It’s a term that forms the foundation of literally thousands upon thousands of safari bookings each year, but the Big 5 is nevertheless a concept that many first time visitors to Africa are unaware of. Or if they have heard of it, they are unaware of its origins.
Borrowed from hunting, the Big 5 were originally the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Size really had nothing to do with it, otherwise leopards would probably not even make it into the Big 50! Giraffe and Hippo were never on the list either; the former are very placid and were not dangerous to the early hunters, while the latter could be safely hunted from the river’s edge without too much risk to the man with the .405 Winchester standing on the bank.
No, the real challenge for the early big game hunters lay in stalking through the thick Jesse bush after their quarry, ever-present Tsetse flies a constant irritation, with a real danger of either being flattened or mauled by whatever it is they were hunting.
The Big 5 that those early explorers described took on an almost mystical aura and appeal, so it was a simple task with the growth of commercial photographic safaris for early tour operators to sell those same five species as photographic subjects rather than as trophies to be stuck on a wall. Marketing efforts these days sell the Big 5 as the reason to visit a reserve, and although the presence of these animals should certainly not define the quality of your stay anywhere, they will always rank highly on anyone’s list of desired species to see on an African Safari.
So the next question is what species make up the Big 5?
The largest land animal alive, the elephant is a no-brainer for inclusion in the list, whether you are arguing from the old school dangerous-to-hunt-on-foot mentality, sheer size or its intrinsic value as an iconic and remarkably intelligent creature. Elephants are keystone species in their environments they live in, having such an impact from their presence as to be able to completely alter their habitats. The largest individual on record was a bull from Angola, who was recorded in 1956 as being 4m tall at the shoulder (imagine two 6ft4 men standing one on top of the other) and weighing almost 11000kg (around 24 000 pounds)
Consuming up to 300kg of food a day, it is no wonder that elephants need a large amount of room in which to live. The current elephant population of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park (including the Kruger National Park as well as the Sabi Sand Reserve, of which Londolozi forms part), is reported to be around 20000. On most days, herds of these wonderful creatures are to be seen feeding in the Sand River in front of the Londolozi camps, and we feel incredibly privileged to spend time in their presence on an almost daily basis.
Both white and black rhinoceros are included in this list, so from a species point of view it’s technically the Big 6.
The description of these lumbering behemoths as prehistoric-looking is clichéd, but clichés are often there because they are accurate. The white rhino – the species commonly encountered on Londolozi – is the larger of the two, officially being ranked as the second largest terrestrial mammal behind the elephant. Big bulls can tip the scales at almost two tons, and when this gets up to speed, with a really long, sharp pointy end: look out! RHinos can be approached in relative safety on foot, as long as you stay down wind of them and use cover wisely. Their eysight is very poor, but their senses of hearing and smell are acute.
Often regarded as the most dangerous of the 5 due to their unpredictable nature, buffalo are easy animals to misjudge. A large herd with its numerous cows and calves can be an incredible spectacle to behold as they come down to drink in the evening glow on Londolozi’s grasslands. It’s the old bulls tend to be the nasty ones, as many a hunter from days gone by found out. Grumpy and recalcitrant, they have sent many men and women scuttling for the treetops over the years. You can bump into them at five metres and they’ll run away. Then the same bull can see you at 100 metres tomorrow and break into a full charge. The bottom line is it’s wise to keep a respectful distance when you see them on foot.
Buffalo are generally avoided by lions as a prey species in the summer months, when the black beasts have been grazing on succulent grasses and are in excellent condition, but in the winter when they weaken somewhat, lions start pursuing them more readily. The King of Beasts doesn’t have it all his own way though, and many a lion has fallen victim to the crushing hooves or sharp swishing horns of the African buffalo.
In many ways the most iconic of the 5, being truly representative of Africa’s majesty (there is also a species found in India called the Asiatic Lion), the lion is probably the most widely studied and represented in media and stories. Animated films have been made about them and their status as Africa’s most well-known animal seems firmly cemented.
With big males weighing in at 200 kilograms and being able to run at over 60km/h, lions are killing machines (there’s another fairly accurate cliché for you). The sheer power of these animals (that they maintain despite sleeping for most of the day) has to be seen to be believed, but it is truly frightening what one of them is capable of, with its 18 razor-sharp claws and a jaw full of ferocious teeth. A male lion can bring down an 800kg buffalo by himself, and the savagery with which they fight each other when territory and females are at stake is truly something to behold.
The most elusive of the 5, leopards are probably the one most often missing from people’s Big 5 checklist. Masters of camouflage, leopards inhabit almost every habitat in Africa where there is space for them; from forest to desert and up to mountain tops, these adaptable animals can turn their habits to suit any environment. Preying on baboons in the mountains near Cape Town, impalas at Londolozi, and well over 50 other recorded prey species across their range, leopards are as effective as hunters as they mystical as they are beautiful. These latter two qualities synergise with each other, in fact.
Incredibly dangerous in their own right, we are fortunate to have at Londolozi a population that through many years of a dedicated and sensitive approach to viewing them, has grown to accept the presence of the Land Rovers that seek them out during daily game drives
Africa is much, much more than the Big 5. It’s about the call of the fish eagle at dawn, dung beetles rolling their balls into the bushes, a bead of perspiration on your brow as the heat waves shimmer on an open plain, or a journey of giraffes moving in a stately line across a hillcrest at sunset. The intangibles of Africa, the feeling it gives you, the connection that – at least in my opinion – is difficult to find anywhere else, and that overriding sense of witnessing something much greater than you… these are all part of the allure of this diverse and still mysterious continent.
Yet time and time again, it is the five animals named above that draw people from all over the world to first step foot on these shores. And if through these 5, peoples eyes are opened to the wondrous depths that this continent has to offer, that’s something rather special.