In 1990 South Africa redesigned their Rand bank notes.

Replacing royalty, explorers, and heads of state, the new money featured the heads of five distinctive animals known as ‘The Big Five’.

The gold standard for game viewing on the luxury photographic safaris that had sprung up throughout Africa since the 1970s, the popularity of the Big Five had already endured for almost two centuries.

Their fame is undeniable. Their survival is another matter entirely.

Amongst all the game of the African bush, these five species alone are symbolic royalty. The Big Five is a cliché denoting an elite court, populated by a cohort of unique animals that have this in common:

Unlike the plains game that was easy and utterly defenceless prey, these animals presented a clear danger to the Gentlemen hunters of a bygone era.

It was comparatively difficult and treacherous to kill them. This, even though three of the five do not consume humans (or any creatures) and none of them are inclined, by nature to take humans on: they must be provoked before they will engage. Of course, when they do turn on their hunter they might just manage to take their revenge and turn the tables, with the creature killing the human on occasion. This only provoked man and all his avarice, greed, wealth, status and reputation to want to kill them even more.

The Big Five are still present in the following countries of Africa: Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Malawi.

We must wonder what that list will look like in a decade?

African bush elephant(Loxodonta africana)

Elephant dancing

A large herbivore with a very thick skin and upper incisors forming long tusks of covetable ivory. Africa has both the African forest elephant and the African bush elephant. They are difficult to hunt as they are excellent at camouflage and their temper tantrums are legendary.

The Unstoppable One

African people regard the elephant with a very deep reverence. The Zulu, Tswana, and Tsonga names for the elephant are all version of ‘the forceful’ or ‘the unstoppable’.  In Zulu, the name for an elephant means to ‘crash through’ or ‘to pierce savagely’.

According to African legend, elephants transcend the animal kingdom and are in fact supernatural beings. Gods even. Elephant ivory was kept for the carving of the holiest of images as it was considered the purest substance known to man. The subsequent ornaments were thought to possess great magical powers and enabled the possessor to enjoy eternal heavenly protection.

When African people killed an elephant they carefully picked an old elephant and held ceremonies requesting the spirit of the elephant to relinquish life before the hunt. Following a successful hunt, the elephant’s life would be celebrated and every part of the carcass would be used by the tribe… often sustaining an entire village for as long as a year.

This sharply contrasts with the attitude of the Great White Hunter. And even more with the complicated economics at work through poaching.

Current conservation classification : Vulnerable

Save elephants:

Shun ALL ivory. And support laws that ban ivory.

Buy elephant-friendly coffee

Fairtrade coffee protects elephant habitats.

Support the best conservation efforts

Boycott circuses and unfriendly zoos

See ElephantVoices for more information.

Adopt an elephant from the Daphne Sheldrick orphanage.

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

Rhino close up

The black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) is a large herbivore with two upright horns on the nasal bridge. Its thick (1.5–5 cm) protective skin, formed from layers of collagen positioned in a lattice structure, is very hard to puncture. Africa boasts both the white and black rhino. Big game hunters preferred the black rhinoceros and they are now critically endangered.

A Towering Rage

Known as Umkhombe in most African tribes, the rhino is named for: ‘a fierce, savage person; a person who is furious or in a towering rage’. This is clearly a metaphorical allusion to the black rhino’s lack of tolerance for humans. They can be very gentle and passive but are also considered a symbol of judgment, freedom, solitude, agility and movement, inner peace, and unconventionality.

The southern white rhinoceros is classified as near threatened while the black rhinoceros is classified as critically endangered.

Save Rhinos:

1. Support the Rangers.

2. Changing consumer behavior across South East Asia.

3. Inspire communities to protect rhinos.

African Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Water BuffaloThe African buffalo or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is a large horned bovid. Maybe the most dangerous of the five, buffalo are reported to kill more hunters in Africa than any other animal. Wounded Cape buffalo will ambush and attack its pursuers.

The Gardeners 

Africans call the Cape Buffalo by a name that alludes to fertility and nutrition. This harkens back to a time when millions of Cape Buffalo and wildebeest migrated throughout Africa in an endless migration (of which the Masai migration remains) and fertilized the land as they went.

According to African legend a dream about a buffalo standing, facing you and chewing grass is a good omen that means you will meet a powerful friend who will come to your assistance. If, however, you dream of a buffalo chasing you, you will be defeated by a powerful enemy.

The Buffalo’s conservation status is of least concern, but it is experiencing a population decline in uncontrolled areas due to poaching and urbanization.

Lion (Panthera leo)

Old lionThe lion (Panthera leo) is a large carnivorous feline of Africa and northwest India. They may attack without provocation, and hunting them is a challenge due to the lion’s preferred habitat and temperament. They live within tall grasses, shrubs, and bushes from where they can ambush their prey. They are not afraid of facing any challengers and can be very unpredictable.

Methods for hunting a lion


Prior to the lion hunt, a prey species is hunted to use as bait. The bait is then secured to a tree or secure structure in an area (usually close to a watering hole) which is known to be frequented by lions. The bait is checked regularly until signs indicate the carcass has been visited by a lion. Then a blind is constructed, usually 30–50 yd (27–46 m) from the bait, where the hunting party can remain concealed, the hunter lying in wait in a natural or constructed blind, usually from early evening until the early morning of the next day.


Stalking involves driving along trails in areas where lions are known to inhabit. Once fresh fæces are sighted, the hunting party (which includes trackers) dismounts. The trackers follow tracks and spoor signs while scanning for the lion. When the lion is spotted, the professional hunter and client stalk in closer until they reach a good shooting position. Hunting lions by stalking must be conducted during daylight hours when the light is sufficient to spot the (invariably resting) lion. Night stalking using electric light sources is banned in most countries. Lions hunted with lights may not be listed as trophies by Safari Club International


Hounding (the method least used today) uses dogs and may include a fighting pack and a tracking pack. The hunting party drives through known lion territory until fresh spoor is spotted when the dogs are released. The pack follows the scent trail of the lion. Once the lion is encountered, the pack attempts to hold the lion at bay until the hunting party arrives. Like stalking, hounding is usually conducted during daylight hours. The lion usually stands and fights rather than flees.

Canned Hunting

This method depends on the release of captive lions and/or captive bred lions (sometimes also drugged)into an enclosed area. The activity may take place with or without the client’s knowledge. It is considered unethical by most.

The Judge of the Wild

The Zulu word for lion means ‘the master of all flesh’.  Another Zulu term for lion is ibubesi, meaning ‘to make the final decision’, supporting the belief that the lion is king of the beasts.

In Shangaan, ‘ku va nghala‘, or simply, Ngala, ‘to be a lion’ refers to being brave or translates ‘to fight like a lion’. While Europeans consider the lion a king, Africans held the opinion that the lion was the judge.

Although most tribes in Africa revered and admired the lion there were a few who viewed this noble beast as the very personification of evil. These tribes, which generally kept large herds of cattle (the favorite food of lions), named the lion “the beast of a thousand omens” fueled by shamans and healers. Like all cats and other catlike animals, the living lion is believed by some African tribes to possess powers to protect the Earth from demonic entities.

Conservation classification : Vulnerable

Save Lions

Support lion conservation through WWF

Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Leopard paw

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is a large, carnivorous feline (half the size of a lion) and is the most difficult animal to hunt. Very few hunting licenses are issued for leopards and they are nocturnal and secretive.

Solitary and wary of humans they are also baited, hounded or stalked (although this method has a very low success rate).

The African King

All African tribes regard the leopard as an animal that symbolizes all that is noble, courageous and honorable. In the Zulu Kingdom, the wearing of Leopard skins was considered a sign of courage and bravery as well as stealth, patience, and cunning (all incidentally qualities of a leopard).

The Leopard is called ingwe by the Zulus. A word that originally meant ‘pure sovereignty’ or ‘pure kingship’. In very ancient times, a king who supposedly ruled over other kings was called nkwetona or the Leopard – Embodying ferocity, aggression, being the Great Watcher, and courage.

The leopard skin has been used in ceremonies and considered to be imbued with special powers. In Africa, they were thought of as animal guides for the spirits of the dead. There was also a connotation between the leopard and personal power, self-confidence, gracefulness, and stealth.

Conservation classification : Vulnerable

Save Leopards

Support Leopard conservation

Images via Vincent van ZalingeHans VethHarshil Gudkajoel herzogBill Jones, Jr.Jessica BatemanDavid ClodePaulo DoiWade LambertShannon LittSander WehkampChen HuJoshua CottenGeran de Klerk