The Big Five

You will hear the term ‘Big Five’ talked about a lot in relation to safaris and African wildlife. It was originally a hunting term used to describe the most challenging animals to hunt, namely lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino, and buffalo. The term is now used by the tourism industry to attract visitors to our game reserves by highlighting these well known animals of Africa.

However, it should be noted that the Big Five animals are not the be all and end all of the bush, and in fact make up only a tiny percentage of the fascinating animals of the African ecosystem. There are many, many more animals of great interest and diversity to see. If you are visiting the bush, try to keep an open mind and ask your guide to show you other animals too. Half an hour spent watching a herd of impala can be just as exciting as watching a lion sleeping!

In fact we believe that it is time for a change of hearts and minds within the tourism industry of Africa. We understand the need for good marketing and that animals such as lions and rhinos are important iconic symbols of Africa, but in many ways the promotion of these familiar icons detracts from the other wonderful creatures in the bush.

Lion – Panthera leo

Lions are large and impressive cats. The males can reach a shoulder height of 1.2m, and weigh in at around 200Kg. They can run at speeds of 40mph (20 metres per second!), bringing down their prey with huge paws and razor sharp claws.

Hunting is conducted in groups, pairs or solitary. A single lion hunting alone only has a 15% success rate, whereas in groups they are far more successful, catching up to 50% of all animals they attack.

Their hunting method is to stalk their prey, getting as close as possible, and then to rush towards it and attack. Lions will chase their prey for some time before giving up. Once the prey is brought down, the lion will clamp its jaws over the throat of the animal as a strangulation method. Hunting is usually performed at night. Lions are not infallible though and their prey is often as dangerous and as powerful as the lions themselves.

Being lazy cats, lions are prone to stealing the food from other predators, such as leopards and cheetahs. They spend most of the day sleeping and lying around in the bush.

A pride’s territory largely depends on prey density, the size of the reserve they are in and the population count of other lions in the area. This can be anything from 8 square miles, to far greater areas.

In the evening the dominant males roar to mark their territory and to communicate to each other, often as a sign that they intend to hunt. The sound is very guttural and loud, and carries for miles around. If you get to hear this up close, it is one of the most impressive sights and sounds of the bushveld.

The pride is dominated by one or two, or occasionally three dominant males. The males reach maturity between 5 and 9 years old, and this is when they begin looking to take over the pride.

Contrary to popular belief, lions do not have excellent vision, and they have trouble with details at a close distance, instead tending to concentrate on the middle-ground which is ideal vision for their predatory activities. Lions see in colour during the day, but they are colour-blind in the same way that some humans are colour blind, having trouble with the red through brown spectrum. At night their vision is monochrome.

Lions live for up to 12 years, depending on their circumstances. In captivity they have been known to live for over 20 years.

Leopard – Panthera pardus

Leopards are the most elusive of the big cats, and you are unlikely to see them when you visit the bush, but you may just get lucky! If you do see one, you can consider it a very special experience. Some guides work in the bush for a whole year without seeing a single leopard.

Being smaller than lions and weighing only 60Kg, leopards are nonetheless very strong cats for their size, with the ability to carry prey up into trees by holding it in their strong jaws.

They hunt at night in a stalking fashion. Once within about 15m of their prey, they will rush it and pounce. Leopards do not chase prey to the same extent as lions, but instead rely on surprise and stealth to make their kills.

As lions and hyaenas often steal leopard kills, driving them from their food, leopards will drag their kills up into trees to keep it safe from their bullying neighbours. In areas where leopards are the dominant predator, they do not resort to this tactic.

Leopards are solitary animals, and the mother will stay with her young until they are sufficiently grown to hunt and defend for themselves, and then they part company.

Black Rhino – Diceros bicornis

Being the smaller of the two species, the black rhino was included on the original hunting list of Big Five species due to its aggressive nature. It is generally thought that black rhinos are far more likely to charge an aggressor than white rhinos. But like all animals, they are unpredictable and there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to their behaviour.

