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Searching for the Big Five in South Africa - the Cats

Updated on May 15, 2019
Johan Smulders profile image

Nature enthusiast and amateur photographer.Travelled extensively in Southern Africa and the USA.

Lions in Addo Elephant Park
Lions in Addo Elephant Park | Source
Kgalagadi Cheetah
Kgalagadi Cheetah | Source
Leopard in Kruger National Park
Leopard in Kruger National Park | Source

One thing that sets South African Game reserves and other African Game reserves apart from National Parks and Game Reserves elsewhere in the world is the Big Five. The Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and the two big cats, namely the Lion and the Leopard, make out these five animals. At the same time the Cheetah is also in most people’s minds ranked with the others and so perhaps we need to talk about the Big Six. Lately the Big Six birds have also been listed and some reserves like the Addo Elephant Park that borders on the Indian Ocean list the Big Six, by including the Great White Shark.

For this article we will look at the Big Cats and discuss were the overseas visitor or local tourist can see these animals in the wild. The three prime National Parks that offer the Big Five and these three big cats are the Kruger National Park, the Kgalagadi National Park and the Addo Elephant Park. Many smaller, often private game reserves also offer the big five and also Cheetah. Because they are much smaller than the National Parks and they only offer guided tours where the guides know where to take visitors to see their game (often fed so as to know exactly where they are), in my mind it loses some value. At the same time for people in the average income groups these luxury game reserves are out of range because of their cost. For the visitor with limited time and huge financial capability they present a guaranteed sighting of the Big Five in great luxury.

For most however driving their own vehicle (or a hired one) the challenge of travelling into the big National Parks in search of the Big Five and the many other animals and birds that occur there has a magic of its own. With the option of camping or self catering accommodation the cost can be kept down and provides an adventure that will never be forgotten.

The Kgalagadi National Park.

This National Park in the North West part of South Africa claims to be the best place to see the three big cats. It is situated in the dry area known as the Kalahari and borders on Botswana and Namibia. Most of the game in that National Park have to make regular trips to drink from the rivers and waterholes and so by driving along the roads that follow the river beds one can be guaranteed to see some, if not all, the Big Cats in a visit of a couple of days. This is also the home of the herds of Springbok and the elegant Gemsbok that are worth a visit by themselves. It is also an excellent place to add to a bird list because of the large selection of Raptors and semi-desert species not found in the wetter parts of South Africa.

The Kruger National Park.

Located in the North Eastern part of South Africa bordering on Mozambique and Zimbabwe this Game Reserve is one of the prime African Nature Reserves. Its excellent facilities and large selection of wild life makes it a popular place for both overseas and local tourists. On many days during our visits to this large game reserve we have ticked of over 50 bird species and the Big Five animals in one day. With well developed camps offering camping and self catering accommodation starting in the South and extending some 200 km to the North it covers several different vegetation types and so a large diversity of bird and animal life. Depending on the time of year the vegetation varies. In summer (October to March) the park is green and lush and the game more difficult to spot. In the winter it is dryer and the game easier to spot. While finding Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo is reasonable easy, the Leopard (a night hunter) and the Lion are more difficult to find.

The Addo Elephant Park.

Addo is the smallest of the three large National Parks in South Africa and was set aside to protect the dwindling Elephant population in the Eastern Cape. Today is has become a popular place for local and overseas visitors to see four of the Big Five. To see a Leopard you would need travel to the northern mountainous part of the park and have a lot of luck, but sightings of Cheetah and Lion are very possible. It is however the Elephant population that are the stars in this Park.

Anyone who visits one or more of these National Parks can be assured of seeing many of the smaller animals and reptiles and a large amount of bird species. Some enjoy the Zebra, Kudu, Impala and Giraffe and the smaller cats and animals and so don't feel they have to see the Lion,Cheetah and Leopard to make a trip worthwhile. It must however be admitted that seeing one of the Big Five and specially the Big Cats is what really gets the heart pumping.


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