In Search of Wild Life

Scientists have estimated that there are 8.7 million animal species on Earth. So it's not really surprising that searching for wild life, engaging or otherwise, features heavily on  many travel agendas. And I've met some travellers, who are undoubtedly obsessed, especially with  big cats, or other mammal lists. Middle of the night expeditions in search of pangolin or aardvark are common. I've been up to my knees in mud, with a flashlight, impaled on thorns in the middle of the African bush. It's worth it, if there's an uncommon  sighting. And, if not, I can always get to sleep in. Unless there's another call. 

The Big Five, the Little Five and the Ugly Five

I’ve heard of (and been lucky enough to see) the Big Five, of course, but guide Vic, when I'm in in Zambia, maintains that there’s also a Little Five and an Ugly Five. My first thought was that this is beginning to sound like a spaghetti western film. But I've investigated. The blue links will take you to the posts that describe where I saw the various animals.

The Big Five

In Africa, the Big Five game animals are the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo. The term was first coined by big-game hunters, and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt, and kill, on foot.

African Buffalo

(Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia)

The African (or Cape) buffalo live in large herds which have been known to include a thousand animals, though usually groups are smaller, with up to 12 animals on average. Buffalo are forceful and unpredictable animals - 'temperamental tanks' and, according to some statistics, are the most lethal mammals in Africa, as far as dead humans are concerned. They have even been observed killing a lion, after it has slaughtered a member of their herd. (The buffalo’s primary predator is the lion.)

Not to be mistaken for the far more peaceful water buffalo, from Asia, or the American bison. Though they're all from the same family they are distinguished by their home, hump, and horns. Sorry, Neil Young, but you can't believe everything you hear in songs - buffalo do not roam on the range...


(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Gabon, eSwatini, South Africa, Nepal, Congo, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Chad, Central African Republic)

Elephants are the world’s biggest land animal. They are huge. So large, this probably sounds mad, that you don't always notice them when you're driving through the rainforest. Male African elephants can reach three metres tall and weigh an incredible 4,000 -7,500 kilograms. They are also pachyderms (great word) - large and thick skinned. There are two different species of elephant in Africa - the African Savannah elephant and the African Forest elephant. African elephants have huge ears, which are roughly the shape of Africa, so they’re easy to distinguish from Asian elephants. Both species remain under constant threat from poachers who want their ivory tusks.  The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy paints an astonishingly emotional and illuminating picture of a group of elephants and their matriarchal hierarchy, as they struggle for survival in sub Saharan Africa.

African elephants communicate across large distances at a low frequency which cannot be heard by humans. These magnificent mammals spend between 12 to 18 hours eating grass, plants and fruit every day.  Even their poo is useful, as many plant species have evolved seeds that are dependent on passing through an elephant's digestive tract, before they can germinate. At least one third of tree species in West African forests rely on elephants in this way for dissemination.


(South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Chad and Zambia)

Leopards (also known as panthers) are spotted big cats, but distinctive from other large felines, in that they are excellent at climbing trees. (The spots act as camouflage). They’ll often safeguard their kill in a tree, to prevent lions and hyenas from stealing it. In my experience they are the hardest of the Big Five to spot – except in South Luangwa, in Zambia. They are nocturnal, solitary and secretive, staying hidden in trees, or tall grasses, during the day.


(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Chad)

Lions are the most sociable of all big cats, which probably makes them the most interesting to observe. They live in groups called prides, which usually consist of related females and their cubs. A pride of lions is usually made up of related females and their cubs, together with a male, or small group of males, who defend their pride. The lionesses rear their cubs together and cubs can suckle from any female with milk.

The males are most well known for their manes (although some are now evolving without). Typically, the darker a lion’s mane, the older he is. Lions have to be strong and powerful, in order to hunt.  On average, males weigh 190 kilograms. And they can eat up to 40 kilograms in a single meal. African lion numbers have plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations, due to loss of living space and conflict with people.

In the wild, there are two formally recognised lion subspecies. The well known African lion (Panthera leo leo), found south of the Sahara Desert. And the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), which  exists in one small population, in western India. Fascinatingly, the lions in west and central Africa are more closely related to these Asiatic lions, than to those found in southern and east Africa.


(Senegal, eSwatini, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)

 Rhinos, another pachyderm, have poor vision and, because of this, will sometimes attack trees and rocks, by accident. However, their hearing and sense of smell are excellent. I’ve been able to sneak up very close to them with guides - as long as the wind is blowing away from us.

There are white rhinos and black rhinos. White rhinos aren’t white, but slate grey to yellowish brown, in colour. The species name actually takes its root from Dutch, "weit" (wide), in reference to the animal's wide muzzle. The black rhino is very rare, hook lipped, and its colours vary from brown to grey (not black).

