When you picture your dream African safari holiday – what wildlife come to mind? Can you imagine lion on the hunt in the afternoon light? Can you see elephant herds moving gracefully and silently across the savannah? Or is it rhino in the distance, knowing their closeness to extinction? And how about the leopard sleeping on a branch in acacia tree with his tail curling down? It is almost unthinkable to picture a game drive without the possibility of seeing these magnificent creatures.
These larger animals are exciting to watch and absolutely, we all adore seeing them on BBC Earth and National Geographic programs (some of the footage takes months to film by the way, not just a few days on safari). What is important to realise is that animals are wild and sightings impossible to guarantee. So are we missing a beat by just focusing on the big ticket wildlife? And why on earth are the big ticket animals categorised as the Big Five?
The big five term was coined by hunters many years ago because they were perceived as the most dangerous. They include lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhino. To this day, it is these animals that draw big numbers to Africa.
We like to encourage our guests to look beyond the Big Five Africa Safaris. So have you ever heard of the little five? It is a fascinating group of animals named by conservationists to get people looking for the smaller species. The ant lion, the elephant shrew, the buffalo weaver, the leopard tortoise and the rhino beetle. Few things compare to the excitement of a walking safari with professional guides, getting truly immersed in the landscape and close to the ground where these animals reside. Stop, listen to your guide, bend down and watch where he is pointing a thin blade of grass and you’ll soon see the ant lions attack!
My recent trip to Tanzania taught me more about the ant lion. I have a new found appreciation and respect for these clever little creatures that have, until now gone unnoticed. I watch every step and hope to identify the tiny sand pit for myself, knowing what lies beneath. Personally, I prefer scorpions and snakes, something about their willfulness to survive and protect themselves and families. Surprisingly, in all my travels in Africa, I have seen very few snakes on safari and even less scorpions, so fear not the danger isn’t common place.
With Big Five and Little Five ticked off your animal list, how about the Ugly Five. This unfortunate cluster of animals was named for a bit of fun and include the hyena, maribou stork, vultures, warthog and wildebeest. Each one of the ugly five members are fun and fascinating to watch for a while. When you come across a maribou stork, you will literally do a double take. A guide in Kenya (Robert) once described them to me as ugly old bald men in suits! And after the success of the Lion King, a safari isn’t the same without spotting at least one or two Pumba (warthog) The king of ugly in my opinion, yet equally interesting and fantastic to watch is the hyena. With a pack mentality, denning day times and a chilling whooping call at night you will not ever be mistaken that you’ve seen the hyena.
With all these lists, big five, little five, ugly five there is the danger that you will spend your safari ticking boxes. Here is my advice. Forget the lists. Put the books away. Leave the pencil and little note book in your tent and take the bird book for extra reference only (most guides have these in the vehicles anyway). See the wildlife in their natural habitat and enjoy the chance encounters – the best leopard sighting I ever had was whilst watching something else. Hear Africa – listen to the lions calling and hyena whooping at night. Smell Africa – breath in the fresh air. The best smell on safari – rain. Combine all of these and you will really feel Africa and know you are truly immersed in it. If you stop obsessing about the lists and truly embrace the safari, it won’t matter how many of the big five, little five or ugly five you have seen. You will leave with a longing to return to Africa one day because in this holiday alone, you will have found many answers to life… that’s the power of this natural paradise.