The “Big Five” are the animal kingdom’s famous celebrities on the African Savana; every tourist hopes to set eyes on these dramatic creatures. Uganda, like many other African safari destinations, hosts the big players and more. That is why we thought we should tell you more about Uganda’s new selection of the big 5 game aniamls.
The ‘Big 5’ was coined by hunting safari explorers, back in the 1800s, based on how challenging to hunt these animals were. But since the big five experience is now all about photographing, viewing, and meeting the wild creatures, Uganda’s new big five list includes the mountain gorilla, lion, chimpanzee, African elephant, and leopard. Our list is based on travelers most south after animals to see on a Uganda safari, challenging to reach and offer memorable photography moments.
In addition to experiencing Uganda’s exquisite cultures, and people, and viewing some of the most stunning landscapes, your trip to Uganda will not richly reward you until you meet these magnificent animals.
The New Big Five Animals in Uganda
- Mountain Gorilla
- African Elephant
1. Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)
Arguably the most sought-after primate in Africa is the mountain gorilla (King of the rainforest jungle), and Uganda offers the best gorilla viewing experiences worldwide. The gentle giants in Uganda’s southwestern corner are so famous, hundreds of tourists wait up months in advance to spend a moment with these charming beasts. More than 1060 mountain gorillas find sanctuary in the east-central African mountain rainforests, and more than half of them are in Uganda.
Standing upright at 4 to 6 feet, a fully grown mountain gorilla can weigh a whopping 300 to 485 pounds (135 to 220 kilograms). The mountain gorilla unsurprisingly makes the number one on the list of new BIG five animals in Uganda because of its mass, scarcity, and magical moments. Most of all, the gentle giant lives in one of the most biodiverse homes in the world.
To stay warm in the mountains, mountain gorillas have longer hair than their eastern lowland cousins, the Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). They also tend to be a bit larger than other gorillas and have shorter arms.
Gorillas can climb trees but are usually found on the ground in communities of up to 30 individuals. These troops are organized according to fascinating social structures.
One dominant, older adult male leads troops, often called a silverback because of the swath of silver hair that adorns his otherwise dark fur. Troops also include several other young males, some females, and their offspring.
2. African Lion (Panthera leo)
The most imposing feline on the African savannah now attracts more protection than a pop culture celebrity. The lion is the most sought-after of the new big five animals in Uganda’s wild. It is also considered the most sociable of the large cats, living in loosely structured cat prides of typically five to 15 animals.
This ferocious cat has special cultural significance in Ugandan cultures and enjoys a reputation as the king of the beasts and a symbol of royalty, strength, and bravery.
In Uganda, you can find lions in mainly three of the largest savanna parks: Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP), and Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP).
In QENP’s southern section, the Ishasha lions show off their unique behavior of climbing trees, and travelers have branded them the “Ishasha tree-climbing lions.” Tourists flock to this sector to marvel at this rare behavior of wild cats.
Unfortunately for the lions in this section of Uganda have faced gruesome wildlife atrocities on two occasions in the last decade; once in April 2011 (poachers poisoned 11 lions) and recently in April 2021 (6 poisoned and dismembered). The worst threat still facing those magnificent lions in Uganda is poaching.
3. Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)
7 out of 10 tourists visiting Uganda’s rainforest parks will say they had to come and see our playful primate cousins in their natural cradle. The chimpanzee’s celebrity status among travelers earns it a great position on Uganda’s new BIG five Animals lists.
The common Chimpanzee is a distinctive black-coated ape that’s more closely related to man than any other living creature. Along with bonobos, they are our closest living relatives, sharing 98.7 percent of our genetic blueprint. Science research has consistently shown that humans and chimps share a common ancestor who lived some seven to 13 million years ago.
The Chimpanzee lives in large, loosely bonded communities based around a core of related males with an internal hierarchy topped by an alpha male. Females are generally less strongly bonded to their core group than are males; emigration between communities is not unusual.
Mother—child bonds are strong. Daughters normally leave their mother only after they reach maturity, at which point they break their relations. Mother—son relations have been known to survive for over 40 years. A troop has a well-defined core territory which is fiercely defended by regular boundary patrols.
