Know Your Big Five
Friday, 04th April 2014
Know Your African Big Five
Return from a safari and the first question on most people’s lips is “did you see the big five?” Forget the sight of hunting cheetahs, rare African wild dog, or 5,000 strong herds of zebra. When it comes to African safari there are five revered animals that gain triple kudos points. See them all on one game drive and you’ve achieved the safari equivalent of scoring a hat trick in the world cup football final.
Except most people aren’t exactly sure what they’re supposed to be looking for. “Did that cheetah count?” “We saw loads of hippos – that must be one of them?” The name suggests that the big five must be big. Which they are. But they’re not the five largest animals out there. Giving these animals such lofty status suggests they’re also the hardest to spot. Again, this isn’t true. So before you come to Tanzania on safari, here’s a quick guide to the fabled big five.
Why are they the big five?
The roots of the big five come from an unfortunate source. These were the most sought after hunting trophies. Not only did these animals look most impressive, they were the ones that would retaliate and hunt the hunter when threatened. These animals are undeniably dangerous. The term has since been taken over as a marketing ploy, particularly by smaller private game reserves who buy one of each animal and then bombard their sales brochure with “home to the big five!”
So what are the big five?
It’s not hard to guess why this majestic cat is on the list. Graceful females slowly stalk their prey, great prides lounge in the shade beside the path, while impressive manes distinguish powerful males. Undeniably powerful, yet indelibly beautiful, there is little that can compare to witnessing these great animals in the wild.
Where to see them: Tanzania is a paradise for lions and on a northern circuit safari they are almost impossible to miss. In the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater there are often great prides roaming the grass plains. In Tarangire and Lake Manyara they have adapted to the forest and learnt how to climb trees.
They don’t come any bigger than this. Regularly weighing up to six tonnes and standing almost four metres high, the African elephant is the largest living terrestrial animal. Check out their ears, they’re shaped just like a map of the African continent. Elephants are huge, yet they’re friendly animals and it’s often easy to get very close to their immense frames.
Where to see them: Elephants can be found in almost every park in Tanzania. However, the most impressive sights are the great herds, particularly as they often contain cute babies and playful youngsters. Selous Game Reserve on the Southern Circuit is home to the world’s largest elephant population and has none of the tourist crowds.
These magnificent cats are generally regarded as the most elusive of the big five. They combine unrivalled intelligence with incredible agility and jaw muscles that could break the neck of almost any other mammal. Unlike lions, who regularly lounge in the open, leopards hide in woodland and are masters at camouflage.
Where to see them: The Northern Safari Circuit offers great opportunities to spot leopard because they could be found in any of the parks. In Tarangire and Lake Manyara they can seen in the trees, while the Serengeti offers the greatest chance of spotting one out on a hunt, particularly during the Great Migration.
The most endangered of the big five, rhino numbers have been seriously hit by poaching over the last 100 years. It’s the black rhino that is indigenous to East Africa and these one tonne beasts are probably the most awe-inspiring of the big five. Glimpse one from a distance and you see power. Seeing one up close is one of nature’s greatest experiences.
Where to see them: A Southern Circuit Safari offers the best chance to see one up close. Thanks to great conservation efforts, increasing numbers of rhino can also be found in Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Both of these are on a Northern Safari Circuit.
Many people correctly guess the first four. But few realise that the Cape buffalo makes up the final animal on this list. Weighing over a tonne and often giving safari trucks an unsettling stare, the buffalo can be as impressive as the others. Check out their monumental horns; nobody would want to be on the receiving end of them.
Where to see them: The easiest to spot of the big five, large buffalo numbers can be found in most parks. The most magnificent sights are great herds galloping across grassy plains. Discover this in the Serengeti during the Great Migration or in Ruaha on the Southern Circuit.