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Africa Geographic Travel

Written by Vaughan Jessnitz

The Big 5, a term from the old hunting days, devoted to the five most dangerous animals to hunt, has been a target for the avid safari goer since the birth of photographic tourism in Africa. The lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo all represent this group.

Yet many other species of animals are regarded as equal, if not more “important” to see than some of the Big 5, for example: giraffe, zebra, hippos and cheetah. With time the industry has moved very far away from hunting, and with it, a lot of groups of five have been created. There is the Ugly 5, the Big 5 birds, the Big 5 trees and none the less, the Little 5! Bushwise put together a little list of 5 small creatures which have all got their name from the original Big 5.

1. Leopard tortoise
© Vaughan Jessnitz

First on the list of the Little 5 is the Leopard tortoise. This tortoise gets its name from the yellow and black spots on its shell. They start off as brightly coloured and beautiful tortoises, and end up as much duller adults in a few decades!

These tortoises are quite often encountered on safari drives throughout the country, and would be considered one of the more common of the little 5 to see. They are the largest of the region’s tortoises, with adults attaining weights of up to 40kg, although far more often encountered are adults ranging from 8-12kg.

They are also the only species in southern Africa that can swim, thanks to an ingenious modification to their shell! The middle chute (the individual plates that make up a tortoise shell) right behind the head called the nuchal, is not present, allowing the Leopard tortoise to be able to lift its head higher, and above its lungs, thus allowing it to breathe and not drown!

2. Red-billed buffalo weaver
© Vaughan Jessnitz

Second on the list is the red-billed buffalo weaver. Although many would argue it to be easier to find than a tortoise, they are restricted to the Lowveld and Eastern regions of the country, thus 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 with their huge untidy mass of twigs on the dead trees around waterholes, in which many pairs would live together. They can also be found on the ground foraging as a group.

3. Elephant shrew
© Vaughan Jessnitz

Probably one of the least commonly seen of the small five, but definitely the cutest, is the elephant shrew. 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 are highly sensitive to smells and pheromones.

They use their noses along with their large ears to detect predators and prey, which is mostly invertebrates such as worms and grasshoppers. Their sense of smell also comes in handy for scent-marking their highways: a pair will create highways along which they forage, keeping the roads obsessively clean of any debris to allow for quick escapes should need be.

Elephant shrews do forge lasting monogamous relationships, although they tend to forage separately. There are several different species of elephant shrew, some with minor differences, and are sometimes tough to tell apart in the veld. They are unfortunately rarely seen due to their small size, their timid and skittish nature along with their predominantly crepuscular activity. Despite this, they can be found around permanent camps and settlements, often times becoming used to the presence and movement of humans.

4. Ant lion

© Vaughan Jessnitz

Every child who has grown up in rural Africa has played with the ant lion. Ant lions are actually similar to dragonflies in their adult form – it is their larvae that fascinates the young children. Ant lion larvae create inverted cone-shaped pit falls for other insects such as ants or termites to fall into. Once something has fallen into their lair, they strike quickly with their enormous steel-like mandibles and drag it under the sand.

Children try luring the ant lions out with sticks, and when that doesn’t suffice, curiosity often gets the better of them and the larvae are dug out. It therefore surprises many people that the pitfall makers are simply the larvae and that they develop into these massive winged wonders. It is also worth mentioning that the larvae are the only stage in an ant lion’s life that eats. The winged adults’ sole purpose is reproducing.

5. Rhinoceros beetle
© Vaughan Jessnitz

Last but certainly not least, is the rhinoceros beetle. The rhinoceros beetle is one of the strongest animals in the world, and 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! That is more than any other animal recorded. The male Rhino Beetles have signature horns on the top of their head, very similar to a rhinoceros, which can be two-thirds their total body size. They are used for dual purposes including digging underground and fighting other males for the right to mate! These amazing little beetles are often found at lights at night, where they are attracted to the UV rays emitted.

These are but five of the thousands of awesome little creatures you can find when spending time in the African bush, and on your next safari, why not look out for these small wonders, and as I like to say, never mind the Big 5, lets focus on the small 5,000!

Africa Geographic Travel

Bushwise offers comprehensive 50 and 23-week FGASA Professional Field Guide courses and Hospitality Internship Placements at safari lodges in Southern Africa – a life altering experience and ideal platform for a successful career in the challenging and competitive ‘Big 5’ industry.