Big game hunters on trips to Africa often referred to the “Big 5” — the five most difficult African animals to hunt on foot: the lion, the elephant, the Cape buffalo, the leopard, and the rhinoceros. Fortunately, these days, the Big 5 is used less as a to-kill list and more as a to-photograph list for safari-goers in Africa.
But what are the Big 5 for the other continents? What are the must haves for pro and amateur wildlife photographers in North America, for example? Or Australia?
Here’s a list of some of the best / hardest animals to catch on camera for each continent. How many have you shot? Pictures taken at zoos don’t count.
Although they’re usually thought to be an African animal, the lion used to exist throughout Europe and parts of America as well; there are still small populations in some areas of Asia.
Though still fairly common in sub-Saharan Africa, elephants are vulnerable to conflicts with humans, particularly in the form of illegal ivory poaching.
The Cape buffalo makes the list because of how aggressive it can be towards humans. Along with hippos and crocodiles, it’s considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.
Leopards are difficult to find because they’re experts at stealth and tend to try and avoid humans.
The white rhinoceros is the most common species in Africa and gets its name from a mistranslation of the Dutch word for “wide.” As you can see, it’s not really white at all. Rhinos have been known to charge humans and can be skittish in human presence.
Grizzlies are the easiest choice for a North American Big 5. They’re huge predators and are particularly dangerous.
Moose are on the list because of their distinctiveness and also because of their cultural ties to Canada and the American North, although there are also moose in Eurasia, where they’re called Eurasian elk.
Bison used to virtually carpet the American plains. They were everywhere. Then, naturally, European settlers came and treated them like they were an endless resource, which drove them into endangerment; although, lately, they’ve pulled out of the “endangered” classification, thanks to conservation efforts.
The gray wolf is not exclusive to North America, but I’m putting it on this list due to its cultural ties, especially to the American West. Historically, gray wolves have existed in pretty much all of North America and Eurasia but were wiped out by humans. Lately, they’ve been making a bit of a comeback, most famously in Yellowstone National Park.
The polar bear can be found in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and pretty much any other Arctic region. They’re on the list because not only are they rapidly losing their habitat, and are thus decreasing in number, but also because they’re particularly dangerous, and are known to hunt humans.
The jaguar is the biggest cat in the Americas. Their habitat extends up into Central America. But they’re probably best known for their jungle homes in the Amazon and were culturally important to many early American societies.
Caimans are members of the crocodilian family that reside primarily in the Amazon. They’ve been known to feed on humans and also tend to live relatively far off from major human population centers, making them fairly difficult to capture on camera.
Poison dart frog
You’d have to eat a poison dart frog or come into contact with its poison for it to actually harm you. It’s not like it can attack you. But they get on this list because of their insanely vibrant colors and the fact that they’re incredibly small, and thus can be tough to spot.
Honestly, ocelots are all over the place in South America, particularly the Amazon. I just added them because I think they’re awesome looking.
Probably known best for that absolutely ridiculous Jennifer Lopez movie, anacondas are the heaviest and largest snakes on the planet (though the reticulated python is longer). They pretty much never eat humans, but as they kill through constriction, they probably could if they were big enough.
Of course pandas are on this list. Pandas are culturally connected with China, and though their population in the wild is somewhat precarious, there are a lot of them in zoos and preserves.
The Bengal tiger is the largest cat in the world and also one of the most dangerous to humans, though of course humans are more dangerous to tigers. Part of the problem is that they exist in areas with extremely high human population densities, notably Bangladesh and India, both of which consider tigers their national animal.
Snow leopards are endangered and are native to Central and South Asia, primarily the Himalayas and other alpine regions. They’re extremely difficult to spot in the wild and tend to avoid humans. There are no known attacks on humans.
King cobras are the world’s longest venomous snakes and can reach a length of up to nearly 19 feet. They’re primarily found in Southeast Asia and prefer to avoid humans but can kill us with their bite.
Asian elephants are generally more docile than their African counterparts and can be domesticated. That said, they’re still endangered thanks to encroachment on their habitats by humans and illegal ivory poaching.
AUSTRALIA / OCEANIA
You aren’t going to have much of a problem finding a kangaroo. There are actually almost too many of them, and overgrazing can be a problem in Australia. That said, they’re so iconic they can’t not be on this list.
You’ll have to go to Borneo or Sumatra to see an orangutan in the wild. Elsewhere, they only live in zoos and are critically endangered. Unlike many of the other animals on this list, their endangerment isn’t a result of poaching—it’s because of forest fires and deforestation of their natural habitats.
The Komodo dragon can only be found on the Indonesian island of Komodo and a few others. It’s the world’s largest living lizard, and its bite can be very dangerous thanks to particularly nasty bacteria in its mouth and mild toxins. They’ve been known to attack humans.
Birds-of-paradise are extremely colorful birds that are primarily found on New Guinea and a few other Pacific islands. They’re incredibly difficult to catch on camera in the wild because they tend to live in dense rainforest, difficult to access in New Guinea.
Crocodiles could be in the American continents’ lists, or in Africa’s or Asia’s, but I’m putting it under Australia, I’m ashamed to say, for two reasons: Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin.
Technically, there are reindeer in North America, too, where they’re called caribou. But reindeer are particularly iconic in Russia and the Scandinavian countries, and they’ve become culturally synonymous with European Christmases.
The Eurasian lynx is native to both Europe and Asia and tends to prefer forested areas. It’s currently being reintroduced to Western Europe, where it was killed off.
The Eurasian wolf is primarily in Russia and the former Soviet Union countries and is a relative of the gray wolf. Like many of the European species, the Eurasian wolf was systematically killed off and can only be found in the less-populated areas of the continent.
The grizzly bear is a type of brown bear but exists mainly in the Americas. The brown bear in Europe, again, is found mostly in mountainous and less-populated regions, meaning primarily Russia and Scandinavia.
A quirk of urbanization in many European cities is that urban foxes—red foxes living in urban areas—have shown up everywhere. They’re not uncommon, but a good picture is tough to get, so they make the list.
There are a lot of great whale-watching tours around the world, but you tend to not see as much in the way of the blue whale—the largest living animal, and the heaviest animal ever—as there are only around 12,000 in the wild.
Great white shark
Probably one of the most misunderstood animals in the seas, the great white shark can be found in most of the world’s oceans but is tough to photograph unless you manage to catch it leaping out of the water—or are diving with it, which is just not a thing most people want to do.
Manta rays are large eagle rays whose wingspan can reach 18 feet or so. They get a place on my Big 5 list because I’ve always wanted to catch a good picture of a manta ray jumping.
Cuttlefish are relatives of squid and octopi, best known for their camouflage and color-changing abilities. That’s why they’re on this list; they’re particularly photogenic.
Dolphins are among the most intelligent creatures in the world, and there are plenty of them out in the ocean. They’re another particularly photogenic species and often seem to be basically mugging for the camera. If you can catch a photo of them underwater, or airborne, that’s extra points.