World Animal Day: Celebrating Africa’s Big Five and Little Five

November 21, 2019
Jodi Lucas
Jodi is an adventure enthusiast and Douglas Adams groupie who supports these addictions through travel writing. When she’s not hitting Cape Town’s surf, you’ll find her trawling pre-loved bookstores for a leather-bound volume of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

World Animal Day is celebrated across all corners of the globe on 4th October. Although the date has come and gone we wanted to explore its importance. Aside from being a totally valid reason to stay home and cuddle your pets, what is World Animal Day and how do you celebrate it?

In 1925 a man named Heinrich Zimmermann organized the first World Animal Day to raise the status of animals in order to improve welfare standards around the globe. This event, which took place at the Sport Palace in Berlin, drew in a crowd of over 5,000 animal lovers!

Since then, every 4th October has been dedicated to the furry, scaly, clawed and pawed animals that share the globe with us.

The purpose of World Animal Day is to raise awareness and to provide effective protection for species worldwide.

So we’ve rounded up a few of the continent’s most incredible animals that you can spot while on an African overland tour. Let’s celebrate the diversity of African wildlife and raise awareness about the importance of conservation.

Africa’s Big Five:

Think “African wildlife” and the Big Five are sure to be the first that spring to mind.

These iconic animals have long been at the top of everyone’s African safari itinerary. But just a few centuries back, going on an “African safari” had a totally different meaning.

In the mid-1800s, when British hunters like Cornwallis Harris and Charles Baldwin began their expeditions into sub-Saharan Africa in search of game, they came back home with accounts of five large mammals that were seemingly impossible to hunt by foot. Word quickly spread and by the beginning of the 1900s, British and European settlers in Africa were organizing safaris for trophy hunting.

Thankfully, the only shooting that’s allowed today is through a camera lens. More importantly, going on a safari today actually contributes to the protection of these animals. So when you’re on your African overland tour, here’s a list of the Big Five and where you can find them:

1. African Lion

Contrary to popular belief; the lion is not the king of the jungle.

Instead, this apex predator reigns over Africa’s vast savannahs and grasslands. In another life, their territory reached as far as Southwest Asia, Europe, and India. Today, they are only found in 8% of their historic range and their populations are dwindling. In fact, some experts estimate that by 2050 they could be near extinction.

The role that lions play in the environment is crucial and without them, entire ecosystems could collapse.

These big cats play an important role in the food chain, by regulating the number of dominant herbivore species, such as zebra and buffalo. Without lions to control them, these species can out-compete other animals, causing extinction and reducing biodiversity.

Conservation status: Vulnerable
Best places to see wild lions: Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, Okavango Delta, the Greater Kruger National Park.

 

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2. African Leopard

The leopard is one of the most difficult animals to spot on a safari. This is because they are generally solitary, prefer to hang out in the dense bush or up trees and are mostly nocturnal, making the chances of spotting a leopard very low. In short; if you happen to spot a leopard while on safari then consider yourself extremely lucky.

Like the lion, Leopards play a vital role in the ecosystem in which they find themselves and can live in almost any type of habitat. Their habitats are vast and as they are mostly solitary animals, each one can occupy a region of about one square kilometer (0.4 square miles).

Unfortunately, humans have done a good job of both invading their habitat, diminishing their prey and hunting them. There are still wild leopards in the more rural areas, but these are seldom – if ever – seen, even by those who live there.

Conservation status: Endangered
Best places to see leopards: Kruger National Park, Moremi Game Reserve, Serengeti in Tanzania, and Masai Mara in Kenya

 

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3. African Elephant

Going on a safari in Africa without seeing an elephant is unthinkable. Next to the lion, this behemoth mammal is another contender for the King of the Bush title.

Weighing in between 2000 and 6000 kg, these giants are a terrifying sight when angry and can be a deadly foe, especially when wounded.

But, when left well-enough alone or approached in a calm manner, elephants are amazing animals to interact with. They are highly intelligent mammals with the largest brain of any land animal and three times as many neurons as humans.

Numerous studies have shown that these gentle giants can identify languages, use tools, understand human body language, and are even good at simple math. Despite all of this, elephants are still frequently poached for their tusks and are sadly classified as “endangered” on the IUCN list.

Luckily, there are a number of groups, such as WWF and Elephant Crisis Fund (ECF), that work to protect wildlife by educating public audiences on how they might be contributing to the persistence of poaching.

