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The Best Safaris to See the Big Five - Top 5 Safaris to See Africa's Big Five

When researching the best safaris, you will often come across 'the Big Five'. The Big 5 refers to the African lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. These animals certainly aern't the only ones you wish to see on your luxury safari, but if your travel time is limited or this is your first safari, we definitely want to make sure you see as many as Africa's incredible wildlife as possible - including of course the iconic big 5. We have chosen five safaris that we feel are the top 5 safaris to see the big 5 and they are the following: Kruger National Park & Madikwe Reserve (South Africa), Serengeti National Park & Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania), Masai Mara (Kenya), the Okavango Delta & Chobe National Park (Botswana) and Hwange Park & Mana Pools (Zimbabwe).

It is sometimes difficult to see all members of the big 5 on one safari but at the right park, with the right guide and at the right time of day, you can certainly maximize your chances. Safaris usually take place in the early morning or at night, as the animals escape the midday heat and hide out in the shade for the better part of the afternoon. Expert guides know the land better than anyone else, as well as the animals' behavioral patterns and habitat preferences, which is key when trying to get a glimpse of the leopard for example, as they are such an elusive species. Many of the parks do offer self-guided tours but we do recommend that you opt for a fully guided safari at least once during your stay. Conveniently, many of the luxury safari lodges have in-house guides who are often times the best you can get.

If you want to really prepare for your safari, you can always learn about the species beforehand. To do so, visit our post on Seeing the Big Five on a Luxury Safari in Africa. With that, there's nothing left to do but read on for the 5 best parks to see Africa's incredible animals!

Best Safari to See the Big Five #1 - Kruger National Park & Madikwe Reserve, South Africa

Kruger National Park is South Africa's flagship game park as well as one of Africa's best national parks overall and one of the most famous nature reserves in the world. Kruger is home to over 147 species of mammals including over 2,000 lions, with 5-8 lions per 100km2. Kruger also hosts an elephant population of over 13,000, an estimated 37,000 buffalo, 1,000 leopard, 1,500-3,000 white rhino and 300 black rhino.

Madikwe Game Reserve is listed as the 5th largest game reserve but unlike Kruger, it is one of the lesser-known parks in South Africa. This allows for a more intimate experience while still offering an extraordinary safari and the chance to spot the big 5. Madikwe boasts common elephant, lion, white rhino and buffalo sightings whereas catching a glimpse of the black rhino and leopard is a little less frequent. Hippo, zebra and wildebeest are also common sightings throughout the park, as well as the endangered wild dog. Granted, the wild dog is not a member of the big 5, but given their highly endangered status, it is a rare privilege to see them and Madikwe has an exceptional population of these amazing animals.

A combined safari with Kruger National Park and Madikwe is hands down, one of the best ways to see the big 5 and an all-around incredible experience.

Best Safari to See the Big Five #2 - Serengeti National Park & Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

A safari in Tanzania is one of our all-time favorites, arguably our preferred safari overall, so the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater are certainly the way to go. The Ngorongoro Crater is a must as one of the world's most astonishing natural wonders, and the Serengeti is the perfect pairing as a quieter, more private safari experience.

Lions and other predator populations are always relative to the number of prey, so with sizeable numbers of blue wildebeest, gazelle, zebra and buffalo, the Serengeti is also home to a large population of lions. With 2 million wildebeest, 900,000 gazelle, 300,000 zebra and 70,000 buffalo, it makes sense that these vast plains are also home to 4,000 lions and 1,000 leopard. Serengeti National Park also hosts 2,700 elephants and though the rhino population is uncertain, the park has made great efforts over recent years to reintroduce and help protect the species. The Serengeti is also home to the Great Migration, the largest migration of mammals on the planet, so not only will you get to observe the big 5, you will see them interact with one another as they move through the ecosystem in search of food and water.

As for the Ngorongoro Crater, it is one of the most beautiful natural wildlife safari sites in the world and an exceptional place to see the big 5. The Ngorongoro Crater is a highly-esteemed wildlife sanctuary, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 8th Wonder of the World and Africa's Garden of Eden - home to over 25,000 large mammals, thereby making it the densest concentration of wildlife on the continent.The grounds are home to a healthy population of all members of the big 5: rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo. Other wildlife include cheetah, jackal, gazelle, hyena, foxes, flamingo and large herds of wildebeest. The wildlife stays in the crater year-round so there's really no bad time to visit, but it's a popular site and may therefore be more pleasant to visit during the shoulder or low seasons.

