The Big Five is a historic term that comes from big game hunting. It groups together the five animals that were considered to require the most courage and skill to hunt: Elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard. The term has been readily adopted by today’s wildlife safaris, on which rifles have been swapped for a camera and animals are only “shot” through a telephoto lens. It is also widely used in the marketing of reserves, camps and lodges, where the “Big Five” can be found, and visitors have a reasonable chance of encountering them.
The African Elephant is the largest terrestrial mammal alive today, weighing up to 6.5 tons. It can easily be distinguished from the smaller Indian elephant by its larger ears and saddle shaped back. Elephant herds are led by an older female, known as the matriarch, and consist of related females, immature and young animals. Male animals live apart from the females, and only seek out the females when they are in, what is known as, musth - which is the elephants equivalent of the rut. Once they have left the family herd, young male animals often form small groups themselves.
The smallest of the two African species of rhino, the black rhino, is considered a member of the Big Five, while the larger white rhino is not. Despite their names, both species are grey in colour, although both often take on the colour of the mud- or dust they bathe in. Therefore it can be considered more correct to call the black rhino the hook-lipped rhino (its mouth is adapted to nibble leaves) and the white rhino the square-lipped rhino (it grazes on grass)! It is thought the misunderstanding about colour comes from a mistaking in translation from Dutch/Afrikaans or English, where the word wide can sound a lot like white.
The Cape buffalo is very much a herd animal. During its migrations it can been seen in herds of up to one thousand individuals of mixed ages and sex, but more typically the herds are much smaller and contain no or very few bulls, which are more often seen in small, scattered herds of their own. Buffalo are never found far from water. Although a buffalo would seem to be the perfect size to be preyed on by lions, it can be very dangerous for lions to attack them as buffalo are very aggressive and have large, very sharp horns. Some prides of lions have specialised in hunting lions however.
Lions live together in groups known as a pride which, if you don’t include male cheetah siblings which can stay together for most of their lives, is the only really gregarious species of cat. It is also the only species of cat that can have a tufted tail. While the female lion is the world biggest female cat, male lions, despite their large heads and impressive tails, are actually smaller than male Siberian tigers. In some districts the males have black manes, while in other districts you can find tree climbing lions, although they are not as accomplished at climbing as the leopard.
The beautiful leopard is the commonest and most widespread of the big cats, distributed from southern Africa to the Far East and Siberia. It is also extremely adaptable, and can be found in most types of habitat, including in a number of large cities. Despite this it is very difficult to catch a glimpse of, as it is very shy and rarely moves out in the open during daylight. There is also a black variant of leopard known as the panther, which is very rare in Africa. This cat is a member of the same species as the spotted variety, which is genetically dominant over the black variant.