Chimpanzees are primarily frugivorous (fruit-eating), but they eat meat and even hunt on occasion — they’ve regularly hunted red colobus monkeys in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream and Mahale Mountains national parks. Simultaneously, researchers in Kalinzu Forest in Uganda have observed chimps eating blue and red-tailed monkeys, and unsuccessful attempts to hunt black-and-white colobus.
Chimpanzees are among the most intelligent of Uganda’s new BIG five animals. These guys have been observed regularly using tools like modified sticks to ‘fish’ in termite mounds. Scientists have also observed chimps cracking nuts open using a stone and anvil.
In language studies in the USA, researchers have taught chimps to communicate in American sign language. They have demonstrated their understanding, in some instances, by even creating compound words for new objects (such as rock-berry to describe a nut).
Uganda hosts more than 4900 chimps within its national park, making it a top destination for primate viewing. Kibale National Park, in western Uganda, offers the best chimpanzee viewing (in their natural habitat) opportunities in the world, with over 1500 chimps swinging the park’s tree-tops.
Kibale also has the highest density of primates on the continent, with researchers recording 13 primate species within the park. Much work has gone into habituating chimpanzee troops for tourism in Kibale Forest, so seeing our primate cousins in the park is highly guaranteed.
You can also see chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge found in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Semliki Wildlife Reserve, and the Budongo and Kanyiyo Pabidi forests near Murchison Falls National Park.
4. African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
African Elephant is the world’s largest of all Uganda’s new BIG five animals and perhaps the most enduring symbol of nature’s grace and fragility. The elephant is also one of the most intelligent and entertaining to watch on a classic Uganda safari game drive.
A fully-grown male elephant can weigh a whopping 13,889 lbs (6300 kilos). Even the smallest adult male rarely dips below 4000 kilos, which is way more than twice the weight on an average family SUV. Females are usually just over half the weight of the male.
The size difference between the two is not as surprising as when it comes to height – the tallest males are 4 meters tall, the tallest female rises to 3.4 meters. Apart from overall size, unless the male is sexually aroused, the most obvious difference between males and females is that females have an angular forehead. In contrast, a bull’s forehead is more rounded.
There’s more: an African elephant has the giant brain of any mammal alive; it can weigh up to 6 kilos. Its trunk, which serves an elephant like a hand, can be 2 meters long and weigh over 130 kilos – a trunk has no bones but may have 60,000 muscles in it. An elephant uses its tusks as both tools and weapons. The longest recorded tusks were 3.17m long, while the heaviest reached 70kg.
There are two subspecies of the African elephant – the forest and the savannah elephant. You may be lucky to see the smaller and slightly hairier forest elephant in Kibale and Bwindi’s equatorial forests. The savannah elephant dwells throughout the grassy plains and bushlands of Uganda’s massive savannah parks. The two races are thought to interbreed in parts of western Uganda.
5. Leopard (Panthera pardus)
This is the most elusive of Uganda’s BIG 5 animals. Leopards in Uganda are sneaky and harder to spot. Naturally shy and exclusively nocturnal, leopards spend the daylight hours hidden from view. These solitary felines are impressive to watch when hauling large kills, such as zebra or antelope, into a tree to eat alone, in peace.
Leopards can be distinguished from cheetahs by their rosette-shaped spots and more robust build and their preference for wooded or rocky habitats. They are found in virtually all habitats which offer adequate cover and are present in most Ugandan national parks and forest reserves.
Its capacity for adapting to changes in prey species, hunting conditions, carnivore competition, vegetation patterns, and human activities enables it to survive in developing Africa with more success than almost any other large wild animal. It can even persist in more or less advanced agricultural areas, though often in significantly reduced numbers.
A leopard differs from other new BIG five animals because of locals reporting them outside protected areas. They hunt using stealth and power, often getting to within 5 meters of their intended prey before pouncing, and they habitually store their kill in a tree to keep it from being poached by other large predators.
Meanwhile, together with the poaching, it has induced, the international fur trade has depressed leopard populations in several parts of Uganda. We do not have any reasonable measure of population numbers anywhere for this species. However, we do have sightings from rangers collected while they are on patrol in the protected areas managed by UWA.