I’m sure you’ve all heard of Africa’s famous Big Five, but do you know there is also an equally fascinating Little Five? Africa is famous for its large, charismatic mammals, and the Big Five epitomize the most sought-after of these fantastic beasts. Originally a hunting term, the Big Five were the most dangerous and prized targets of the great white hunters on safari. They are not necessarily the biggest African animals, but represented those that were considered a real hunter’s worthy prey or “game” – the African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Black Rhinoceros, Leopard and king of the jungle, the Lion (which of course doesn’t inhabit jungle but savanna!). Thankfully the days of visiting Africa purely for slaughtering its wildlife have mostly come to a merciful end, and safari operators have adopted the Big Five term to market tours that offer sightings of the fortunate remanants of Africa’s once teeming great herds.
As visitors’ and the public’s interests expanded from the Big Five, and an appreciation for lesser mammals, birds and smaller wildlife has became more widespread, the term Little Five was coined. This blog post will discuss both the Big and Little members of these quintuplets.
The big – two species of elephant are now recognized as occuring in Africa, the smaller and more secretive Forest Elephant and the larger, more familiar African or Bush Elephant. It’s the latter that represents the largest member of the Big Five and is in fact the largest creature currently walking the face of our planet. Towering up to 13ft at the shoulder and weighing in at up to 10 tons, this magnificent beast sports an impressive array of specialized evolutionary traits, from impressive memory and intelligence, an upper lip and nose that have evolved to form a 5th limb we call a trunk, great spears of ivory (sadly the root for the species downfall), massive ears for heat dissipation, and complex communication systems that we are only beginning to comprehend. The African Elephant used to occur throughout Africa outside of the rainforest zones, where its close relative the Forest Elephant replaces it. From Cape Point to the depths of the Sahara, these remarkable beasts roamed in matriarchal herds, thriving on beaches, mountain peaks, deserts and almost every other habitat besides. Their relentless slaughter for ivory and trophies diminished the population from tens of millions to the less than 500,000 existing today. Prime destinations for seeing African Elephant in the wild include Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Uganda.
The little – elephant shrews are a group of 17 small to medium sized insectivorous mammals that have confused taxonomists since they were first described. These long-nosed (hence their being named in honor of the Elephant) shrew-like creatures have at one time or another been placed with rodents, shrews, hedgehogs, hares and rabbits, ungulates and treeshrews, but are now curiously classified in a new group of mammals called Afrotheres and are actually considered to be not too distant relatives of their giant namesake, the Elephant afterall! The Afrotheres consist of several groups of mammals that evolved in Africa and include elephants, hyraxes, elephant shrews, aardvark, pangolin and golden moles. Elephant shrews are broken into two groups, the smaller sengis that occur mostly in rocky savannas and drier areas, and the rainforest dwelling giant elephant shrews.
The big – to anyone familiar with the wilds of Africa, the Cape or African Buffalo is the most fearsome of all animals. This hulking massive bovid has caught many a wanderer unawares, often with fatal consequences. Generally the large family herds of buffalo are peaceful, but the old bulls (called “dagga” boys, “dagga” being a Zulu word for “mud” since they are often covered with the substance after their long wallows) who have left the herds tend to be furious with life in general and anyone they can smash in particular. Herds of Cape Buffalo once ranged nearly as widely throughout Africa as the elephant, but avoided the most arid areas since buffalo need to drink almost daily. In the rainforest zone, a different subspecies occurs that is smaller, reddish and has long tasseled ears and is called the Forest Buffalo. Cape Buffalo populations are now scattered across the continent, but significant numbers still exist that they are not considered endangered. Oh, and by the way if you call our buffalo a Water Buffalo, as it’s so often referred to in nature documentaries, you might get head-butted by anyone familiar with African animals – the Water Buffalo is an Asian species, but this error is curiously widespread and frustratingly tough to stamp out!
The little – the two species of black Buffalo Weavers obtain their appellation from their dark coloration that resembles their fearsome namesake. They are large, noisy birds of drier areas of East and southern Africa. Red-billed is the most widespread, occurring in both regions, whereas White-billed are only found in East Africa. These two species are quite similar, with black bodies, pale wing panels, and vary only in their bill color. These weavers build massive, shaggy communal nests as high as possible in savanna trees, and even in power pylons when available. A third species of buffalo weaver exists, the White-headed, similar to the previous two in structure but rather unique in coloration.
