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Africa’s fives: the Big, Small & Ugly

Defined by their size, strength and potential danger, Africa’s Big Five are – for many – also the most thrilling to see in their natural habitat. Witness the haughty grandeur of the lion, the brooding menace of buffalo, the imperious elephant and rhino, and the night-creeping leopard. No wonder these animals are at the top of nearly everyone’s tick list.

But spare a thought for the rest of Africa’s wildlife, often overlooked in the rush to find the Big Five. What about giant armoured beetles or elephant-trunked shrews? Or the bone-crushing power of hyenas or birds that tear open carcasses with their butcher-bill hooks?

And while there’s no doubt that Africa’s Big Five are exciting to see, they are also easy to find if you go to the right places. Not so the Small Five – creatures that require a slower pace and a keener eye to spot. You will, however, have an easier time ticking off the members of Africa’s Ugly Five, animals that perhaps only their mother could love.

The Big Five? The Small Five? The Ugly Five?? Time to explain.


Big Five in the Sabi Sands

The shy leopard is usually the most difficult member of the Big Five to find; a six-ton elephant is invariably the easiest!

Traditionally regarded as the animals most dangerous to humans, the Big Five – lion, elephant, black rhino, Cape buffalo and leopard – are emblematic of a classic, natural Africa. These are creatures that need a large wilderness in which to survive as well as lots of food – trees, grasslands and other animals. Entire ecosystems revolve around them, from the scavenging hierarchy at a leftover lion-kill to the life cycle of dung beetles. Their size and power fill us with awe and their images are woven into our daily life from nursery rhymes to cement brands.

But the Big Five are too big for their shrinking natural world and although they can be found across Southern and East Africa in many reserves, here are not many conservation areas (or even countries) that can confidently proclaim themselves as home to the Big Five – all of them. Botswana, for example, has around a third of Africa’s elephants but barely a rhino. Namibia’s Etosha National Park on the other hand is where to see black rhino but there are no buffalo there. And trying to find a leopard in many Big Five reserves is like trying to find a needle you-know-where.

So if you’re planning to see the Big Five, there are really only three places to consider: South Africa’s Kruger Private Reserves and the Madikwe Game Reserve, and Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. All have the advantage of being fairly small reserves with a high carrying capacity for wildlife, and the Kruger Reserves and Ngorongoro both have a solid reputation for delivering the Big Five within a day or two.


Small Five in the Sabi Sands

You can see how the Rhinoceros Beetle & Leopard Tortoise get their names but both are harder to find than you think.

Now it gets tricky. It’s not that Africa’s Small Five are rare; it’s just that they are … small. And hard to find.

Ant Lions are the perhaps easiest. Not the adult – an odd mix of dragonfly and grasshopper – but their larvae. A quick scan under a thorn tree reveals tiny inverted cones in the sand. At the bottom of these pits lie the Ant Lion grubs, armed with enormous spiked jaws to seize insect prey that has blundered into the trap. The larvae even flick grains of sand onto potential victims to knock them into the pit. There’s no chance, however, that a Rhinoceros Beetle will become its prey. This insect is 60 mm long (2.4 inches) and – gram for gram – the strongest animal in the world. It can carry 30 times its own body weight without breaking stride and lift loads so heavy that a human equivalent could bench press 65 tons in the gym.

The Buffalo Weaver can’t match that strength; for them, safety lies in numbers: it breeds in huge thorny nests, presided over by polygamous males. It’s the opposite approach for the tiny Elephant Shrew, usually a solitary animal with a tendency to dash for cover. Elephants Shrews are more closely related to elephants than they are to true shrews and even have a flexible trunk to prove it. The Leopard Tortoise makes up the last of the Africa’s Small Five; its ornately patterned shell mirrors that of its feline namesake, and makes it equally difficult to see in the mottled sunlight of a wooded savannah.

Where to find them? Africa’s Small Five live in virtually all of Southern and East Africa’s savannah reserves but are not easy to find altogether in one safari. Make it your new mission.


Ugly Five in the Serengeti and in the Sabi Sands

As prey items & as their recyclers, Wildebeest & Vultures are locked into an ecological cycle together.

Oh, I know it’s subjective: I’m sure a scruffy gang of drool-jawed hyenas look at humans in disbelief at our ugliness. But there is a collection of animals whose appearance reflects all the things we try to avoid: pot-bellies, baldness, thin legs and bad table manners. Perhaps that’s why we like them; it’s not just us – there is also Africa’s Ugly Five.

King of the Ugly Five is the Spotted Hyena; second only to the lion in the savannah’s pecking order. An effective hunter, it is nevertheless most often seen scavenging at the remains of kills. With one of the most powerful bites in the animal kingdom, its jaws crunch through hide, bone and gristle with ease.

Which is good news for Vultures and Marabou Storks, now able to access more of the leftovers. Both birds are ‘bald’ in the sense of having no or few feathers on their head, an appearance exacerbated by their long, ungainly neck – vital adaptations for a life spent sticking your head inside your food.

And the food in question may well be a Blue Wildebeest. Also known as a ‘gnu’ (because that’s what they say), the slab-bodied, weedy-legged wildebeest is a big part of the food chain, falling in great numbers to big cats, wild dogs and crocodiles. These predators are also after the Warthog but don’t usually have such an easy time of it. Despite their comical appearance, warthogs are armed with pairs of curved tusks, kept razor-sharp and used for fighting and defence.

The Ugly Five are all common species in the bigger East and Southern African savannah reserves such as Chobe and Kruger Park but why not guarantee them with a safari in the Masai Mara or Serengeti when there are nearly two million wildebeest on the move?

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