They’re Found: Leopards are adaptable and inhabit a wide range of environments, including forests, grasslands, and mountains.

The Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Interesting Fact: Buffalos are great at defending themselves. Buffalo herds form tight groups to fend off predators and can even fight off lion attacks.

Size: Buffaloes weigh between 450 to 900 kg and stand 1.7 to 2.0 meters tall at the shoulder.

Where They’re Found: These bovines travel in large herds and inhabit a variety of habitats in sub-Saharan Africa.


The African Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)

Interesting Fact: There are two species of African Rhinos: the ‘white rhino’ and ‘black rhino’.

Size: Black rhinos weigh 800 to 1,400 kg and stand 1.4 to 1.8 meters tall. White rhinos are larger, weighing 1,360 to 2,300 kg and stand 1.5 to 1.8 meters tall.

Where They’re Found: Black rhinos are scattered across southern and eastern Africa, while white rhinos are found mainly in southern Africa, particularly in grasslands and savannahs.

The History of the Big 5

Dating back to colonial Africa at the turn of the 17th century, the concept of the “African Big Five” emerged alongside the surge in hunting with guns. The term “Big 5” initially referred to the challenge and level of difficulty hunting these animals. Five of Africa’s largest and most formidable mammal species: lions, elephants, buffaloes, rhinos, and leopards, were particularly renowned for their immense size, strength, and elusive nature. These intimidating wild animals presented a threat to farmers and emerging human settlements, making them a considerable feat for hunters seeking to showcase their bravery and skill.

Beyond their hunting difficulty, these iconic species hold historical and cultural significance across Africa. Revered as symbols of power and untamed wilderness, the Big Five are symbols of courage, honour, and nobility–a trend which can be observed around the world with the widely known phrase “King of the Jungle”. Native African communities, too, hold deep respect for the Big 5 animals, intertwining them with their spiritual, religious, and cultural beliefs. In Pedi culture the chief traditionally wears Leopard and Lion pelts to show leadership, and, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Leopard skins are worn by Zulu royalty to show wisdom and strength.

As time progressed, conservation efforts gained momentum, recognising the urgent need to safeguard the Big 5 from the brink of extinction. The historical fame of the African Big Five has since evolved from a testament to hunting bravery into a widespread effort to preserve Africa’s natural wildlife heritage. Game reserves, rehabilitation projects, and conservation initiatives help ensure future generations can continue to see the Big 5 living wild and free in their natural habitat.

three lions lying on the ground during an Aquila game drive. Image included as part of Aquila's "About Us" information page.

The Story of Aquila's Big 5 Animals

Aquila is proud to have re-introduced the big 5 into the western cape and is dedicated to the preservation of wildlife. Aquila’s conservation efforts extend to wildlife rehabilitation and re-introduction, land rehabilitation, anti-poaching programmes, eco-friendly tourism and community support

The largest of the Sub-Saharan lions, the Cape mountain lion resided for millennia in Southern Africa before it finally became extinct in the wild during the mid-nineteenth century. The huge lion, renowned for its thick black mane, used to live in areas that are now part of Western Cape Province in South Africa, surrounding Cape Town.

The lion is probably Africa’s most iconic animal, especially with its majestic mane that makes it look like a large cat with fierce hair extensions. Indeed, the lion is often associated with pride. Amongst the Big 5, the lion is usually regarded as the most sought after trophy by hunters and the most sought after sighting by eco-tourists. Lions have no natural enemies other than human hunters. Lions are included on the Endangered Species list.

During the search for the closest species to the cape mountain lion, the owner of Aquila came across the “canned hunting” industry, which shocked him to the core. “Canned hunting” includes the practice of breeding animals specifically to be hunted and the practice of hunting tame, drugged animals and animals in small enclosures. Aquila is passionately opposed to this practice and it has become one of the core values of Aquila to combat this practice wherever and whenever possible.

All of the lions at Aquila have been rescued from this industry. A separate reserve was created at Aquila. An entire mountain and valley on the Aquila Reserve has been set aside as a sanctuary for these lions to roam freely. At this late stage, these lions could never be released into the greater Aquila Reserve, given the stripping of their natural behavioural patterns by their time in captivity. Research is underway to determine whether it would be possible to re-introduce captive bred lions into the wild from birth.