The big – although two species of rhinoceros occur in Africa, the original member of the Big Five was the Black Rhinoceros. Although smaller than the White Rhinoceros, the Black is far more pugnacious and feared, often charging without provocation, whereas the relatively more docile and lumbering White Rhinoceros will often ignore an intruder and keep on grazing. The Black Rhino was also a widespread African denizen occurring throughout the continent, even into desert areas. However it is now one of the world’s rarest animals after decades of relentless hunting and poaching. Both the Black and,White Rhino (the latter which was saved from near extinction in the last century by the pioneering work of the Natal Parks Board) are facing the chasm of extinction, especially with the current onslaught of high-tech, organized-crime poaching that is decimating rhino populations. Seekers of the game-viewing Big Five have more recently relaxed their criteria and generally either Black or White Rhino is counted as a member of the Big Five. Black Rhinos are best sought in South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania.
The little – the derivation of the name for the Rhinoceros Beetle is rather obvious, the males of these large (up to 6 inch) insects sport a massive horn similar to its namesake mammal. They are part of the scarab beetle complex and over 300 species have been described, occurring not only in Africa but also Europe, Asia and the Americas. They are harmless to humans and their horns are used for wrestling other males for mating rights. Rhinoceros Beetles are nocturnal and most often found at night when they are attracted to bright lights. In Asia they are even commonly kept as pets!
The big – Lions are ferocious predatory felids that used to range through most of the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa, but are now restricted to tiny wildernesses in Africa and one relict population in the Gir Forest of western India. They occur in prides dominated by one or more males (the latter known as a coalition – up to 8 or 9 related males may be involved) and consisting of several lionesses and their cubs. They are efficient predators taking down prey far in excess of their size, including elephant and hippopotamus. They are one of the four existing species in the genus Panthera, and with males weighing in at up to 550lbs are second in size only to Tigers. Watching Lions is generally rather dull as they spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping, but when one is fortunate enough to witness Lions hunting or roaring, then you would truly acknowledge that the Lion is the King of the Beasts! Lions are most easily found in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Observing Lions hunting is a thrilling experience. This lioness remained hidden from these zebras in the long grass until she felt they were close enough for the charge. Image taken in the Serengeti by Adam Riley
The little – in no way physically resembling the mighty and handsome Lion, the Antlion is the larval form of a flying insect known as a lacewing. Over 2,000 species have been described worldwide. They are most easily noticed from their sandpit traps, conical excavations that the larvae construct in loose sand in order to trap ants and other insects that slide to the bottom of the pit, and are then grasped by the fearsome pincers of the antlion whilst their bodies are sucked dry. They are called Antlions due to ants being one of their main prey items and “lion” referring to hunter or destroyer.
The big – the Leopard is the most elusive and arguably most beautiful of the Big Five. This sleek, stunningly patterned cat was a formidable hunting subject, and in its cunning sometimes ended up hunting and killing the hunter. Leopards are extremely versatile predators, occurring across a wide range of habitats from desert to rainforest. They are distributed from the southern tip of Africa (still occurring in the suburbs of Cape Town!) to the far reaches of freezing Siberia. Their stealth allows them to exist in close-proximity to humans and their hunting prowess means they still survive on small prey even when other larger mammals have been exterminated. In several areas, most famously the Sabi Sands Game reserve bordering Kruger National Park in South Africa, Leopards have become habituated and are easily observed, but through most of their range they are but shadows in the night.
The little – the Leopard Tortoise, so named for its attractive yellow and black blotched shell that resembles the patterns of a Leopard’s pelt, is the 4th largest species of tortoise. It munches grass and other vegetation throughout the savanna and grassland zones of Southern and Eastern Africa, and can grow up to 45 inches in length and weigh over 120lbs, but 18 inches is a more typical size. The Leopard Tortoise is quite frequently spotted in the famous game reserves of Africa, especially Kruger, Etosha, Serengeti and Samburu reserves. They live for up to 100 years.
So next time you are in Africa and have ticked off the Big Five on your safari, how about giving the Little Five a try?