They differ from white rhinos in both size and appearance. Weighing in at around 1,000Kg, they have a hooked-lip that is used for browsing on trees and shrubs. If you are walking through the bush and you come across a plant that appears to have been trimmed, study the clipped end of the stems and you may see a V-shape cut. This is the work of a black rhino. They also have a pronounced hump on their backs. Despite the name, they are not black in colour, but more of a brown-grey.

The males live alone and aggressively defend their territories from other males. They create dung ‘middens’ (heaps of dung in a particular place) to mark out their areas.

White Rhino – Ceratotherium simum

The word ‘white’ does not refer to the colour of the animal, but it’s a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for ‘wide’ (spelled ‘wyd’). This refers to the rhino’s wide, square-lipped mouth, ideally suited for grazing on grasses (as opposed to browsing like the black rhino).

White rhinos are significantly bigger than black rhinos, weighing in at a massive 2,100Kg, and running at speeds of up to 28mph.

Like black rhinos, white rhino males mark their territories using dung middens. It is possible to tell the difference between the two animals’ middens by observing the dung. As white rhinos graze on grass, their dung is fibrous and grass-like, whereas black rhino dung is clumpier, darker and with noticeable traces of twigs and leaves present.

Both species can live for up to 45 years, depending on habitat and health.

Buffalo – Syncerus caffer

Also known as the Cape Buffalo, these bovines stand at up to 1.6m at the shoulder, and weigh in at a massive 680Kg, the females being slightly smaller. Being able to run at speeds of up to 35mph, it is easy to see why these creatures are a formidable presence in the bush. They are not to be confused with the Asian Water Buffalo or the American Bison (which is not a true buffalo). The African Buffalo is the only bovine species that has not been domesticated, due to the animal’s aggressive and unpredictable temperament.

Buffalos live in herds, from anything between 5 to 3000 animals! Herds are arranged according to hierarchy, with the outermost members (lowest ranking) of the herd being used to protect the members at the centre and front of the herd. The members at the front of the herd lead the way when they are moving.

Males often leave the large herd to form bachelor herds, or to roam about in a solitary manner. These males are known locally as the ‘Dagga Boys’, and when on foot they are avoided at all costs, due to their aggressive nature.

The way to tell the difference between male and female buffaloes is to study their horns, where the horns meet at the bases (known as the boss) on the buffalo’s head. If the horns appear to merge into a single ‘plate’, like a shield on the buffalo’s head, it is a male. Females have a pronounced ‘parting’, where each horn has a visible boss-half.

Elephant – Loxodonta africana

Despite lions being crowned as ‘Kings of the Jungle’ in popular fiction, the real honour actually goes to the elephants.

Weighing in at 5,500Kg (males), standing 3.28m at the shoulders, and with charging speeds up to 25mph, they are creatures to be reckoned with. They are also highly intelligent and have complex social behaviour.

Elephants are very destructive feeders, needing to consume up to 170Kg of plant matter and 160 litres of water every day. In that respect they also act as the gardeners of the bush, helping to clear areas which then allows for new growth, though over-feeding can be a real problem when the elephant populations grow too large for the reserve to sustain (known as the ecological carrying capacity).

They form matriarchal herds, with a dominant female leading the herd, the young males being kicked out of the herd when they become adolescents at around 12 years old and start experiencing ‘musth’, a hormonal condition that gets them ready to mate with females in oestrus.

The males themselves often form bachelor herds. Due to the historic poaching of the large, old males, who once upon a time would lead these bachelor herds and educate the younger males on how to behave, a problem has occurred in recent times of ‘delinquent’ males. These are young males who leave the matriarchal herd to form bachelor herds of other young males – the herd having no experienced elder to keep them in check. Like many human youths, these young males roam around in gangs causing trouble and acting aggressively. There is ongoing research at the Elephant Research Project in Botswana to see if well mannered captive males can be released into the wild, to have a calming impact on the delinquent herds.

Elephants can communicate over many miles using an ultrasonic method called infrasound. Outside of the human hearing range, it is believed that infrasound is generated as a low rumbling, and it is picked up through the soles of the recipient elephant’s feet. This research is still ongoing and is a fascinating area of zoological study.

Elephants live for up to 65 years. They die of starvation when the last of their 6 molar teeth has worn out and they can no longer feed.