Even though you know that Africa is so much more than the Big Five, the familiar images soon begin playing in your mind: lions roaring; elephants trumpeting; buffalos lurking in long grass; rhinos standing stately under a thorn tree; leopards prowling in the gathering darkness. You’ve seen the Big Five in books and you’ve seen them on TV. But it’s time to come and see them for yourself and there’s no better place for this than South Africa, which offers the most exciting, memorable and exhilarating experience.
The lion is arguably the most sought-after of the Big Five because it is synonymous with an African safari. Charismatic, powerful and beautiful, everybody wants to see the appropriately named ‘King of the Beasts’. Once, hundreds of thousands of lions roamed the world, but today conservationists give approximate numbers of between 25 000 and 30 000 left, most in sub-Saharan Africa.
In South Africa, your chances of seeing lions are high, whether in our national parks or in private game reserves. Lions are creatures of the savannah and open plains (you’ll rarely find them in a forest) and function in prides, usually numbering about five to 15, depending on the territory – although the Kruger National Park is known to have at least one big pride of up to 25 animals.
They are social family animals – related females rule, usually alongside a large dominant male that has won the pride in fierce competition with other males. Lionesses stay with the pride, while young males leave at two to three years of age. Males sometimes form coalitions to enhance their hunting success, but you’ll rarely see one with more than four lions.
Perhaps it’s the African elephant that should be called ‘King of the Beasts’ – it is the world’s largest and heaviest land animal. Its ears alone measure up to 2m x 1.2m (roughly the size of the surface area of a double bed) and can weigh up to 20kg (44lb) each, while it can grow to a height of more than 3m. Elephants abound in South Africa – you can see great herds of more than 100 in the Kruger National Park or smaller breeding herds in private reserves.
Elephants are highly social animals and females rule. A herd will typically have a matriarch with vast cultural knowledge that leads the herd, keeps it under control and chooses its direction and pace. Even when feeding (and an adult elephant, arguably nature’s most versatile vegetarian, can eat up to 300kg of grass, bark, branches and foliage a day), the herd rarely strays far from the matriarch.
Don’t be fooled by the docile appearance of the Cape buffalo (also known as the African buffalo). This mean, moody and magnificent animal is possibly the most dangerous of the Big Five, especially if you are on foot. Robert Ruark, the American novelist, wrote that ‘a buffalo always looks at you as if you owe him money’. Come face to face with a buffalo (preferably from the safety of a vehicle), and you’ll see exactly what Ruark meant – the stare is cold, calculating and cunning.
Buffalos are social animals and move around in large herds – sometimes of many hundreds – chomping long grass as they collectively move and feed. In the dry season, you can often see a cloud of dust signalling an approaching herd. Buffalos have to drink daily, and to witness a large herd approaching a waterhole – often in the early morning or late afternoon – is a memorable and noisy experience. It’s quite easy to tell the males from the females. The males are blacker, bigger and have huge powerful horns that are joined in the middle to form a ‘boss’.
Your first impression will be of its bulk and size. And then you may wonder how such a prehistoric-looking animal has existed for so many millions of years. Although unfortunately, the brutality and intensity of present-day poaching is a serious threat to the continuing survival of the species.
The second-largest land mammal, the white rhino’s name has nothing to do with its colour. It was the early Dutch settlers who referred to the animal’s broad lips as ‘wyd’ (wide), misinterpreted later as ‘white’. This is a remarkable animal, weighing in at nearly 2 500kg (about 5 500lb) and often living up to 40 years of age.
Because it is a grazer, eating thick, tough grass, it needs lots of water to digest its food, and needs to drink at least once daily. Sometimes you’ll see a rhino eating mud or soil, which acts as a dietary mineral supplement. Its horn is used for fighting and defence and is not attached to the skull in any way.
The black rhino is smaller than its larger ‘white’ relative, is more solitary and elusive, and has a shorter head and beak-shaped lip that it uses for browsing leaves and twigs. Regarded as a more dangerous animal than the white rhino because of its volatile temperament, it is now one of the most endangered animals in Africa.
The one animal everybody wants to see – beautiful, charismatic, sexy and dramatic – and also the most elusive. The leopard is a solitary animal (unless mating, or a mother with cubs) and will, whether male or female, fiercely defend its own hunting territory from other leopards. Considered to be one of the most successful, if not the most successful, of all African predators, the leopard is a master stalker.
If you are lucky, particularly on a night drive (as leopards are nocturnal animals), you may see a leopard stalking its prey – silently, ruthlessly – before getting to within 5m of the prey and then launching itself with a powerful spring. Surprise is its chief means of attack. Leopards often athletically drag their prey up into trees (sometimes the dead animal is as heavy as the leopard) to avoid having it pirated by other animals, particularly lions and hyenas. Look out for thick overhanging branches of big old trees – you may well find a leopard snoozing there during the hottest part of the day, or snacking on its prey.