African Legends and Myths Explained

© Maasai Warrior

Humankind was born in Africa - surviving all the dangers that the continent throws up. There was a time when the presence of predators signaled direct danger to us and it may be from these times that our fascination with African wildlife occurred.

The Legend of the Big 5

Lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo, which make up the Big 5, were considered the most dangerous animals to hunt by the trophy hunters of yesteryear and today, through a clever piece of marketing, the 'Big 5' has become the benchmark of a successful African safari. The term has been carried over into the photographic tourism realm by private reserves that were looking for a selling term.

The private lodges of South Africa picked up on the old hunting term and marketed it into safari folklore to such an extent that many travel companies do not sell a wilderness area that does not offer the Big 5.

Elephant Graveyards

The idea of elephant graveyards, where elephants went off to die, was a widely believed scenario but this has now been debunked. The idea of elephants knowing they were going to die and heading off to the graveyard is one of the romanticized stories we have built up about elephants.

Where this theory came from is uncertain. It may have stemmed from times of drought when animals concentrated around a permanent watersource, the vegetation in the area was depleted and the older elephants began to suffer from lack of food.

Elephants have six sets of teeth in their lifetimes and when these are worn out the animal virtually dies of starvation. As they get older they need softer food to survive but in times of drought this soft food is unavailable and a number of older elephants may die around the same water source - and it may have been from one of these die-outs where the theory of elephant graveyards was born.

Head-in-the-sand ostriches

The age-old myth of ostriches sticking their heads in the sand may also have been born out of misunderstanding. The idea is so popular that it has become a call describe ignorance in humans. But where did the idea originate from?

Ostriches are very tall birds with long thin necks and they feed on all sorts of different foods - which mostly happen to be on the ground. When an ostrich is feeding, with its head low to the ground, it can look as though it has buried its head in the sand. From a distance this looks even more the case, and particularly if the vegetation is at a height that conceals the head.

When feeding in one spot the ostrich does not move its neck too much and this adds to the idea that the ostrich has its head in the sand.

Top of the Predator Chain

Despite the wide variety of wildlife species on the African continent it is the predators that many people are attracted to. Long projected as the most fearsome animals in the world the predators of Africa continue to be the cornerstone of the African safari. From the romantically-entitled King of the Beasts to the ever-ridiculed hyena the African predators will be in the public consciousness forever.

Although African stories bring African wildlife to the forefront of public consciousness the stories themselves may be a little misleading, for example, in most stories the lions are the Kings and the hyenas are generally devious skulking creatures that always lose out. In reality hyenas are often the top predators with lions doing most of the scavenging. Hyenas regularly chase lions of kills.

Wildlife documentaries and present-day adventurers

With the explosion of reality television in recent times the need arose for wildlife documentaries to follow suit - in order to provide viewers with something more than romantically-charged stories of African wildlife.

The natural history channels of today are littered with 'adventurers' showing off their bravery and skill against the odds - standing face to face with some of the most dangerous animals on the planet. What these new style documentaries do not show is the stress that the animals are put under to get the footage - and the back-up crews waiting to intervene immediately.

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