Africa is home to some of the most beautiful and iconic wildlife on the planet. Thoughts of the savannah almost naturally cue the sound of tribal African songs and the colorful coats of wild cats. Of the most iconic African mammals, none are more revered than the "Big Five"—lions, elephants, water buffalo, rhinos, and leopards. These are the five beasts that are most commonly sought after by photo-happy tourists on safaris (and among the animals most in need of our protection).
Most are highly social and exhibit fascinating relationships with one another, as well as plenty of other intriguing traits. Keep reading to find out what makes these majestic beasts African royalty.
Female Lions Bond for Life
Lion prides are led by a single male who must ward off challengers for as long as he leads the pride. Male lions don’t have a reputation for getting along very well. Conflicts between male lions are vicious, with much at stake. In fact the impetus for the strength and size observed by the large cat is less an evolutionary adaptation for predation than it is a result of selective breeding from generations of fighting one another. Once male cubs have come of age, they are ousted from the pack by the pride male. Female lions, however, live among one another for the duration of their lives, even in the event that it is taken over by another male.
African Elephants Live in Matriarchal Hierarchies
Elephants are social animals that live in herds, and every group needs a leader. From times of crisis to day-to-day squabbles, African elephants turn to the matriarch of their herd for leadership. This elephant is usually the oldest in the herd and often related to the previous matriarch. While being at the top certainly has its appeal, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Matriarch elephants average two hours of sleep per day across several naps and will sometimes go without sleep at all for several days at a time. Undoubtedly, the survival of the herd demands vigilance.
Water Buffalo Live in Democracies
While African buffalo may be dragging their hooves to draft up their version of the Magna Carta, they do exhibit an egalitarian approach to decision-making. Throughout the day, the herd alternates between grazing and seeking water. When it comes time to decide which to pursue, individuals in the herd each turn in the direction of a food or water source – a meadow or a water hole. One buffalo will serve as an initiator and choose a direction to walk in, but if the other members of the herd aren’t having it, they’ll stay put. Once an initiator moves in the direction preferred by most members, the entire group will mobilize towards their next destination.
Rhinos “Mwonk” When They’re Happy
As with most of the animals on this list, rhinos are social creatures that live in groups. A rhino herd is called a “crash,” and the members of the crash interact with one another on a daily basis. In mammals, socialization almost always entails vocalizing, and rhinos make a variety of sounds to communicate with one another. Honks are signals of aggression preceding fights, bleats are signs of submission, and mothers communicate with their calves through moo-grunts. But one of the most surprising sounds to come out of the 2-ton horned land mammal is the sound it makes when it's happy, which can only be described as a “mwonk.”
Leopards can Beat Your Bench Press, by a lot
Two of the most distinctive characteristics of leopards are the rosettes (spots) on their fur and their climbing abilities. Though leopards spend the majority of their time on the ground, they will frequently climb trees to obtain a height advantage for pouncing on their prey, and they like to take their meals back up to the tree limbs to enjoy some privacy. As primates, humans are decent climbers as well, but we’re usually not lugging up the entire body mass of large prey. One leopard was observed in the wild hauling a young 125-kg giraffe into a tree for its meal.