The Big Five Animals Of South Africa – But There Are Actually Seven!

I am quite sure that you have heard about the big five animals of South Africa? If not, I will explain this as well further below.

But maybe you are unaware of the fact that there are certain areas in Africa where there are actually 7 “big” animals and even something called “the Small Five”?

Anyway, today I will dive deeper into this confusing topic and explain all the different definitions and expressions, so let’s go!

What Is “The Big 5”?

People that go on a safari usually want to see the Big Five and it is high on their wishlist.

Many people think that the Big Five are called this way because of the danger and the death toll that these animals have on their name, but this is not correct.

Although it’s true that these animals are dangerous they do not have the largest number of human victims on their conscience!

The number one animal with the most human victims is actually the vegetarian hippopotamus, and it doesn’t belong to the big 5, which are: the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and the African buffalo. 

Also, the name doesn’t only refer to the size of the animals. Yes, they are large but zebras, kudus, ostriches, and giraffes are also large and these animals do not belong to the big 5.

The term “Big 5” nowadays often refers to the five most beloved animals to see on a safari in South Africa.

Calling these 5 animals during history the “Big Five”, was because they were real hunting trophies.

This is one of the reasons that the population of these animals has declined sharply throughout Africa.

The African Elephant.

Fortunately, these 5 animals or not being hunted anymore much, and they have even been reintroduced in so-called game parks or national parks, so that the population can be slowly rebuilt.

For example, in Addo National park, 6 lions have been reintroduced in 2003 and they seem to be thriving.

There are many game and national parks in South Africa where you can see the Big Five.

You have probably heard about Kruger Park but you can visit the Big Five in other national parks, such as Marakele or Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and so many others.

The big 5 can also be found in more private parks, such as Pilanesberg Game Reserve, near the “Las Vegas of South Africa” called Sun City.

On top of that this latter park is highly recommended because of its unique location near a non-active volcano.

Big 5 becomes Big Seven.

In South Africa, on top of the Big Five, you can get to see two more big animals in their natural habitat: the white shark and the Whale!

If you are heading to Addo Elephant Park, near Port Elizabeth, you can spot the Big 7: the African elephant, a buffalo, a leopard, a lion, a rhinoceros, and thus the white shark and whale and top of those if you are heading towards the sea!

The best chance to see these gigantic sharks is from May to September.

Not to confuse: What Is The Big 6 Or Even The Big 7 about in other cases?

These 2 definitions are mostly used by travel agencies when I look around on Google, to make things even more confusing. (so they don’t mean the Addo National Park)

And they don’t seem to have anything to do with hunters hunting big game from the Big Five, as explained in the latter paragraph, but rather with naming the largest animals to be seen in Africa.

So they are adding giraffes and the hippo, making it a bit confusing 😉

The Hippopotamus is a large animal but doesn’t belong to the “Big Five”.

What Is South Africa’s Most “important” animal?

The most famous animal in South Africa is the springbok because it is in short the national animal and symbol of the country.

Springboks are very common in rural areas of South Africa, and in the deserts and bushveld as well.

The Springbok

What Are The Most Common Animals In South Africa?

Most people of course come to South Africa because it has the best chance of spotting the Big Five: the buffalo, the elephant, the leopard, the lion, and the rhinoceros.

The 3 largest animals in the world live here: the African elephant, the white rhinoceros, and the hippo.

The giraffe can reach higher for leaves!

But also the tallest (giraffe), the fastest (cheetah), and the smallest (pygmy shrew).

But let’s not forget the bird lovers. Because with over 800 bird species, including the largest bird in the world (ostrich), they can really indulge themselves in the variety of bird species.

This also includes the heaviest flightless bird (Kori bustard), and the smallest bird of prey (pygmy falcon).

There’s something for everyone!

The Kori Bustard

What Is The Small Five?

Now, this is a real challenge to find these smaller five, as obviously they are a lot smaller than the big five! ;-). But to me, this could be a lot of fun as well.

A list of the small five:

1. The Rhino Beetle (Dynastinae)

While not just being present in Africa, but also in Asia and America, these very large insect species are considered a pest on the farms of South Africa.

