The term “Big Five” originally referred to the difficulty that hunters faced when tracking down and hunting the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo in the past. These five large African mammals were known to be dangerous and it was considered quite an accomplishment by trophy hunters to bring them home.
These days however the expression takes on a much gentler form, referring to seeing and mostly photographing the Big Five – definitely not shooting them – during wildlife safaris in South Africa.
Since 1990 South African rand banknotes feature a different big-five animal on each denomination.
We have put together a few facts about the Big Five to impress your future safari friends on game drives during your getaway.
The African Buffalo
The African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is the only animal among the Big Five that is not on the “endangered” or “threatened” list. Their primary predator is the lion. Buffalo will attempt to rescue another member who has been caught. They can be vindictive and have been observed killing a lion after it has killed a member of the group.
The African buffalo is not closely related to the water buffalo even though they superficially resemble each other. And unlike the water buffalo, the dangerous African buffalo has never been domesticated.
The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is the most seldom seen of the Big Five because of its nocturnal, solitary and secretive habits. They are excellent at climbing trees. They will often safeguard their kill in a tree to prevent lions and hyenas from stealing it. Leopards are strong swimmers and occasionally even eat fish and crabs.
The African Elephant
The African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) are the largest land-based animals. Elephant vocals are variations of rumbles, trumpets, squeals and screams. African elephants communicate across large distances at a low frequency that cannot be heard by humans.
Many plant species have evolved seeds that are dependent on passing through an elephant’s digestive tract before they can germinate. At least one third of tree species in West African forests rely on elephants in this way for dissemination.
The Black (Diceros bicornis) and White (Ceratotherium simum) Rhinoceros are both classified as critically endangered due to extensive poaching. Very few rhinos now survive outside national parks and reserves.
Rhinos have poor vision and will sometimes attack trees and rocks by accident. However, their hearing and sense of smell are excellent, thus often making up for their poor eyesight.
Rhino poaching worldwide hit a 15-year high in 2009. The illegal trade is being driven by an Asian demand for horns, made worse by increasingly sophisticated poachers who are now using veterinary drugs, poison, cross bows and high caliber weapons to kill rhinos. Very few rhinos now survive outside national parks and reserves.
White rhinos aren’t white, but slate gray to yellowish brown in color. The species name actually takes its root from Dutch, “weit” (wide), in reference to the animal’s wide muzzle.
The African Lion
Lions are known to kill other predators such as leopard, cheetah and spotted hyena but they seldom consume them.
Lions are sexually dimorphic, adult male lions are larger than females and have a prominent mane Typically, the darker a lion’s mane, the older he is.
Africa’s Big Five are truly unique and special, is it any wonder that they inspire quotes like this one by Suzanne Evans; “I hope you have an experience that alters the course of your life because after Africa nothing has ever been the same.”