All good vacations involve lists such as pre-planning checklists, what-to-pack lists, or perhaps the list you leave behind reminding your neighbor or house-sitter to water the plants and feed the cat. Going on safari in Africa, though, will present you with a whole new range of lists. A good kind of list! Assuming you have got through all those to-do lists at home and actually arrived at your safari destination, prepare yourself for a new kind of list. I’m talking about wildlife checklists, either those handy printed lists some lodges leave in your room, or perhaps just mental lists you have in your head of all the fabulous creatures you are hoping to see. Some of the animals on these lists you will be familiar with, but there may be others that you have quite possibly never even heard of. Read on to prepare yourself!
The Big Five
If you’re planning an African safari or already have one under your belt, you’ll more than likely have heard the term Big Five, one of the most widely used phrases in the safari business. The term Big Five was originally coined by game hunters, who discovered that these animals were some of the hardest and most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Today, the phrase has come to represent some of the most sought-after safari animal sightings.
The Big Five are the elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino, and I’ve written about them in more detail here.
Whilst most people coming to Africa on safari have the Big Five on their radar, the continent has much more than just those majestic five animals to see. In fact, with hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds calling this continent home, it’s no wonder that some alternative lists of fives have been created!
Next time you are on safari, keep your eye out for Small Five (whose names mimic the Big Five, but whose size is much, much smaller), the Shy Five (who are pretty jolly hard to find given their introverted ways), and the Ugly Five (who frankly, can really only be loved by their mothers!).
The Small Five
While these five animals are not particularly shy, they’re often hard to spot because they are just so small!
Arguably the cutest of the little five, the elephant shrew doesn’t bear much resemblance to its namesake, the elephant, except for its long, mobile snout. Measuring just over 9 inches, the elephant shrew is lightning fast and incredibly agile. There are 15 species of elephant shrew, all with large eyes and ears and powerful back legs, which propel them after their insect prey with a series of super speedy bounds. Elephant shrews are highly territorial animals, usually maintaining a network of trails around their “patch,” which they scent-mark and keep clear of debris on their regular high-speed patrols. Ironically, scientists have discovered that elephant shrews actually share distant evolutionary ancestry with elephants, so perhaps their name is a good fit after all.
With a name like ant lion, you’d be forgiven for expecting these insects to be large and fierce. They’re not at all! Ant lions are small, winged insects, similar in appearance to dragonflies or lacewings. They get their name from their larvae, whose sickle-like jaws would be rather fearsome if you were an ant! Ant lion larvae build tiny, conical, sandy pit traps into which their unsuspecting prey fall. At the bottom of each trap lurks the larvae, and any ant that tumbles over the edge slips down into its waiting jaws. Once it has sucked the vital fluids from its prey, the ant lion larvae flicks the lifeless exoskeleton out of the pit and buries itself again to lie in wait for its next victim.
The leopard tortoise’s name conjures up an image of a stalking feline, but to be honest, these slow-moving reptiles’ movements are neither stealthy nor masterful. The leopard part of the name really comes from the black-spots-on-yellow-background pattern on their shells. In truth, these are gentle creatures who snack on plants, with the occasional nibble on a piece of bone for a bit of extra calcium. Whilst it may be slow, the leopard tortoise’s shell gives it tank-like protection, so it has little to fear from predators; though with their slow speed, fire does present a more serious hazard, and it’s not uncommon to find burnt out leopard tortoise shells when out walking in the bush. While many tortoise hatchlings fall prey to a wide variety of predators, those that survive to adulthood can plod on for 50 years or more.
There are two main kinds of buffalo weavers: red-billed and white-billed, distinguished from each other by, surprise, surprise, the color of their bills. These are rather sociable creatures and build large, untidy, colony-type nests that house numerous birds, a bit like an apartment block. These noisy birds have little in common with their bovine namesakes, aside from their sociable behavior and black coloration. Unlike the vegetarian buffalo, aside from the occasional seeds, buffalo weavers like to dine on grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, and other similarly appetizing insects.
Rhino beetles get their name from their striking curved horns (sported only by the males). While they may not bear much resemblance to real rhinos, they are nonetheless quite impressive, at least as far as insects go! These are large, robust insects endowed with prodigious strength. Scientists have calculated that a rhino beetle can carry a load 850 times its weight, making it arguably the strongest animal in the world! The males’ horns are, like those of their namesake, used for territorial combat. These are tough little guys, fierce-looking but totally harmless to humans, being neither biters nor stingers. They aren’t terribly efficient flyers, either, due to their size. The only time rhino beetles tend to fight is over the attention of the ladies.
The Shy Five
When looking for the Shy Five, bear in mind, they’re called the shy for a reason! If you’re a very lucky safari-goer, you might just catch a glimpse, but I can guarantee they will be doing their best not to meet you! A couple of places renowned for sightings of these species include South Africa’s Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and Samara Game Reserve.
Cute but prickly, a porcupine’s entire back is covered in sharp, black and white quills that can reach up to 20 inches in length. If threatened, a porcupine will quite simply turn its back on danger and raise its quills, even if the threat is a leopard! A porcupine’s quills are quite loosely attached, and it’s not uncommon to find them embedded in the face of any creature who was unwise enough to try to have a porcupine for dinner (a porcupine’s quills do grow back over time). Being nocturnal, you are most likely to spot one rootling around while you’re out on a night drive.
As its name suggests, the bat-eared fox has unusually large ears in proportion to its head and body, quite like those of a bat! Bat-eared foxes are predominantly found in areas where there are plenty of termites and beetles to feast upon. These mainly nocturnal creatures are masters of disguise, and if they feel in danger, they will simply lie down in tall grass or thick bush, where they are perfectly camouflaged. Another reason they’re hard to see is that they’re small, really small, usually only about 12 inches tall and weighing in at 6 to 10 pounds.
Aardvarks are one of the Shy Five’s cutest members, with their long noses and sweet upright ears. With long, tapering tails, arched backs, and coarse grey-brown hair, there’s something sort of kangaroo-like about aardvarks. Being nocturnal, they spend hot African afternoons resting in a tight ball in their cool underground burrows, coming out at night to hunt for termites and other insects.
Meerkats are predominantly desert animals, living in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, much of the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and South Africa. Given the trademark standing poses of habituated meerkat troops, some might question their presence on the Shy Five list. Still, with their extraordinarily well-honed senses and their natural environment, meerkats can and will disappear long before any human can think of getting near!
Aardwolves are nocturnal, solitary foragers, only coming together to mate and rear young. Their name means “earth wolf” in Afrikaans and stems from their supposed dog-like features and diet of termites. Aardwolves are small, usually measuring only about 17 inches in height. They are, in fact, a species of hyena but, unlike their cousins who feature on the Ugly Five list below, their diet consists of termites. An aardwolf can eat up to 300,000 termites in a night!
The Ugly Five
While they might not be the supermodels of the African bush, the creatures on this list certainly make up for it by being interesting and having a certain charm. Allow me to introduce you to some of Africa’s less glamorous animals.
When your name includes the word “wart,” you’re destined to be on this list. With bags under the eyes, double sets of tusks, and coarsely haired bodies, warthogs are found throughout Southern Africa, usually in family groups, often rummaging around close to camps or wallowing in the mud at waterholes. While they may be delightful to watch, trotting around, tail in the air like a radio antenna, or kneeling on the ground snuffling about for food, don’t be fooled by their cuteness. They can be vicious if challenged, and their tusks can inflict a serious, potentially lethal, wound.
Wildebeest look like they were made up of the leftovers after all the other safari animals were complete. They may have the head of an ox, the mane of a horse, and the horns of a buffalo, but really, they’re an antelope. Wildebeest are characterized by long black manes, shaggy beards of hair hanging from their throats and necks, and short, curved horns. Ugly or not, if you’re lucky enough to see a migrating herd of wildebeest, which can number into the thousands, it’s a pretty spectacular sight!
As scavengers, the vultures’ role in cleaning up the carcasses of dead animals leaves a bit to be desired, and they do get a bit of a bad rap, mostly because of their rather bloodthirsty, scavenging habits. See a flock of vultures circling high up above the African bush, and you can be sure there’s a kill below.
There is no sugar-coating it — the marabou stork is an eye-sore, with its scabby pink face, featherless head, and bulbous throat sac. Another of their less endearing traits is their habit of excreting over themselves in an attempt to keep themselves cool, giving their legs a permanent, sickly tinge of greyish white. These birds are carnivores, eating anything from dead animal carcasses to fish and even other birds. They also feed on carcasses alongside other scavengers, such as vultures and hyenas. The marabou’s appearance and somewhat unbecoming habits have earned it the nickname of “the undertaker bird.”
Hyenas are my favorite of the African animals, but even I have to admit that while baby hyenas definitely have a touch of cuteness about them, it doesn’t take long for them to grow up and lose that appeal! With their sloped backs, somewhat aggressive looks, and distinctive eerie laugh, the hyena easily fits into this list of misfits and ugly animals.
So now you know who they all are, you can add them to your “Things to Spot” list next time you are on safari.