It is a pleasure to share highlights of the classic “Big Five” animals of the African savannah: leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros, and buffalo. Here are a few personal experiences I have had with the Big Five.
In an earlier era they were so-named because they were the five most challenging animals to shoot. Fortunately, the trophy game hunters are the minority these days.
Most safari visitors of today cherish these animals; and the only capture is simply via cameras.
Most of us know about the ongoing problems with habitat destruction and unprecedented poaching. To read about it, here is a New York Times article: The Big Five.
1. The African Leopard. A cat of extreme stealth and strength, the leopard hunts primarily at night. With a diet that is least particular of all African carnivores, they have been found to have 30 different prey species in Serengeti National Park alone. In addition, they will attack and take down an animal three times their size.
I came to breakfast one morning, wondering about a sound I had heard right outside our tent during the night, asked the guide at our table. He stopped eating his scrambled eggs, and proceeded to make one animal sound after another, pausing between each one. It was an impressive, and amusing, repertoire.
When he made the gruff sound of a rhythmic saw going back and forth through a piece of wood, I piped, “That’s it.”
He replied, “Leopard.”
Leopard kill prey so big they cannot always eat them at once, and often cache it in a tree for later consumption. Sometimes, they can be found in the tree during the day, sleeping.
2. African Elephant. What I like best about this behemoth: watching them use their trunks in a myriad of ways; listening to their steady breathing and conversations; and watching a herd of cow elephants teach their young. Their enormous size, and trumpeting signals, rate high on my list of thrills, too.
3. African Lion. The first time I saw a wild lioness, she took my breath away. The golden eyes and her lustrous coat were stunning to look at; but it was the courage and confidence of her swagger that has remained with me.
In lion prides, the lioness is the hunter, and there is much to learn from her wisdom. So many times we watched a lioness stalking prey, quietly sneaking up, and ready to prance. And then, more often than not, she subsequently aborted the mission.
Lionesses are constantly strategizing the potential for success in each endeavor–if the expenditure is more than the prize, she will do nothing and move on, confident of a better opportunity.
We often came upon lions in the morning, after they’d had a night of successful hunting. They laid in shade or by a pond with full bellies, sleepy eyes, and fresh wounds.
4. African Rhinoceros. Seeing a rhino in the wild is a thing of the past, due to illegal poaching that has drastically reduced their populations. But there are still some parks where they are fiercely protected.
Rhinos are unique-looking, with their heavy, barrel-shaped bodies on short legs, two horns, and prehistoric presence. There are two African species, the white and black; and neither are white nor black, but varying colors of gray and brown.
It is the white rhino, a grazer, we see on safaris and photographed here.
5. African Buffalo. I shiver just looking at photos of this beast. Their prominent horns cover much of the face, measuring up to 40 inches across (100cm), used for hooking and goring.
They are grazers, like the white rhino, so you often come across them in the savannah grass. How many times we have come around a corner in the jeep to find a buffalo herd hidden in the tall grass or behind a few shrubs. Every single time, my heart jumps for an instant.
Their non-human predators are few: the crocodile and the lion. Who but a lion would take on the buffalo…and win.
Thanks for joining us on safari. Or in Swahili, it is “Asante” (thank you).
Written by Jet Eliot
All photos by Athena Alexander
Countries where you can see all of the Big Five, per Wikipedia: Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi.