If you’ve watched Nat Geo or have been on safari, chances are you’ve heard of Africa safari’s big five game animals. They’re pretty hard to miss driving through Uganda’s national parks.
An impressive number of tourists come to Africa on safari to see the elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard, and lion, and Uganda shares a good piece of the big game action.
Africa Big 5 animals is a term coined in the 1800s by trophy hunters, referring to what they considered the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot.
These include the African Elephant, Lion, Leopard, African Buffalo, and Rhinoceros. Today the term is primarily famous with African safari travelers who now shoot the big five with a camera rather than a lethal weapon of choice. Africa’s big 5 animals are all present in Uganda and can easily be seen in all savanna parks.
The phrase today is commonly used to market safaris. However, back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, everyone from European royalty to American presidents wanted to bag an African hunting trophy—the larger and more unpredictable the beast, the better – how the Big Five became famous.
The big 5 animals are still hunted today, especially in South Africa, where legal game hunting is a big market with the elite and privileged. Outside of hunting cliques, public opinion leans towards disgust over the killing of the Big Five, and we may see the practice dying out. But a shift toward tourism has also made seeing the Big Five an “awe-inspiring” goal for any safari-goer.
The name Africa Big 5 may sound intimidating and dangerous, but these mammals may need our help to survive extinction. African lion, leopard, and elephant are all considered vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Due mainly to poaching for their horns, the western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011. The last male northern white rhino died in 2018, with only two females remaining—making that subspecies functionally extinct. Conservation efforts have helped keep Uganda’s Northern white rhino alive in the heavily protected Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
The Cape buffalo is of minor concern in conservation, but this also makes it the most popular animal to hunt. Hunting, poaching, and habitat loss mean the Cape buffalo’s population is declining.
According to WCS, less than 468 lions remain in Uganda (down from 600 two decades ago). At the same time, leopard numbers dwindle, with leopards in Lake Mburo alone last estimated (2007) to be between 26-37 individuals, according to CITES.
Where can you find the Big Five in Uganda?
Apart from the Northern White Rhino (which can only be seen in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary and Entebbe UWEC Zoo), tourists have a good chance of seeing the other members of the Africa Big 5 in any of the four savanna parks.
A savanna safari game drive in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, Kidepo Valley, and Lake Mburo will put you in the center of nonchalant herds of cape buffalo, African elephants hunting pride of African lions. For the shy leopard, a relaxed and patient early or late evening savanna drive may lead you to its hunting joints.
A boat safari on the Nile in Murchison Falls NP or on the Kazinga channel is a great way to spot the Africa big 5 in Uganda. Especially in the dry seasons (December to February and June to July), heat is sure to bring them out to the shores to catch a sip of the fresh waters.
1. Lion (Panthera leo)
The largest and most imposing African carnivore, and the most sought-after member of the African big 5, the African lion, is the most sociable of the large cats, living in loosely structured prides of typically five to 15 animals.
Lions have special cultural significance in most countries on the continent. In Uganda, they enjoy a reputation as ‘king of the beasts’ and are popular symbols of royalty, strength, and bravery.
In Uganda, lions are mainly found in the three largest savanna parks: Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP), and Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP).
In QENP, the Ishasha lions are known for their unique behavior of climbing trees and have been branded the “Ishasha tree-climbing lions” by tourists who flock to this sector to have sight of this rare behavior.
2. Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The leopard is the most elusive and the smallest of Africa’s big five animals. Leopards are sneaky and harder to spot, and naturally shy and exclusively nocturnal, leopards spend the daylight hours hidden from view. The big solitary cats haul large kills, such as zebra or antelope, into a tree to eat alone, in peace.
These impressively shy cats can be distinguished from cheetahs by their rosette-shaped spots and more powerful build, as well as by their preference for wooded or rocky habitats. They are found in virtually all habitats which offer adequate cover and are present in most Ugandan national parks and forest reserves.
On Africa safari in Uganda, leopards can be seen in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo Valley National, Lake Mburo National Park, Mt Elgon National Park, and Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve.
3. African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), the world’s largest of all Africa big five found in Uganda and perhaps the most enduring symbol of nature’s grace and fragility, is also one of the most intelligent and entertaining to watch on a classic African safari game drive.
A fully-grown male elephant can weigh a whopping 6300 kilos; even the smallest adult male rarely dips below 4000 kilos, which is way more than twice the weight of an average family SUV. Females are usually just over half the weight of the male.
If you’re planning your Africa safari in Uganda and want to meet these magnificent giants, you must know that the African elephants occur in all national parks except Lake Mburo. They are most likely seen in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, and Kidepo national parks. We recommend you take a boat safari on the Nile in Murchison of Kazinga channel in QENP to see these gentle giants gracefully flocking the water banks in massive herds.
