The Big 5 Dangerous Game Animals of the Americas

By Chuck Hawks

The African Big Five are considered the most dangerous game animals hunted on that continent. They are composed exclusively of big predators and thick-skinned herbivores: the lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros. All may attack human beings if angered, threatened, hurt, or (in the case of the predators) hungry. Other game animals in Africa may hurt or kill a hunter in certain circumstances, if things go seriously wrong, but it is the Big Five that represent the biggest threat to hunters.

It happens that in the Americas (North and South) we also have five dangerous big game animals, although they are not normally referred to as the Big Five. For the purposes of this article, however, I am using the term as it is used in Africa. Here are the New World's Big Five dangerous game animals.

1. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) - This is the world's largest pure predator and it lives in the world's most unforgiving hunting environment. Living in a land of ice and salt water, polar bears are strong swimmers. Adult males average around 900 pounds and can reach 1100-1550 pounds live weight. Polar bears are solitary hunters that will kill and eat any animal in their range, including people.

They are immensely strong, able to stalk and kill an adult walrus, which can weigh between 1,800 and 4,000 pounds and have canine teeth (tusks) three feet long. Normally, polar bears prefer smaller prey, such as immature walrus, seals, seabirds and their eggs.

The great white bear of far northern North America and the Arctic is a supreme hunting challenge. If a polar bear doesn't get you, the Arctic weather might. Both are dangerously unpredictable and absolutely unforgiving.

2. Kodiak Bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi) and Brown Bear - According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Kodiak bears, a sub-species of brown bear, inhabit the Kodiak Island Archipelago of southwest Alaska. "Brown bears typically live along the southern coast of the state where they have access to seasonally abundant spawning salmon. The coastal areas also provide a rich array of vegetation they can use as food as well as a milder climate. This allows them to grow larger and live in higher densities than their 'grizzly' cousins in the northern and interior parts of the state."

Alaskan Kodiak and brown bears can achieve awesome size, reaching 1000 pounds live weight and up to 1600+ pounds in extreme cases. These big bears are good swimmers and, surprisingly, can run at speeds up to 40 MPH.

The brown bear can be as unpredictable as its brother the grizzly bear and, rarely, may attack without provocation. Needless to say, a mature brown bear is the apex predator throughout its range. While brown bears will usually ignore humans who keep their distance, they are not disposed to tolerate interference.

3. Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) - Technically the same species as the brown bear, adult male grizzlies average around 600 pounds live weight and grizzly bears are notoriously bad tempered, unpredictable and dangerous. In historic times they preyed on the great bison herds on the North American plains.

Grizzly bears are far stronger than any lion or tiger and tend to stand their ground when threatened. The bite of a grizzly bear has been measured at 1160 psi, strong enough to crush a bowling ball!

Grizzly bears are found across the Canadian far north, the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and the Alaskan interior. There are modest grizzly populations in Montana and the northwest corner of Wyoming. Idaho and Washington support a small number of grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears will kill moose, elk, caribou, deer and domestic livestock, as well as smaller mammals like marmots. Black bear range almost entirely overlaps grizzly bear range and grizzlies have been known to prey on black bears. Grizzly bears will steal kills from wolf packs and cougars, almost always successfully. As with all big predators, grizzly bears become more dangerous to people where they are protected and not hunted, thus losing their fear of and respect for humans.

4. Jaguar (Panthera onca) - The jaguar (el Tigre) is the third largest of the big cats, behind the tiger and lion. Like all cats, the jaguar is a pure carnivore, eating only meat.

The jaguar is a spotted cat that looks like a stocky leopard, but adult males are considerably larger, weighing 200-310 pounds. Jaguars are found in southern North America (Mexico), Central America and South America as far south as northern Paraguay and northern Argentina.

These big cats look like leopards, but act more like tigers, earning their New World Spanish language name of tigre. They are solitary "stalk and ambush" hunters, generally preferring wooded and jungle terrain.

Except for humans, jaguars are the apex predator throughout their range. Their bite is unusually powerful, allowing them to kill large animals by biting through their skull and into their brain. Unlike most cats, they like the water and are powerful swimmers.

Among the other prey in their domain, jaguars actively hunt and kill caiman, the South American alligator, which is no mean feat. (Aside from humans, jaguars are the caimans' only predator.) In recent historical times, when the southern range of black bears and the northern range of jaguars overlapped, jaguar were known to kill and eat black bears; they will also kill cougars if the opportunity arises.