Both black and white rhinoceroses are actually gray. They are different not in color but in lip shape. The black rhino has a pointed upper lip, while its white relative has a squared lip. The difference in lip shape is related to the animals’ diets. Black rhinos are browsers that get most of their sustenance from eating trees and bushes. White rhinos graze on grasses, walking with their enormous heads and squared lips lowered to the ground. Aquila is home to the white Rhino.

Adult rhinoceros have no real predators in the wild, other than humans. In 1970, a rhino poaching epidemic began that was to hit black and white rhino populations severely. The crisis continued to deplete populations right through to the late 1980s and early 1990s, so much so that by 1993, there were only 2,475 black rhinos left in the world and today only about 18 000 white rhinos living in the wild.
Although rhinos are large and have a reputation for being tough, they are very easily poached; they visit water holes daily and can be easily killed while they drink.

Aquila is proud to have been able to bring the first rhino to the Western Cape in 250 years and in February 2005, Aquila Private Game Reserve announced the birth of the first rhino birth in the Western Cape in 250 years. After the devastating poaching hunting incident in 2011 at the reserve, during which 3 rhinos were attacked, Aquila Private Game Reserve was left with no male rhino bulls to continue its breeding programme. In May 2014, Aquila acquired a new male rhino bull to continue its breeding programme at the reserve. The new rhino bull was purchased from the Limpopo area after his owners discovered signs of the rhino being tracked. At the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, Aquila was proud to announce the births of 4 rhino calves at the reserve. One of these calves was abandoned by its Mother and Aquila handed the calf over the the Aquila Rescue and Conservation Centre, to take of it until it is old and strong enough to released back onto the reserve.

As a result of the increased poaching activity throughout the country and across various species, Aquila has a policy not to divulge the number of any species on the reserve and we request that guests respect this policy.

The African elephant is the largest land mammal and perhaps the African continent’s most charismatic creature. The nomadic people living in the Western Cape had lived harmoniously with the elephants and had little incentive for killing them or exploiting the forests and the other natural resources. In two centuries the European settlers came close to obliterating the forests and hunting the seemingly inexhaustible wild life to the verge of extinction.

Controlled hunting, a drop in the price of ivory, and the development of wildlife preserves following World War I saw the population of elephants once again increase within Africa. In the 1970s, the increase in the price of ivory reignited the poaching of elephants. The population, estimated to be at about 1.3 million in the early 1970s, dropped by more than half by 1995.

All of the elephants at the Aquila Reserve have been the subjects of a rescue operation from a culling practice. Culling is the process of removing or segregating animals from a group. In respect of wildlife, culling often refers to the act of killing removed animals. The elephants have settled at the reserve and their adaptation to their new environment is being closely monitored by the Aquila team.

Considered to be one of the most successful of all African predators, the leopard is a master stalker. With a wide geographical distribution at the reserve, the leopard lives everywhere on the reserve yet is seen virt Although nocturnal animals, if you are lucky you may see some leopard roaming freely on the reserve. Cameras placed in the bush track the movement of the leopards. There are currently 4 leopards that have Aquila Private Game Reserve as part of their territory.

The Cape buffalo, also known as the African buffalo, is a horned “bovid” that holds the dubious title of being the member of the Big 5 that has claimed the most hunter lives. The buffalo is a large animal that, with the addition of its horns, can maul its predators and is often able to withstand attacks by other wildlife. Wounded buffalo have been reported to ambush hunters and thereby launch a counter-attack on their pursuers.

Closely related to the domestic cow, the African buffalo is one of the most successful and perhaps ecologically important mammals on the African continent. Buffalo are completely dependent upon surface water, so are absent from arid and semi-arid regions but are widespread and common in savannah, woodland and forest environments.

Being a member of the Big 5 game family, the Cape buffalo is a sought-after trophy, with some hunters paying over $10,000 for the opportunity to hunt one. The larger bulls are targeted for their trophy value, although in some areas, buffaloes are still hunted for meat. The current status of Cape buffalo is dependent on the animal’s value to both trophy hunters and tourists, paving the way for conservation efforts through anti-poaching patrols.

Buffalos have to drink daily, and to witness a large herd approaching a waterhole – often in the early morning or late afternoon – is a memorable and noisy experience. Be sure to book a safari at Aquila to observe these amazing creatures roaming freely in the wild.

Learn More about Aquila's Exciting Wildlife