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Big 5 Fact File

Written by Jacqui. Posted in Safari Guide

The famous 'Big 5' have been yearned for in the wildnerness for centuries. They will have you fascinated all the way from the first time you set eyes on the magestic rhino, until the last time you see the all elusive Leopard. For all the facts and information about Southern Africa's Big 5, read on.

How did the Big 5 come to be in the first place? There are many myths and legends about these great animals. One in particular is that many years ago, when the first explorers came to Africa, the Big 5 were by far the most notorious and dangerous figures to hunt.

African Elephant
Loxodonta Africana

The African Elephant, long admired by all whom view these great beasts, is the largest land mammal in the entire world. Weighing up to a massive 6300kg and reaching a shoulder height of 3.2 to 4 meters, African Elephants have enough strength to tear down entire trees. Easily distinguished by their large, ivory tusks and their flapping, waving ears the elephants are the gentle kings of the plains. They are known to be incredibly intelligent, and are known to form very strong emotional bonds. Usually, large herds will be found consisting of females, youngsters, and young bulls, with bulls being kicked out when they reach 12-15 years of age. The bulls will continue on on their own, sometimes forming a bachelor herd with other bulls. Due to their large mass, elephants can eat up to 240kg of food a day!

Lion
Panthero Leo

The lion is one of Africa's most recognizable animals. Stalking the plains, they are known to be the ultimate kings of the jungle - and for good reason! However, even though lions in their natural habitats are kings of the predatory beasts, they can easily be backed down or killed by elephants, buffalos and even packs of hyenas! ‚ÄčMost cat species live a fundamentally solitary existence, but the lion is an exception. It has developed a social system based on teamwork and a division of labor within the pride, and an extended but closed family unit centered around a group of related females. The average pride consists of about 15 individuals, including five to 10 females with their young and two or three territorial males that are usually brothers or pride mates.
Females do 85 to 90 percent of the pride's hunting, while the males patrol the territory and protect the pride, for which they take the "lion's share" of the females' prey. When resting, lions seem to enjoy good fellowship with lots of touching, head rubbing, licking and purring. But when it comes to food, each lion looks out for itself. Squabbling and fighting are common, with adult males usually eating first, followed by the females and then the cubs.Lions are the laziest of the big cats. They usually spend 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping and resting, devoting the remaining hours to hunting, courting or protecting their territory.

Leopard
Panthero Pardus

Leopards are one of the most elusive and secretive of the big cat species. Interestingly enough, kilogram for kilogram they are by far the strongest cats, enabling them to climb trees with ease - even when they have dinner in their mouth! 
Leopards come in a wide variety of coat colors, from a light buff or tawny in warmer, dryer areas to a dark shade in deep forests. The spots, or rosettes, are circular in East African leopards but square in southern African leopards. They are generally solitary and nocturnal animals, being most active during the night and early morning. When a leopard stalks prey, it keeps a low profile and slinks through the grass or bush until it is close enough to launch an attack. When not hunting, it can move through herds of antelopes without unduly disturbing them by flipping its tail over its back to reveal the white underside, a sign that it is not seeking prey.
Leopards generally go out of their way to avoid one another. Each animal has a home range that overlaps with its neighbors; the male's range is much larger and generally overlaps with those of several females. A leopard usually does not tolerate intrusion into its own range except to mate. Unexpected encounters between leopards can lead to fights. Also, a leopards tail is almost as long as his body, helping the leopard to balance.

Buffalo
Synceros Caffer

The Buffalo has an almost cow like appearance, and have often been referred to as the Plains Cow.  Herds can be as large as 2,000 individuals, which are dominated by large males, when food is plentiful. When food is scare, African buffalo find it advantageous to split up into smaller groups. Members mutually groom each other and make noises to communicate. African buffalo may be active throughout the day and night; on average, 18 hours per day are spent foraging and moving. Herds usually occupy a stable home range; in savannah buffalo, these areas may be 126 to 1,075 square kilometers in size. African buffalo are formidable animals on account of their large size, large herds, and large horns. Herds will stick together and may charge as a unit when threatened, a tactic which ensures that predators have difficulty preying on even young and feeble animals. Oxpeckers and cattle egrets are birds which frequently accompany buffalo, feeding on insects flushed from the grass as the buffalo walk and also eating biting insects from the buffalo's skin. Regular use of mud wallows also helps protect buffalo from insects. 

Rhinoceros
Ceratotherium Simum (White Rhino)
Diceros Bicornis (Black Rhino)


Rhinos are critically endangered animals that look like they haven't changed much since prehistoric times (though of course they tended to be a lot woollier back then!). Although poached nearly to extinction, conservation efforts and habitat protection are starting to make a small difference to the fate of these magnificent animals. There are a total of 5 different rhino species in the world, with South Africa playing host to two of these - The Black and the White rhino.

While the Black rhinos are not actually black, and the white rhinos are not actually white, the name derives rather from the word 'wide', which was given to the white rhino by early explorers. This was because unlike the black rhino, who has almost a beak shaped lip & mouth area that it uses to browse trees and shrubs, the white rhino has a wide lip for grazing on grass.
The White rhino can grow to be up to 1,800kgs in mass, with a height of up to 1.8 meters. This makes it the largest land mammal after elephants. They enjoy grasses, and live in family groups, with females being generally sociable and males being solitary once they are kicked out of the unit.
The Black rhino is critically endangered, with only around 4250 alive in the wild today. They are noted for being quite aggressive, and can live for up to 35 years in the wild. They prefer to browse on trees and shrubs, which their almost hooked lip is catered for.

All rhino species are currently in incredible danger, as poaching numbers have risen dramatically over the past 3 years. Last years total was 448, with this years current total already at 404 (September 2012). The horn is believed (in many Eastern Countries) to have powers to cure cancer, a headache, a hangover and even the common cold. It is also believed to have aphrodisiac powers. None of the above have been scientifically proven, yet rhinos are dying an incredibly gruesome and cruel death almost every 12 hours. For more information, go to http://www.rockingforrhinos.org.

Pictures courtesy of Ken Whyte Photography, National Geographic, and Animal Planet

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