2. Antlions. (Myrmeleontidae)

Antlions are a large family group of insects.  These predatory insects often resemble dragonflies and are famous for digging traps to catch and eat ants.

They can be found in hot desert areas like in the Namibia red dessert, and in very dry parks.

Take a look at the fascinating video of BBC Earth below on this insect:

3. The Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys Pardalis)

Isn’t this species of tortoise, with the markings resembling the ones of a leopard, the most fascinating ever?

It is the fourth largest species of tortoise in the world, by the way, and can be spotted across Eastern and Southern Africa.

4. Buffalo Weaver (Bubalornis niger)

Now this one is the easiest to spot of the small five, I would think. As for myself, I have seen this bird lots of times on my trips to Africa.

The Buffalo Weaver is a quite common bird across Africa, more specifically almost everywhere in Eastern and Southern Africa.

You will probably see one soon as well!

5. Elephant Shrew (Elephantulus)

Well, I am crazy about the African elephant, but I have never seen this small species haha.

Maybe next time, I should look more often in front of me instead of staring in the distance with binoculars :-).

Elephant shrews aren’t actually related to shrews at all, in fact, it’s more related to the elephant, can you believe it?

If you want to spot an elephant shrew in the wild, you better look for them in Namibia or South Africa.

Or you could look them up in a Zoo if you can’t find them lol!

What Is The “Big 12 or 13”?

Some people claim that we should call it the “Big 12”, or even 13, but I think that would take us too far, no?

This would mean that the list should include non-African animals:

  • Elephant
  • Hippopotamus
  • Polar bear
  • killer whale
  • gorilla silverback
  • tiger
  • lion
  • Rhino
  • Giraffe
  • Buffalo
  • Cheetah
  • White shark
  • blue whale

But What Is The “Special Five”?

The “Special Five“, however, is located in Northern Kenya in the Samburu National Reserve and it is a small park at 165 km².

Although small, it is a very interesting option for animal lovers, thanks to the permanent supply of water in the Uaso Nyiro and thus the rich animal life and diversity.

A number of animal species can’t be seen anywhere else in Kenya and more than 400 different species of birds and larger animals live here.

Here are the species included in the Samburu Special 5:

1. The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis Reticulata or G. Reticulata).

The reticulated giraffe aka the Somali giraffe is one of the 9 giraffe subspecies that all live in a different areas.

Each giraffe can be recognized by its unique pattern, with the reticulated giraffe, the pattern consists of large, angular spots and has a kind of net-shape separated by thin white lines.

With the males, the spots darken with age.

The reticulated giraffe is considered to be an endangered species and is on the red list of endangered species because the population has declined significantly in the past 25 years.

In 1990 the population was estimated to be about 36000-48000. In 2016 however, there are only about 8000 reticulated giraffes left in the wild.

2. The Grévy’s Zebra

There are several subspecies of zebras, and each species can be recognized by its unique stripe pattern.

The Grévy’s zebra can be recognized by the narrow stripes that are very close together and don’t continue on the belly.

Another feature of this type of zebra is that it is the largest one and is the most common of the Northern species.

They used to be found throughout Northeast Africa, but nowadays the Grévy’s zebra’s habitat is limited to a few parks in Kenya and Ethiopia.

They live mainly in dry areas, open grass areas, and small herds of four to twenty zebras.

Unfortunately, the Grévy’s zebra habitat is threatened: they are often preyed on by predators but are also shot by humans for meat and fur.

Breeding programs have been started to save this zebra species from extinction, as in the 1970s the population decreased by 70% and in Somalia, this zebra has even become completely extinct.

3. The Beisa Oryx.

The Beisa Oryx is a large antelope with a sturdy neck, a long head, and long thin horns (both males and females have these horns).

Their fur is brownish-grey in color, the belly is white and there is a black band on the side.

This oryx lives mainly in dry semi-deserts and in open savannas. They mainly eat grass, but sometimes also tree leaves and shrubs.

A fun fact: they can go longer without water than a dromedary.

4. The Gerenuk.

Aka the giraffe gazelle, the generuk is a type of antelope. They are slender and have long necks and long legs.

