Want to have the best chances of seeing the Big Five in Tanzania, then read our helpful guide
04 Dec 2020
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What is the Big Five?
Africa’s Big 5 – lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo – is many people’s reason for a wildlife safari holiday. The term originally came from these animals being the most dangerous to hunt and hence sought after as trophies. Happily, these magnificent creatures are now more commonly celebrated by visitors eager to capture them on camera, as part of a photographic safari.
Why Tanzania for your Big 5 safari?
A Tanzania safari holiday is arguably one of Africa’s greatest destinations for a Big 5 safari experience, whether it is your first safari or you are a seasoned safari goer, it offers something for everyone. It boasts the world-renowned Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and the vast Selous Game Reserve - all names synonymous with some of the best safari experiences Africa has to offer.
Tanzania is East Africa's largest country and more than a quarter of its surface area is protected in national parks and game reserves. These areas collectively conserve around 20% of Africa's large mammal biomass, including a lion population that is 3 or 4 times greater than any other African country. Whilst where and when to find these 5 special animals is the focus of this article, Tanzania is also blessed with one of the most dazzling wildlife spectacles on the planet, The Wildebeest Migration. This year-round event sees 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and attendant predators traverse the vast plains of the Serengeti.
To top it all off, Tanzania has so much more to offer visitors other than a wildlife safari. From the dizzying heights of the snow-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, to the depths of Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. After your safari adventure the country has some of the most idyllic Indian Ocean coastline and beaches on which to relax, including the distinguished islands of Zanzibar, Mafia, and Pemba.
Top safari to see the Big 5 in Tanzania
There are some exceptional Tanzania safari itineraries that will offer you a great opportunity of seeing the Big 5 in just a few days. For the best chance, I would recommend a tailored trip that includes the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti, such as ourNorthern Tanzania Family Safari Adventure.
12 Days exploring Tanzania
Price: From £4,670pp (adult). From £2,509pp (child)
This itinerary includes a full day on the crater floor of Ngorongoro. Make sure you get an early start to be one of the first vehicles descending into the crater, as it can get busy. However, this impressive geological feature comprises a unique variety of ecosystems in a relatively small area and, as a result, an extraordinary diversity of wildlife. This is probably one of the best places in Africa where you may spot the Big Five in one day – of course there are never any guarantees!
You continue to the beautiful grassland plains of the Serengeti, with a couple of days discovering its incredible nature on foot. This puts you in some of the more remote areas, well away from the crowds and exploring the rhino conservation zones. The Serengeti is also home to the Big 5, although rhino can be a challenge in this vast area, plus undoubtedly one of the best places in Africa to find cheetah, due to the perfect open habitat.
You round off your Serengeti experience at a premium camp in the Ndutu sector in the south, for a truly luxury Tanzania safari. I’d recommend this itinerary in January and February, when the Great Wildebeest Migration will be in this area, with its attendant predators and to coincide with the calving season. However, this region is well known for its abundant resident predators year-round. If you are travelling outside December to March, your trip can be easily tweaked to follow the migrating herds to the north.
I particularly love this itinerary, as it’s not all about chasing around ticking off the Big 5! It takes you to a variety of protected areas - Arusha and Lake Manyara National Parks, in addition to Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. You will also enjoy a range of activities, giving you a unique perspective on the wildlife that you will see.
North or South Tanzania safari circuit
My suggested trip takes you to Tanzania’s northern circuit, which is home to several excellent parks for spotting members of the Big 5. As well as those mentioned above, Tarangire National Park, although not the most famous, has the largest elephant population in northern Tanzania. Here they enjoy the baobab trees and sometimes gather in herds of several hundred individuals.
Whilst the south does not boast the same chance of finding all the Big 5, as rhino are rarely seen here, it should not be overlooked. Less well known and hence far less visited, its distinct advantage is the ease with which you can avoid the crowds. You are also spoiled for safari options, including Selous and Ruaha, which combine perfectly to form a southern safari circuit. Further west and even more remote is the wild Katavi National Park.
These southern parks are gems for predator sightings, including a higher chance of spotting African wild dogs than in the north. Ruaha is reputed to support almost ten per cent of Africa’s total lion population, making it a key park for lion conservation efforts and its huge prides a great draw for visitors.
Best time of year to see the Big 5
Tanzania’s peak safari season runs between June and October, when the weather is a little cooler, but it remains warm and is dry. The wildlife viewing tends to be at its best during this period for two main reasons.
Firstly, the vegetation is dry and sparser, basically making it easier to spot animals, especially the heavyweights, such as rhino, elephant and buffalo. Even the stealthier leopard is afforded a little less undergrowth in which to camouflage itself and hide. Secondly, the available water sources dwindle, as smaller ponds and streams dry up. Animals, such as elephant and buffalo must drink every day, making them particularly dependent on water. Most of the larger mammals cannot survive for long without it, hence they congregate more around the remaining sources and are easier to find.
However, accommodation in popular areas fills up quickly and rates are higher over these months. The animals are still around the rest of the year, but you may have to work a little harder to find them. This is when it really pays off to choose the right camp or tour operator, with highly skilled professional guides, who know the area like the backs of their hands. They will spot animals and clues to help track down the Big 5 that you would likely have otherwise been completely oblivious to.
The months that it may be worth considering avoiding, unless you are particularly adventurous or in search of the best deals possible, are April and May. Whilst it seldom rains all day every day, heavy rains can make roads in many of the parks inaccessible at this time of year and some camps and lodges close.
A final piece of advice for enjoying the Big 5 in Tanzania
Tanzania is a destination that offers a great chance of seeing the Big 5 in a single safari holiday. However, there are no guarantees. My best piece of advice is don’t put too much emphasis on having to tick them off your list. Relax, enjoy the spectacular scenery and the other abundant wildlife that you will discover. Its behaviour can often be far more fascinating, when you take the time to appreciate it, than a lion snoozing under a tree!
If you have a particular animal that you have always wanted to see, above all others, then get in touch with one of our experts. We will tailor an itinerary that will deliver the best chance of your dream coming true.