The Best of the Beasts - The Big 5

You would think that the big five were named because of their size and strength, this isn't the case.

The big 5 originated from hunters because they were the most difficult and dangerous animals in Africa to hunt. The term was then taken over by safari tour operators to market these magnificent beasts when on a safari in Africa. Who are the Big 5? They include the African lion, the African elephant, the Cape Buffalo, the African leopard and the white/black rhino. Today, their majestic pictures adorn the South African rand banknotes.

Today when talking about the Big 5, it conjures images of the wild untamed spirit of Africa and the excitement of Africa's exotic destinations and experiences. Let's take a closer look at the big five:

The Lion - Call Him Your Majesty

Wary female lion in the Serengeti, Tanzania

Simply mention the word lion and people immediately think of a safari and of Africa. It is one of the most exciting animals to see on safari. Excellent hunters and well known for their prowess, they are social animals and live in prides of several females, their young and a couple of males. They will co-operate on a hunt when taking down difficult prey like a buffalo (another one of the Big 5), but they usually can take down an antelope on their own. Females hunt more than males and all lions will scavenge if given a chance, much like the hyena.

The African Elephant - Gentle Giants

Elephants in the Masai Mara, Kenya

The African Elephant, another one of the Big 5, is the largest land mammal in the world and some say the most charismatic creature on the African continent. The demand for ivory sadly led to a dramatic decrease in elephant numbers, especially during the 1970's and 1980's. A ban on all ivory trade has helped to stabilize the population but poaching is still a serious issue. They can be over 14 feet tall and 30 feet wide. They drink 30-50 gallons of water every day and are strict vegetarians.

The African Leopard - All Stealth

Male leopard on morning stroll in Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Next on the Big 5 list is the African Leopard. There are more leopards than rhino in the big 5 group but they can be as difficult to spot when on a safari in Africa. Leopards use trees as observation platforms and for protection, so it's good to remember to keep looking up. Leopards are shy and nocturnal, and their spots offer excellent camouflage as they move about, not staying in one are for more than a few days. These agile cats are great jumpers and often store their fresh kill up in a tree to avoid it getting poached by lions.

The African Rhino - The Most Endangered

White Rhino grazing in the Kruger National Park, South Africa

There are two species of rhino in Africa, the Black Rhino and the White Rhino. Black Rhinos have suffered the most drastic reduction in population in the last 20 years. There are now approximately only 4000 left in the wild and courageous conservation efforts are increasing those numbers. The White Rhino is more in numbers, approximately 17 000 and are heavily concentrated in Southern Africa. The names are misleading because all rhino are grey. It's the lips of these rhino that distinguish which one they are, a Black Rhino has a prehensile lip to strip leaves off bushes and a White Rhino has a long, flat lip for grazing. They are short sighted and a little bad tempered but awe inspiring to observe in their natural habitat.

The Cape Buffalo - Dangerous Beast

Male buffalo grazing in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Last but certainly not least is the Cape Buffalo completing the Big 5 set. They are known for being one of Africa's most dangerous creatures. Even the mighty king wouldn't take on a Cape Buffalo alone. Cape Buffalo are large and adults stand 4-6 feet tall and males can weigh up to 700 kilograms. On more open grasslands, Cape Buffalo appear in large herds that can number up to a thousand of them. They are often found close to water.

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