The Big Five – The Superstars of the South African Bush
The Big Five -The Superstars of the South African Bush and what makes them so special.
South Africa is home to many different animal species and each one, small or large, plays a vital and fundamental role in the sensitive ecosystem as it helps maintaining the functioning of their natural habitat.
But perhaps the most famous are what have come to be termed “the Big Five”- namely lions, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants, and African buffalo.
The term, “the Big Five”, coined in the late 1800s during Africa’s colonial period, refers to what trophy hunters considered the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot.
When going on a safari holiday these five species rank on the peak of the must-see list of the iconic mega fauna. Due to influencing marketing strategies in the tourism industry; well, yes, you see them on the cover of almost every glossy travel catalogue and travel guide; seeing the Big Five has become an “awe-inspiring” goal for any safari-goer.
It is what people dream about when they think of Africa and wildlife.
Leopard (Panthera pardus)
These reclusive animals are some of the most difficult to spot. However, keeping a lookout among the trees is a good start as these felines love to climb and have been seen on branches of tall trees during the day.
Leopards tend to have distinctive dark spots called rosettes, which create beautiful patterns against their otherwise light fur.
Leopards have the widest range of habitats of all the big cats. This adaptability has allowed them to survive in various different geographic areas. Perhaps the most extreme example is the amazing snow leopard which lives in the Himalayas.
Leopards are predominantly solitary animals that have large territories.
While male territories are larger than females and tend to overlap, individuals usually only tolerate intrusion into ranges for mating.
They mark their ranges with urine and leave claw marks on trees to warn others to stay away.
The leopard is also a remarkable athlete, capable not only of swimming across rivers, but also leaping onto trees whilst carrying prey as heavy as itself.
They are known for their agility and can run up to 58 km per hour.
Mainly hunting during night, it is very intelligent and a perfectly streamlined killing machine with exceptional hearing, good eyesight and ultra-sensitive extralong whiskers.
When it comes to hunting for food, these big cats know their stuff!
When a leopard spots a potential meal, it approaches with legs bent and head low, so as not to be seen. It then stalks its prey carefully and quietly, until it’s five to ten metres within range. Then…. pounce!
The leopard dashes forward and takes down its victim with a bite to the throat or neck.
Lion (Panthera leo)
A formidable reputation precedes the king of the beasts.
The lion’s strength and stature command respect from the entire animal kingdom.
Lions make it very clear who’s the boss as males stake out territory with a deafening roar that can be heard through the African night for up to eight kilometres. Lions are also the only cats who roar together in a calling sequence, with multiple lions joining in.
The largest of all the cats, lions have a wide habitat tolerance and can survive in most environments, Unlike the reclusive leopard, lions are sociable and live in large packs. A pride, can be up to 30 lions, depending on how much food and water is available.
They spend up to 21 hours each day resting and sleeping. They have few sweat glands, so they wisely tend to conserve their energy by resting during the day and become more active at night when it is cooler.
Lions go on the hunt for food mostly from dusk till dawn. Female lions do 85-90% of the prides hunting, whilst the male lions patrol the territory and protect the pride.
Lions love to hunt during storms as the noise and wind make it harder for prey to see and hear them.
Their tongues have sharp pointed rasps, called papillae. These are used to scrape meat off bones.
To keep their body in perfect condition, a female lion needs 5 kg of meat a day. Whereas the male needs 7 kg or more a day.
Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
One of the most impressive and frightening sights of Africa is the mighty steamroller stampede of a herd of buffalo thundering across the savanna plains.
These giant mammals exist in large herds, sometimes up to 800.
The females and their offspring make up the bulk of the herd. Males may spend much of their time in bachelor groups. These groups are of two types, those that contain males from 4 to 7 years old and those that have males 12 years and older. The older bulls often prefer to be on their own.
The buffalo is one of the world’s most dangerous animals as they do ambush and even attack without warning. With its menacing, curved horns held high, it will charge, lowering its horns at the very last moment to fling its tormentor into the air.
Hunting websites refer to the buffalo as “black death” for its dangerous personality—they’re known to be grumpy and unpredictable.
A characteristic feature of the horns of adult male African buffalo is that the bases come very close together, forming a shield referred to as a “boss”. From the base, the horns diverge downwards, then smoothly curve upwards and outwards. In large bulls, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one metre.
Grass forms the bulk of the buffalo’s diet.
Without fresh green feed, buffaloes deteriorate rapidly. They devote a large portion of their time to grazing and feeding. After grazing on grass, just like cows, they spend time chewing their cud (or bolus) to extract even more nutrients from their food.
Black Rhinoceros & White Rhinoceros
(Diceros bicornis & Ceratotherium simum)
The word rhinoceros is a combination of two Greek words – rhino (nose) and ceros (horn).
There are two species in South Africa—the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros. Males are called bulls and females cows.
Both are huge, with a top weight of up to 2,000 kg and horns that can grow up to 1.5 metres long.
A quite unpredictable customer, the black or hook-lipped rhino prefers rather thick bushveld as its habitat. The prehensile upper lip that gives this species its alternative name is used to grasp the twigs and shoots on which it browses.
Built like a battle tank, the white rhino-known also as square-lipped rhino- is the second largest animal living on land an prefers the flat, grassy plains to be its main habitat.
An adult white rhino can produce as much as 50 pounds of dung per day. That’s a lotta poo and the result of rhinos having to consume large amounts of plant material to obtain proper nutrition.
Nuances in the smell of dung can tell a rhino a lot about others in the area. Each rhino’s smell is unique and identifies its owner.
Multiple or communal deposits of dung are known as middens, essentially serving as local “websites” or” Facebook pages”, allowing rhinos to keep up with their neighbours.
Both rhinos are myopic but make up for the deficiency with an acute sense of smell and hearing as the ears can be rotated independently.
African rhinos have a symbiotic relationship with oxpeckers, also called “tick birds”. The oxpecker eats ticks and other insects that it finds on the rhino and creates a commotion when it senses danger which helps to alert the rhino.
A rhino’s horn is not a true horn that is attached to the skull. It grows from the skin and is made up of keratin fibres, the same material found in our hair and nails.
Due largely to illegal poaching for their horns, both species are critically endangered and might even face extinction in near future.
Elephant (Loxodonta Africana)
African elephants are the world’s largest and heaviest land mammal and weigh between 2,500 and 6,000 kg.
The lumbering gait of this towering, tusked monolith is one of the truly unforgettable sights of the African wildlife.
Elephants are very social animals. They live in matriarch-led groups that often number more than 100 individuals and communicate using a variety of low-frequency rumbles that can travel for many miles.
Female calves usually stay with the herd throughout their life, while young males leave to form bachelor groups and eventually become nomads.
Usually a gentle, mild-mannered vegetarian, the elephant is quite capable of charging at an incredible high speed of up to 40 kilometres per hour.
The ears of the African elephant are actually shaped like the continent of Africa. Flapping ears are used to cool the animal down. The skin of an elephant’s ear is very thin. On the inside you will find a web of tiny blood vessels which help to release heat from the body.
Furthermore, as elephants flap their ears back and forth, they create a light breeze that can speed up the cooling process. It is a bit like stepping out of a cool shower and standing in front of a fan.
Elephants love to swim, cool off, frolic and splash in the water and then to cover themselves with thick luscious mud. The mud not only cools them down but also provides a protective layer on their body to shield them from insect bites and the sun.
Elephant tusks are actually enlarged incisor teeth which first appear when elephants are around 2 years old. Tusks continue growing throughout their lives. Tusks are used to help with feeding – prising bark off trees or digging up roots – or as a defence when fighting.