Best Safari to See the Big Five #3 - Masai Mara, Kenya

The Masai Mara lies directly on the path of the Great Migration, thereby making it the ultimate location for extraordinary wildlife sightings. The animals migrate from the Serengeti plains further north to Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. Much of what applies to the Serengeti in terms of wildlife sightings, is similarly relevant to the Mara. The reserve is home to roughly 825 lions, 35,000 elephants, 40 rhino, thousands of Cape buffalo and a healthy leopard population. The Mara hosts over 95 species of mammals and reptiles including resident crocodiles, spotted hyena, cheetah, giraffe and over 570 recorded species of birds. Similar to the Serengeti, the Mara's dominant inhabitants are the wildebeest, their numbers consistently ranking in the millions.

A safari in the Masai Mara can be done by open-aired vehicle, hot air ballon, on horseback or by foot. The Great Migration runs through Kenya from July to October but regular safari is on offer year-round and is amazing in its' own right, even preferrable to those who ardently wish to avoid crowds of any sort during their travels.

Best Safari to See the Big Five #4 - The Okavango Delta & Chobe National Park, Botswana

The Okavango Delta is one of Africa's last remaining great wildlife habitats and as such provides refuge to huge concentrations of game, including every member of the big 5. The delta sustains robust populations of white and black rhino, lion, elephant, buffalo and leopard. It is home to 130 species of mammals, 482 birds, 64 reptiles, 89 fish and over 1000 different plant species.

What is fascinating about the Okavango Delta is that the animals have adapted to the wetland habitat and resident lions have actually learned to swim in pursuit of their prey as well as climb trees for a better vantage point. The lions of Duba Plains within the delta have also developed the habit of hunting during the day as opposed to at night - this is good news for you as it means you will have better chances of spotting these big cats. Buffalo are typically the favored prey of lions and it is a common saying in the Okavango Delta that 'where there's buffalo, there are lions'.

As for Chobe National Park, it is Botswana's third largest park and has one of the largest game concentrations in Africa. Chobe is home to huge herds of elephant and buffalo as well as high numbers of lions and leopard and a smaller population of rhino. The area is famous for having the biggest elephants in the world both in size and number, with an estimated 35,000 to 55,000 depending on time of year. The elephants are extremely fond of the Chobe riverfront and have more or less claimed it as their own so you will most likely see them chasing other wildlife away from the water. The image above was taken at Chobe National Park and does a decent job of portraying a herd's territorial dominance over the waterfront...

Best Safari to See the Big Five #5 - Hwange National Park & Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe's largest game park extending over an area of 14,600 km2. It is a haven for wildlife and home to vast herds of elephant and buffalo and over 500 lions. Leopard sightings are fairly uncommon as per usual and rhino sightings are unfortunately rare. Outside of the big 5, Hwange also has an exceptionally large concentration of giraffe and a significant population of zebra.

To safari through Hwange National Park today is to see what much of Africa looked like centuries ago, and it's truly extraordinary.

Mana Pools is also up there as one of Zimbabwe's best parks and a World Heritage Site, coined as such even before the great Victoria Falls. The Zambezi River runs right through the park which is very inviting to the animals, especially elephants and lions. Mana Pools is also home to the other members of the big 5, rhino, buffalo and leopard and as you might imagine, the region attracts very large hippos and crocodiles. Mana hosts a special walking safari where you can safely get within just yards of lions and other big mammals - these operate between the months of May and November. Regular safari is available any time of the year.

Final Notes

The African continent has so much to offer, even beyond the most amazing safaris. Africa is home to many of our Earth's natural wonders, the few remaining indigenous tribal cultures and a selection of mind-blowing luxury lodges. Planning your safari can be a little tricky with so much to choose from, animal migratory routes and seasons to take into consideration but not to worry, that is what we're here for. Epic Road was named Top Travel Specialist by Travel+Leisure, notably for our expertise in travel to the African continent, so if you're looking for a customized & seamless experience, just send us a note at hello@epicroad.com.