5. American Bison (Bison bison) - Commercial hunting almost rendered the bison (or buffalo) extinct in the latter half of the 19th Century, but the species has made a spectacular comeback. This bovine species should not be underestimated. Like other bovines they normally appear placid, but bison are unpredictable and can be dangerous if provoked.

Although generally less aggressive, North American bison are substantially larger than African Cape buffalo. Adult males average about 1600 pounds and can weigh as much as 2000-3000 pounds.

In Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), where grizzly bear, black bear and bison are all found, bison injure over three times as many visitors as the two bear species combined. They can run 35-40 MPH and can turn in their own length, making it almost impossible to evade a determined charge.

Wild populations are found in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Alaska, Montana and Wyoming. In addition, bison thrive on Santa Catalina Island (off the coast of California) and on many large hunting ranches in various parts of the USA.


Four American animals that did not make my Big Five list are the bull moose, black bear, cougar and wolves. The North American bull moose is as heavy as a Cape buffalo and mature males can grow antlers as wide as a person is tall. Moose are usually placid, but (particularly during the rut) can suddenly charge, often without apparent reason. They will even challenge vehicles.

A friend of mine hunting in Canada was charged by a bull moose that simply would not stop until it was killed. An outfitter in Alaska stated that he had been charged far more often by moose than by brown and grizzly bears.

Black bears inhabit much of North America. They are considerably smaller than grizzly bears, with adult males weighing around 300 pounds. They are both omnivorous and good tree climbers, often seeking the safety of a tree when threatened.

Black bears are surprisingly adaptable and often live in close proximity to humans, sometimes within city limits. Because of this, they attack substantially more humans than do their grizzly bear cousins, particularly in areas where they are protected and hunting is not allowed.

In areas where they are hunted, they are normally shy and quickly learn to avoid human contact. Black bears are typically much less likely to stand and fight than a grizzly bear, although they may.

The cougar (puma or mountain lion) is a North American big cat about the size of a leopard. Like leopards, cougars are extremely agile and good tree climbers. Unlike leopards, they are by nature shy and retiring, although very curious. Cougars are known to follow hunters in the woods to see what they are doing, but I have never heard of a cougar actually attacking a hunter.

However, cougars can become more aggressive in areas where they are protected and hunting is not allowed. Humans are, after all, mammals about the size of a deer, the cougars natural prey. As human settlements encroach into cougar territory, the big cats may slip into agricultural and suburban areas to hunt domestic livestock, dogs and cats.

Where it is legal, both black bear and cougar are hunted using dog packs that chase them until they are treed. The "hunter" can then approach the animal safely and shoot it out of the tree at very short range. This procedure can be dangerous to the dogs, but not to the hunter.

In the northern areas of North America where wolves are reasonably common they are a very real threat to domestic livestock and pets. In most of North America wolf packs are not sufficiently numerous to be a serious threat to humans.

However, wolf packs have a long and gory history of chasing, killing and eating large animals, including moose, elk, caribou, deer and people. Because they hunt in packs, it is not the individual wolf that represents a great threat to humans, but a wolf pack on the prowl is an entirely different matter. These apex canines are deserving of respect, especially because they are protected over much of their southern range, where they have lost their fear of mankind.


Notice that the African Big Five list has two large predators and three herbivores. On the Americas list there are four large predators, three of which are much larger than the largest lion and the fourth is a big cat larger than a leopard. All of these American apex predators are highly intelligent.

The American thick-skinned bovine is substantially larger than its bad tempered African cousin, the Cape Buffalo. My point is simply that these are dangerous animals that should never be under estimated, by hunters or anyone else.

Moose, black bear, cougar and wolves, all magnificent animals in their own right, did not make my Big Five list. While they might be dangerous to hunters in certain circumstances, the polar bear, brown bear, grizzly bear, jaguar and bison definitely are dangerous quarry. In addition, all of the animals who fell short of my making list are sometimes preyed upon by the great bears and jaguar when their ranges overlap.

W.D.M. Bell, the famous African ivory hunter, killed over a thousand elephants and never suffered a charge. Bell's favorite elephant cartridge was the 7x57mm (.275 Rigby) shooting 175 grain round nose bullets. Countless numbers of the American Big Five animals on my list have been killed by hunters using .30-30 rifles, more often than not shooting 170 grain flat point bullets.

However, times have changed in both Africa and the Americas. A powerful medium bore rifle from .338 to .375 caliber is the generally preferred medicine for all of these American Big Five animals, just as it is for creatures of similar size in Africa. The old adage, "use enough gun" still applies.

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Copyright 2016, 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.