“Whatever you do, do not run!”
Peter Allison, Botswana safari guide
The label you will undoubtedly read when you will start doing your research on how to plan your safari in Africa is: Big Five.
Originally the term Big Five meant the five animals that hunters judged as the most difficult to hunt because of their unpredictable and aggressive behavior. The name is now commonly used to identify the primary sighting desire of all safari-goers: the African Elephant, the Cape Buffalo, the Lion, the Black Rhino, and the Leopard.
African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
The largest land mammal, with a sophisticated social behavior, a unique tactile communication, and a well developed vocal repertoire of four particular sounds, you will immediately experience in your African safari. A mature bull averages over 10 ft height (3 m), and the weight can range from 5,000 pounds to more than 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg). Elephants spend 16 hours a day feeding. Adult elephants can eat up to 600 pounds (270 kg) of food a day. As herbivores, elephants consume grasses, tree foliage, bark, twigs, and other vegetation daily. Elephants can also drink up to 50 gallons (190 liters) of water a day, about as much as a standard bathtub holds. Elephants are social animals who tend to live in large herds. Females are known for their ability to stay within “family” groups, following a matriarch, for the duration of their lives. Males, once grown-ups, are forced to leave the herd, allowing genetic exchange. They gather in small bull herds, wandering till the mating season.
The Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
Large, with massive horns, weighing up to 2,000 pounds (900 kg), they are known by hunters as the “black death”. Buffaloes are highly gregarious and non-territorial. The dominance among males is based on size. Lacking an efficient mechanism for conserving moisture, buffaloes have to drink regularly, and this is the reason buffaloes often live in swamps. They are grazers and feed mainly on grass. They have poor eyesight and hearing; however, an incredible sense of smell. You can find them in herds of a few hundred but have known to congregate in thousands in the Serengeti during the rainy season. Their congregating in large numbers is one of the many anti-predator adaptations. It decreases the possibility of any individual being singled out by lions.
The Lion (Pantera leo)
The “king” of the bush and the largest African carnivore. A mature male weighs up to 440 pounds (200 kg) and has a height of up to 4 ft (1.20 m). Their predatory behavior is unique in wildlife. With speed up to 38 mph (60 km/h), lions need calm, skills, and patience to capture such fleet animals like zebras and impala. They rely heavily on stalking. Interesting to note is that lionesses are the hunters in most of the cases. Male lions spend their time guarding their territory and their cubs. They maintain the boundaries of their land, which can be as large as 100 sq mi (260 sq km), by roaring, marking the territory, and chasing off intruders. Their thick manes, a unique trait to male lions, protect their necks when they fight with challengers. Social behavior is very articulated, and vocal communication refined. The lion’s roar is rightly considered one of the most impressive natural sounds.
The Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis)
One of the species under serious threat of extinction due to heavy poaching. No taller than a buffalo, but twice the weight! The black rhino is a nearly pure browser, as opposed to the white rhino, who is a grazer. Their prehensile upper lip is adapted for grasping and holding leaves and branches of shrubs and trees. The horn is extremely variable in shape and length, with the front horn up to 4.2 ft (1.30 m). Black rhinos are not black. The species probably derives its name as a distinction from the other kind or rhino, called “white rhino” and/or from the dark-colored local soil that covers its skin after wallowing in mud.
The Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The most ubiquitous of all cats, and the most sought-after among wildlife photographers. Leopards are solo hunters, and the quintessential ambush and stalking predators, stealing at most 65 ft (20 m) and sometimes within 16 ft (5 m) before pouncing. Pound for pound, the leopard is the most vigorous climber of all the big cats. Their shoulder blades even have unique attachment sites for stronger climbing muscles. They spend much of their time in trees even when stalking prey and for eating. Both lions and hyenas will take away a leopard’s food if they can. To prevent this, they will often store their kill high up in tree branches where it can feed in relative safety.
People like ranking and no wonder, we did not have to wait too much before seeing other interesting lists: the Small Five, the Shy Five, and the Ugly Five. In the next blog, we will tell you who they are.