Introducing the Big Five Wildlife of Africa

© Where ever you go in the Mara there is always a cheetah on a safari vehicle

On a safari in Africa everyone seems to be after the Big Five- but what exactly is the Big Five and why does everyone getting so excited about them?

Those who have never been on safari may come across some terms related to a safari that are puzzling. For instance why does everyone keep talking about game?

Are we playing something because you did not pack any kit! The term 'game' in this instance is referring to 'wildlife'. This also gives rise to the terms 'game drive' and 'game viewing'.

The term Big Five comes from the days of the colonial white hunters during the last century. While these animals are undoubtedly impressive, please remember that there are many different species of wildlife that are just as fascinating.

The Big Five were the animals that the hunters considered to be their biggest challenge to hunt. They are animals that can be the most dangerous in Africa, especially if wounded. On safari you will likely encounter them from the safety of a safari vehicle or in the company of an armed guard while on a walking safari, so you do not need to be unnecessarily afraid of them.

The King of the African Bush - the Lion

Lion (Panthera Leo) is usually the first member of the illustrious group to come to mind. Lions were once widespread through Africa and Asia.

They have held a special place in our history and stories for thousands of years. For the colonial settlers and native African's, Lions were dangerous and an animal to be feared. Consequently they were ruthlessly hunted.

In many cultures a man had to hunt a Lion to prove that he was a man. The colonials with their guns had a much easier task.

Today their population is in decline and they are mostly found in protected reserves. Instead of being shot at by big hunters (for the most part) its tourists who are doing the shooting - with cameras. Sightings of lions are one of the absolute 'musts' while on safari for many tourists.

The Largest Land Animal - the Elephant

The Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is another contender for the King of the Bush.

It is the largest animal on land. In the past the great hunters shot them for their valuable ivory and the thrill of taking on such a huge and dangerous animal.

Elephant can be a deadly foe, especially when wounded. Today they are still hunted illegally by poachers, but for the most part are protected. On safari you can often get quite close to these huge creatures. They are highly intelligent and have a complex social structure. In many safari areas, they are one of the easiest members of the Big Five to see.

Hardly Spotted on Safari - the Leopard

The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is widespread in Africa, but due to their elusive nature and nocturnal habits, they can be one of the hardest of the Big Five to see.

In reserves they have become more used to the presence of humans and vehicles, so today it is a bit easier for safari goers to see them.

Leopards are renowned for their climbing skills and can haul prey that is equal to their own weight up into a tree out of the reach of other predators. In sub Saharan Africa, they are mostly active at night and the easiest time to see them is at dusk or very early in the morning.

Disappearing Fast - the Black or White Rhino

The fourth member of the Big Five is the Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum or Diceros bicorni) often just referred to as Rhino. In Africa there are two species of Rhino, the Black and White.

They were also considered to be worthy adversaries for the colonial hunters. The names do not refer to the actual colour of the animals. White is a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word - "wyd" , pronbounced "vait" - for wide, in reference to the shape of the animal's mouth.

Rhino have been hunted and poached for their horns over the past few centuries, and now they are endangered. Poaching continues to this day as many people mistakenly believe in the properties of their horn. Safari goers are more likely to see a White Rhino than a Black Rhino.

The Widow Maker - Cape buffalo

The Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is considered by hunters to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.

They have earned the name "black death" and "widow maker" due to the number of people they have killed. This is because of their unpredictability and aggressive nature when injured or threatened.

The females move in large herds that can number in their thousands while the males generally form smaller herds. They are the favourite prey of Lions in some parts of Africa, although with their sharp horns and powerful kicks they are more than capable of killing a Lion in defence.

They can be easily viewed from the safety of a safari vehicle, but if you are on a walking safari you need to be more careful around buffalo and follow the guide's instructions.

By Leigh Kemp

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