The rhino is the most endangered species of the Big Five. Rhino poaching is being driven by an Asian demand for horns, made worse by increasingly sophisticated poachers who are now using veterinary drugs, poison, cross bows and high calibre weapons to kill rhinos. Often, they saw off the horn and leave the carcase. Very few rhinos now survive outside national parks and reserves.

The Little Five

Then came the Little Five, a later addition, added by naturalists, so as to draw attention to more of Africa’s lesser known wildlife, especially in the veldt of South Africa. It seems a strangely arbitrary list to me. And I think I'm still missing two - though I might well have seen them and missed them. The Little Five are the antlion, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and rhino beetle.


The antlion is the size of an ant and found in sandy, arid areas throughout Africa. It has a wide body and large jaws and is actually the larvae stage of a flying insect known as the Antlion Lacewing, which looks similar to a dragonfly. Antlions are nocturnal and dig small funnel-shaped traps about 50 millimetres deep in dry, sunny spots. They wait at the bottom of it, covered in sand so that only the head is protruding. Ants are their primary prey, hence the name.

Buffalo Weaver


The buffalo weaver bird is the easiest among the little five to find and observe. Red billed and white billed varieties are often seen in acacia trees.

Elephant Shrew


The elephant shrew is a cute small, insect-eating mammal with a long nose. They are very common in Southern Africa, but I saw one in Zambia, where they are less often observed (no picture, sadly.)

Leopard Tortoise

Leopard tortoises live across East and Southern Africa in savanna habitats and are herbivorous, eating grass and succulents. They are name for their leopard patterned markings and at an adult size of 25 centimetres, they are amongst the largest of the Little Five. One must never pick up a leopard tortoise (or any tortoise) during the winter months, as it may eject its stored urine and water as a deterrent. Due to the distance it must cover to replenish this lost moisture, the tortoise could die of dehydration. I know I've seen them, but I can't find the picture!

Rhino Beetle

Rhino beetles are part of the largest species of beetles in the world, reaching six centimetres in length. They have two large horns on their bodies, which the males use in fighting.   Proportionally to their size, Rhino Beetles are among the strongest animals in the world. (Surely this one should be on the ugly list too?)

The Ugly Five

 I can't track down the origins of The Ugly Five, but think this group name is rather unkind. I’ve seen all of them in Zambia, alone. And they are all incredibly interesting and often undervalued. Though, if pushed, I might argue the case for the inclusion of the hippo, which I think is horribly ghoulish, out of water. The list features:


( Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Chad)

The hyena is Africa's most common large carnivore. There are three hyena species - spotted, brown, and striped and the aardwolf is also related, but that's on the Impossible List). Spotted hyenas are the largest. They are fairly big in build, but have relatively short torsos, with lower hindquarters, and sloping backs. All their strength is in their bone-snapping jaws. Hyena live in clans of one to two dozen and are attracted to carcasses, along with their ugly friends, the vulture and the marabou stork. These scavengers will hide food in watering holes and never waste anything. They will even feed on the hooves of their prey.

But The Lion King didn't do them any favours and hyenas generally get a very bad press. They are actually excellent hunters and kill most of what they eat. Spotted hyenas can bring down prey many times their size and have been recorded killing cape buffalo and giraffes.

Marabou Stork

(Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Chad)

The marabou stork is a massive wading bird: large specimens are thought to reach a height of 152 centimetres and a weight of nine kilograms. It's sometimes called the 'undertaker bird', due to its shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and a large white mass of 'hair'. The marabou stork is a frequent scavenger, often alongside vultures. It is believed that the naked head and long neck are adaptations to this livelihood, as with the vultures, with which the stork often feeds. In both cases, a feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood and other substances, when the bird's head was inside a large corpse, and the bare head is easier to keep clean!


( Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritania, Uganda, Chad)

How can you not like a warthog? Pumbaa, from The Lion King, ambles the plains inoffensively, tail erect, it seems. Though their tusks can inflict severe wounds. The tusks are ivory, so warthogs are at danger from hunters, who take them to carve, like elephants. Warthogs, as one might guess from the name, are swine, related to pigs, boars and hogs. The patches on their faces are not actually warts, but thick growths of skin, which act as padding, for when the males fight during mating season.

Warthogs are lazy, or maybe their tusks make it hard to dig and they live in dens made by aardvarks (see the Shy List). The males usually live alone, but the sociable females (sows), live in groups of up to 40, called sounders.

Although they might look fierce, warthogs are mostly herbivorous, foraging for roots, berries, bark, bulbs, grass and plants. When food is in short supply, warthogs may eat meat, but only dead animals, worms or insects.