Conservation status: Endangered
Best places to see Elephants: Chobe National Park in Botswana

 

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4. The White Rhino

The fourth member of the Big Five is the rhino, who also happens to be the face of wildlife conservation. Rhinos are one of the largest land mammals alive after Elephants and have existed, in some shape or form, on for over 50 million years.

Rhinos once roamed through North America and Europe as well as Asia and Africa. Today, three of the five species of rhino are Critically Endangered, and two of them have fewer than 80 animals left in the wild.

But, there is still hope for the rhino as numerous campaigns and studies, such as Savetherhino.org and Project Rhino, concentrate their efforts to help turn the poaching crisis into a conservation success story.

Conservation status: The Black Rhino is Critically Endangered and the White Rhino is Near Threatened.
Where to spot rhinos: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in South Africa

 

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5. African Buffalo

The African buffalo is, perhaps, the most underrated of the Big Five animals.

They’re just weird looking cows who graze their way through the bushveld, right? … Wrong! Nicknamed the “mafia” of Africa’s animal kingdom, these unassuming herbivores are one of the deadliest of the Big Five.

Back in the bygone era when hunting the big five was a sport it was said that the buffalo killed more hunters in Africa than any other animal, and would even seek revenge on a hunter and remember the encounter the following day.

These animals are so dangerous that even a lion would not dare to attack a Cape Buffalo without the help of its pride. Like a champion poker player, the buffalo gives no indication that it’s about to charge and will simply just trample everything in their path.

Conservation status: Population Decreasing
Where to see them: Kruger National Park, Addo Elephant Park, and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal.

 

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Africa’s Little Five:

Overlanding in Africa is a sensory overload. It’s a jaw-dropping land where iconic animals of mythical proportions can make you feel small in the universe.

But, lean in a little closer and you’ll find a smaller world of little creatures who help keep the balance of nature. Africa’s little five was created by guides and conservationists who wanted people to look at the smaller and more elusive species in the African wilderness.

1. Leopard tortoise

Taking its name from the spots on its shell, the leopard tortoise is often spotted member of the Little 5 while on a safari. It’s the fourth largest tortoise species in the world, weighing in at about 54kgs and living up to 100 years.

Conservation status: not endangered
Where to see them: Can be found in the savannas of eastern and southern Africa

 

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2. Red-billed buffalo weaver

Red-billed buffalo weavers are social birds that build their nests in the forked branches of acacia trees.

Although many would argue it to be easier to spot than the leopard tortoise, they are restricted to the Lowveld and Eastern regions of the country, and not nearly as widespread.

Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in the Eastern or Northern bushveld, these birds are very easy to find. You won’t miss their huge untidy mass of twigs on the dead trees around waterholes and in dry savannahs or sparse woodlands.

Conservation status: Currently listed as “least concern” (LC) on the IUCN status.
Where to see them: The Kruger Park

 

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3. Elephant shrew

The elephant shrew is one of the lesser spotted and most adorable of the little five.

Like its giant counterpart, these small insectivores derive their name from their extended noses that are exceptionally dexterous. Though they cannot use them like an elephant’s trunk, they use their noses along with their large ears to detect predators and prey. You might see one munching away on a worm or grasshopper.

Conservation status: The golden-rumped elephant shrew is classified as endangered
Where to see them: The Namib Desert

 

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4. Ant lion

Not the King of the Jungle – but for ant larve these creatures might as well be.

The Ant lion is one of Africa’s more strange animals, digging conical depressions in dry, soft sand with which to trap its prey. The cone acts as a funnel and unsuspecting ants are trapped when they walk into it.

The prey is often pulled underground to have its juices sucked out through sharp, hypodermic pincers. It is also worth mentioning that the larvae are the only stage in an ant lion’s life that eats. The winged adults’ sole role is reproducing.

Conservation status: Least concerned
Where to see them: Across Africa – keep an eye out for little ant lion holes on the ground in rest camps or at picnic sites.

 

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5. Rhinoceros beetle

When you think about Africa’s strongest animals, this little critter will be the last to come to mind.

But, the rhinoceros beetle is one of the strongest animals in the world! Here’s why: an adult elephant can lift about 25 times its own weight, whereas the rhino beetle can lift 850 times its own body weight!

It’s also one of the largest beetles in Southern Africa, with horns on its head much like those of its larger namesake. Both males and females are horned, but only the males are known for aggressive behavior, using the horns to fight rivals.

Conservation status: Least concerned
Where to see them: across Africa

 

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Be sure to look out for wildlife both BIG and small on your next safari in Africa! Each one has it’s place in the ecosystem, and can be equally fascinating to observe, or more importantly, celebrate!

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