Their heads are small, while their eyes and ears are very large. The coat is red and on its sides, the fur is a lot lighter and their belly is white.

The males have horns that can grow up to 40 cm.

By Abujoy – Own work, CC BY 3.0

The Gerenuks eat the leaves and shoots of acacias on the steppes and semi-desserts.

When they eat they stand and their back legs. They don’t drink water but get the moisture from the leaves they eat.

5. The Somali Ostrich.

Ostriches are the largest, heaviest, and fastest birds in the world. They can reach speeds of up to 65km per hour.

Males and females are clearly distinguishable from each other because the males usually have black plumage.

There are several species and subspecies of ostriches. As for the Somali ostrich, the males have grey-blue feathers on the neck and thighs.

The females have browner Feathers and are slightly larger than the males.

And finally, what is the Ugly Five? 🙂

There’s a quirky group lurking in the shadows known as the Ugly Five.

These “beauty-challenged” critters include:

and they might not win any beauty pageants anytime soon. But they are funny to see for sure (in Pongola game reserve)

But hey, in the animal kingdom, it’s not all about looks! These unglamorous underdogs bring their own unique charm to the African wilderness, and they prove that even the aesthetically challenged can have a wild time on the savanna. After all, who needs supermodel looks when you’ve got a wildebeest’s sense of humor or a marabou stork’s elegant dining habits?

Are you thinking about buying binoculars to have a good look at all the magnificent birds of Africa?

My Final Conclusion.

I hope that I could clear up the confusion on the Big Five animals of South Africa for you and if you have any more questions, please feel free to leave them below in the comment section or join me and one of my social media channels or Facebook group.

I wish you happy travels!

Kind regards,


I now have a YouTube channel as well!


8 thoughts on “The Big Five Animals Of South Africa – But There Are Actually Seven!”

  1. Thank you for making this great post about The Big Five Animals Of South Africa.  But Now I know There Are Actually Seven, I always enjoy reading about animals especially the African fauna, one my dream is to visit Africa and see all this animals running around into their on land.

    I didn’t know that The Rhino Beetle was one of the small five. How many types of zebras are known that exist in Africa?

    Thank you I really enjoy this blog.

    • Hi GVporras!

      Thank you for visiting my website and yes, the fauna of Africa is quite amazing, isn’t it? I hope that you get there one day!

      About your question, there are actually 3 species of zebras : 
      Burchell’s or the plains zebraGrevy’s zebra, and the mountain zebra.

      You are welcome and I wish you happy travels!

      Kind regards,


  2. The Big Five is the name given to a group of animals that are most sought after by big game hunters. The term was coined by hunters and refers to the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, black rhinoceros and leopard. At one time there were many hunters who would seek out these elusive creatures in an effort to bag them all which were thought to be difficult or near impossible to kill. In recent years however, it has become more common for people to spot one of these animals in their natural habitat and not necessarily be hunting them but simply observing them as they go about their everyday lives.

    • Hi Peter!

      Yes, exactly all of that! But as you can see in the article, there is so much more than the Big Five and I cleared up the confusion 😉

      I wish you happy travels!

      Kind regards,


  3. Hey thanks for this post!

    It was very interesting to read as I’m a massive fan of animals! I’ve always thought the animals in africa are categorised as the big five! But reading this, I can see others in the category. The big 5 is definitely also on my wish list to view, would love to see them!

    • Hi Sariyah!

      Thank you for the compliments and I hope you will see the big 5 soon!;-)

      Happy travels!


  4. I loved reading all about the animals of Africa, it is my dream to one day visit Africa to see these amazing animals in their natural habitat.  I have seen many of these animals in local zoos, however, it is just not the same as it would be in Africa.

    I had heard about the Big Five, as they are referred to by game hunters, but not the Big Seven.  Thanks for clarifying that.  Africa’s smallest animals are pretty cool too, especially the rhino beetle.

    • Hello Jenny!

      I really hope that you will visit Africa one day, you will not regret it, I’m sure! To see all the Big Five outside a zoo is something amazing to experience!

      I wish you happy travels!



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