(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritania, Gabon, Uganda, Chad)

Vultures are a family of scavenging birds, who have also suffered from a bad press. There are 11 species in Africa and six of these are endemic. The key characteristic of many vultures is a bald head, devoid of normal feathers. It was thought that this was because it is easier to keep clean ( see marabou stork) but it is now believed that the bare skin may play an important role in thermo-regulation. Vultures have been observed to hunch their bodies and tuck in their heads, in the cold, and open their wings and stretch their necks in the heat. Vultures also use urine as a way to keep themselves cool, by spraying themselves.

Wild life conservation organisations say that vultures are vital in cleaning up carrion. I've read that some smell really sweet, like talcum powder. I'm not keen to get close enough to find out. I've also read that vultures are on the verge of extinction.


( Zambia, eSwatini, Kenya, Tanzania)

Wildebeest are also known as a gnu - I'm a gnu, How about you? The name is Dutch for 'wild beast'. They are antelopes with large, box-like heads and distinctive curving horns. There are two species: the blue wildebeest, or brindled gnu and the black wildebeest, or white-tailed gnu. The front end of the wildebeest body is heavily built, while the hindquarters are disproportionately slender, with spindly legs. They have a grey coat, a black mane and a beard. Magnificent, on their annual migration in Kenya and Tanzania, the biggest animal migration in the world. It is estimated to number between 1.3 and 1.7 million animals.

Wildebeest are herbivores, but can run at up to 50 miles per hour. They have to, in order to escape predators, like lions. They live in huge herds and their survival depends on group or 'swarm' intelligence. Even their birthing season is a highly synchronized event. Most wildebeest calves are born within a short period, at the start of the rainy season. This means plenty of grass and a better chance of evading predators. The calves are able to run, within two minutes of being born!

The Shy Five

Then, I came across the Shy Five, designed to encourage perseverance in animal watchers and nocturnal animal safaris. They are the porcupine, bat-eared fox, aardvark, meerkat and aardwolf. All of these, except the meerkat, are indeed nocturnal and I’ve seen a couple of them scuttling away.


Porcupines are fairly widespread - there are old world and new world species. The third largest rodent after beavers and capybara. They have approximately 30,000 sharp quills, as defence. A baby porcupine is a porcupette (so cute, though not to be confused with a porky pie). When born, a porcupette's quills are soft hair; they harden within a few days. I've seen numerous discarded porcupine quills....

Bat Eared Fox

The bat eared fox lives in east and southern Africa and is relatively small, the only truly insectivorous canine. The desert fox is very similar to the bat eared fox, and I've seen that, in Mauritania. Its ears are rounder.


I'm desperate to see an aardvark. I've spent hours waiting around their holes (see Chad), but no luck as yet. They are not especially rare, but only venture out late at night. These are strange looking creatures, with long snouts, which they use to sniff out ants and termites and then they dig them out using their claws. They are mammals, related to elephants, manatees, and hyraxes, but the only living species of their order ( Tubulidentata).


Thanks to the power of advertising everyone nowadays knows what a meerkat looks like. But they may not know that these bashful (in real life) creatures are Southern African mongooses, which speed away at the merest whiff of danger. ( I have blurred meerkat pictures.). They live in rocky crevices or burrows, in packs of up to 30. The alpha or dominant individuals in a pack breed and the subordinate members look after the pups. Very Brave New World.


The aardwolf is related to the hyena, but it eats insects and their larvae, mainly termites. One aardwolf can lap up an astonishing 300,000 termites in a single night using its long, sticky (and tough) tongue.

The Impossible Five

My next discovery was The Impossible Five, which seems to have been the creation of a writer called Justin Fox, who set himself the challenge of seeing them all. His list includes the aardvark (again), the Cape mountain leopard, the pangolin, the (very rare as they don't breed like rabbits) riverine rabbit and the white lion (in the wild, most of them are in zoos).

Now, I was really lucky and I did see a black bellied pangolin in the Central African Republic. Pangolins are, possibly, the most trafficked mammals in the world. Read more about them, in that post.

The Big Seven

Then I came across The Big Seven - a clever marketing ploy by the tourism industry of South Africa, adding another two enormous animals, the great white shark and the southern right whale, to the Big Five. Both can be seen off the coast of South Africa.

The New Big Five - Out of Africa

You'll have noticed that all of this post has been devoted to Africa. A few years ago, British photographer Graeme Green started a campaign for a new Big Five for future travel bucket lists. He wanted to expand the focus globally and to place the emphasis firmly on photography and preservation, rather than hunting. Incidents such as the sad shooting of Cyril the lion, added fuel to his endeavours. Many conservationists were involved and a poll was held. The New Big Five were declared to be: elephant, polar bear, gorilla and lion.  I'm happy with that. I've seen all of those: polar bear (Svalbard), gorilla (Rwanda, CAR and Congo) and tiger (India). So, that probably deserves a High Five?

And that's not the end. The 'Big Five' idea is burgeoning. The Arlberg Alps region has come up with its own Big Five: ibex, chamois, golden eagle, marmot and bearded vulture.

What's your Big Five?

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