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“The Big 5”

The term “Big Five” was originally coined by hunters, and referred to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot in Africa. The Big Five wasn’t chosen for their size, but rather for the difficulty in hunting them, and the degree of danger involved. Here are a few lesser known facts about Africa’s most famous mammals.

African Elephant

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Conservation status: Listed as vulnerable (as a comparison the Forest Elephant is listed as endangered).

The shear size and strength of the worlds largest land mammal makes it a worthy member of the “Big 5”. Not to mention its ability to disappear at a drop of a hat, not something you want when out on foot!

There are two distinct species of African elephant: the forest elephant and the savannah elephant. Differences include the African forest elephant’s long, narrow lower-jaw (the African savannah elephant’s is short and wide), its rounded ears (an African savannah elephant’s ears are more pointed), straighter and downward tusks, considerably smaller size, and number of toenails.

The tusks are actually the elephant’s upper incisors that are enlarged forming long curved tusks of ivory. Elephants have four molars that help to crush the rough plant material that they consume on a daily basis. As the front pair wears down and drops out in pieces, the back pair shifts forward, and two new molars emerge in the back of the mouth. Elephants have 6 sets of teeth over their lifetime. At about 40 to 60 years of age, the elephant no longer has teeth and will likely die of starvation, a common cause of death.

African elephants are considered amongst the world’s most intelligent species as they have a very large and highly convoluted neocortex (the part of the brain found only in mammals), a trait also shared by humans, apes and certain dolphin species.

Black Rhinoceros

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Conservation status: Listed as critically endangered (as a comparison the White Rhinoceros is listed as near threatened).

The black rhino, the true member of the “Big 5” as it has a reputation for being extremely aggressive, and charges readily at perceived threats.

Although they are typically solitary animals, with the exception of coming together to mate, mothers and calves will sometimes congregate in small groups for short periods of time. Males are not as sociable as females, although they will sometimes allow the presence of other rhinos. It is debatable whether black rhinos are indeed territorial. Some sources say that they not very territorial and often intersect other rhino territories. Although accounts have been given of black rhino males actively defending their territories with nasty fights lasting to the death of one animal. Home ranges vary depending on season and the availability of food and water.

The longest known black rhinoceros horn measured nearly 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in length. Horns are used for defense, intimidation, and digging up roots and breaking branches during feeding.

African buffalo

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Conservation status: Listed as least concern

Known as “The Black Death”! Owing to its unpredictable nature, which makes it highly dangerous to humans, it fits perfectly into the “Big 5” category.

The horns of African buffalo are very peculiar. A characteristic feature of them is the adult bull’s horns have fused bases, forming a continuous bone shield referred to as a “boss”, which cannot always be penetrated even by a rifle bullet.

Herd size is highly variable. The core of the herd is made up of related females, and their offspring. The basic herds are surrounded by subherds of subordinate males, high-ranking males and females and old or invalid animals. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, who is recognizable by the thickness of his horns. Males have a linear dominance hierarchy based on age and size. Since a buffalo is safer when a herd is larger, dominant bulls may rely on subordinate bulls and sometimes tolerate their copulation.


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Conservation status: Listed as vulnerable

Due to its prowess and size the lion is the most recognizable of all the “Big 5”.

The mane of the adult male lion, unique among cats, is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the species. It makes the lion appear larger, providing an excellent intimidation display; this aids the lion during confrontations with other lions and with the species’ chief competitor in Africa, the spotted hyena.

The mane is also heavy and cumbersome for hunting purposes. This means that males are only required to join in the hunt if large prey needs to be brought down, however, males can successfully hunt if need be. Generally males have to go through the lifestyle of being a nomad once they reach sexual maturity and so form coalitions to aid hunting. A pride male, however, has a tendency to dominate the kill once the lionesses have succeeded in a hunt. They are more likely to share this with the cubs than with the lionesses. Males rarely share food they have killed by themselves.


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Conservation status: Listed as near threatened

Its ability to charge at speeds approaching 80 kilometres per hour (almost 50 mph), means this animal takes its rightful place in the “Big 5”.

A leopard on a kill; a female leopard with cubs; old, wounded and mating leopards are all situations to avoid when trekking a leopard on foot!

The species’ success in the wild is in part due to its opportunistic hunting behavior, its adaptability to habitats, its unequaled ability to climb trees even when carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth. Its habitat ranges from rainforest to desert terrains.

This cat will eat anything from dung beetles to a 900 kg (2,000 lb) male common eland, though prey usually weighs considerably less than 200 kg.

Leopards are the only natural predators of adult chimpanzees and gorillas. It is not uncommon to find leopards feeding on carcasses that have been left for days to rot!

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