4. African Buffalo
Africa’s only wild African buffalo ox species is an adaptable and widespread creature that lives in large herds on the savanna and in smaller herds in forested areas. The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), or Cape Buffalo, is the most dangerous of all African game species, especially if wounded or solitary. Its reputation has placed it among the African big 5 animals recognized worldwide.
African buffalo are large, even-toed ungulates, characterized by their stocky build and heavy horns. Horns are present in both sexes, and they are not ridged. The buffalo is easily distinguished from other animals because of its dark black color and characteristic horns, smaller and lighter, curving outward, backward, and upwards. Ears are large, fringed with hair, and hang below massive horns.
Buffaloes can be seen in almost all of Uganda’s national parks and large forests. In Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls national parks, you may see hybrids of the savanna buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) of east Africa and the red buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) of the west African forest.
Rhinoceros, commonly known as rhino, is a large, herbivorous mammal identified by its characteristic horned snouts. The word “rhinoceros” comes from the Greek words “rhino” (nose) and “ceros” (horn).
Rhinoceroses are universally recognized for their massive bodies, stumpy legs, and either one or two dermal horns. In some species, the horns may be short or not obvious. They are renowned for having poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and hearing are well developed.
The biggest of the five surviving species occurs in Uganda, the Northern white rhino, and can only be seen in the massively protected Ziwa Rhino sanctuary and the Uganda Wildlife Education Center in Entebbe, commonly referred to as the Zoo.
Other must-see big game animals in Uganda
Since the Africa Big 5 list is no longer determined by the size of the animals and the difficulty of hunting them, we can securely readjust that list to feature more impressive African safari wildlife.
Standing upright at 4 to 6 feet, a fully grown mountain gorilla can weigh a whopping 300 to 485 pounds (135 to 220 kilograms). If that does not qualify as big, then we know not what we write about.
Thousands of travelers flock to the impenetrable rainforests of Bwindi National Park to spend that precious moment with this magnificent gentle giant. They’ll tell you that the experience is unmatched in any African safari encounter. So, in our books, the mountain gorilla qualifies for the BIG African wildlife list.
You can see the mountain gorilla on a guided gorilla trekking safari in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Park for a fee of a gorilla permit issued by UWA for US$700 per person and spend one hour sitting in their presence.
Or, if you got the heart for it, take a gorilla habituation experience safari and spend more than 4 hours foraging with a family of semi-habituated mountain gorillas for a permit fee of USD$1500 per person.
The Northern Giraffe should be on the list of Africa safari “BIG” game animals found in Uganda. Rothschild’s giraffe is rare elsewhere in its former range but very common in the northern part of Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo Valley, Lake Mburo, and very recently (2019) and newly translocated to Pian Upe Game Reserve.
The world’s tallest animal (up to 5.5m) lives in loosely structured mixed-sex herds, typically numbering between five and 15 animals. As herd members can disperse over an area of up to 1km, they are frequently seen singly or in smaller groups, though large assemblages are typical in Uganda.
7 out of 10 tourists visiting Uganda’s rainforest parks will say they have come to see our playful primate cousins. Much work has gone into habituating chimpanzee families for tourism in Kibale Forest (most famous), Chambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Semliki Wildlife Reserve, and the Budongo and Kanyiyo Pabidi forests near Murchison Falls National Park.
The chimpanzee’s celebrity status among travelers earns it a great position among the Africa Big Animals to see on safari in Uganda, and even you cannot dispute that. Chimpanzee-tracking excursions happen in Kibale every day, and it’s one of the most extraordinary safari experiences you can have in Uganda.
This large, lumbering aquatic animal occurs naturally on most African lakes and waterways, where it spends most of the day submerged but emerges from the water to graze at night. Hippos are strongly territorial, with herds of ten or more animals being presided over by a dominant male.
In Uganda, the best places to see the hippopotamus are in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, and Lake Mburo national parks, where they can be seen in huge impressive herds around waterways. On a boat launch safari on the Nile in Murchison falls, especially at the foot of the thundering falls, you’ll most definitely encounter a school.
Another wildlife safari in Uganda sport to see these massive aquatic mammals is when you take the Kazinga channel boat cruise in Queen Elizabeth. The hippos flock to the shores to guard their territory and engage in regular fights and duties to keep their specie alive.
Like the leopard, the cheetah is the most diurnal of Africa’s cat species and hunts using speed instead of stealth. Cheetahs use their high speeds to catch their prey but cannot sustain top speeds for much more than a few hundred meters.
Because the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is the fastest land mammal found in Uganda and competes with other African big 5 members for pray, it earns itself a great seat at the African BIG animals’ table located in Uganda without a doubt.
Like leopards, cheetahs are heavily spotted and solitary in their habits, but their greyhound-like build, distinctive black tear-marks, and preference for grassland and savanna habitats preclude confusion.