The Big Five of African Safari

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The Big Five

Lauded as the essential sights of an African safari, the big five consist of the lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, and buffalo. The safari industry relies on the term, its simplicity becoming a clear marketing tool for attracting visitors. Big five safari. Come see the big five. Yet the term has malevolent roots in hunting as these big five were the most coveted trophies. Furthermore, it simplifies safari to five animals that are considered in isolation. These five are undoubted highlights of a safari, yet the diversity of Africa is quickly lost with a fervent focus on the big five. It's five out of hundreds. The big five are certainly important and memorable, but they shouldn't be the absolute goal of visiting Africa for safari. 


Is the Big Five an Outdated Concept?

The safari guide points to a distant tree, where a tail swishes and through the binoculars you just about make out a ball of spotted fur. Or maybe you're looking at a bush. It's unclear. Someone else in the safari truck lies and say they can see it. You spend ten minutes searching and conclude it's probably an overhanging fig branch. But you don't share that. The leopard is the final sight in the big five jigsaw, and you're already thinking about the stories. Big Five? Big tick and mission accomplished. Spotting the full five is the de facto bragging right of an African safari, trumping just about everything bar watching big cats on a successful hunt. But reconsider the distant leopard and it's a muted memory, far less poignant or evocative than a cheetah being seen at close quarters or a pair of giraffes mating.

The big five has an irrefutable allure. These are amongst the most impressive mammals to find and to see them up close will be an indelible highlight of safari. National parks with the full big five are likely to feature a series of iconic sights. However, chasing and straining to tick off the list mutes the appeal of safari. In some ways, it's an outdated concept that harks back to a different era. But it's also the seductive pull that grabs the imagination. Lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, rhino; these are the animals that everyone wants to encounter.


The Malevolent History of the Big Five

The big five is a concept that predates safari. Historically, these five animals were the ultimate hunting trophies, because only these animals would fight back and confront when they were hunted. Every other species would run away. These five would charge, although a four-ton elephant still didn't stand a chance against a rifle of bullets. Furthermore, the big five were the ones that looked most impressive once the taxidermist had gone to work and the head hung on a wall. Colonial aristocrats toured Africa seeking the full collection, ably assisted by gangs of servants who would only get trampled after they'd fired a barrage of shots.

It's no coincidence that the most desirable hunting trophies are now amongst the most vulnerable. These big five continue to be the most sought after by tourists on illegal hunting safaris. They're also the ones that create the loudest outcry as the world seeks to protect the precocious wildlife of the world's largest remaining natural haven.


Why the Big Five is Important for the Safari Industry

The idolization of the term has never gone away. As hunting drifted out and safari came in, the big five came to represent the ultimate sights. It evolved into a tangible hook that's recently been permanently cemented as a marketing tool. The big five sells and is becoming more significant as the safari industry grows. As the number of gazetted parks and reserves continues to grow, the eye-catching promise of the big five is used to attract visitors. What else could succinctly bring such unrivaled promise? Small private game reserves are particularly fond of ensuring they have each of the big five, even though they might only have one or two of each species. Mammals are moved or “reintroduced” as authorities look to complete the jigsaw. And it is wonderfully sellable, just two little words able to conjure such eclectic reverie of a safari in Africa. Big Five. It's exotic and iconic, imbued with beauty yet defined by size, inspiring notions of elusive animals in their natural habitat. Whether it's your first or fiftieth safari, the chance of seeing the big five is instantly compelling.


Why the Big Five Are So Idolized?

Ignoring the marketing standpoint, there's no question that the big five are often the highlight of an African safari. A lion's mane flickering in the tones of sunset, the alpha male content amongst his graceful lionesses. The sight of elephants roaming free, melodic footsteps across a vast interrupted plain. Buffalos in shabby unison, their unrelenting stares indicative of power, mouths constantly chewing and churning as they face you down. Now a rhino, an elegance radiating from their slow journey past the safari vehicle, horns delightfully pointed with markers of grace. Then the leopard, the most elusive, the intelligent predator hiding in the trees. Spot these animals up close and these sights that will often become the final memories many decades later. Just because they're heavily promoted doesn't mean they're any less impressive. This isn't a trick. See any of the big five and you're enchanted. And the daydreams of African safari require these idolized images. They're ignited by thoughts of these famous characters and for this, the big five are incredibly important. Without them, and without the term, fewer people would be interested in an African safari. But are they really the finest sights of a safari? After seeing the big five many people query why buffalo would be included instead of hippo or giraffe. And what about mountain gorillas? Are they also not endangered, elusive, and the biggest of their kind?


How the Big Five Can Simplify the Safari Experience

It's often difficult to get away from the notion of a tick list, especially if it's your first time on safari. Come to Africa and there are certain animals you're desperate to see, and these inevitably include the big five. Return from a safari and people will ask whether you saw the big five. And most will hope that those five special ticks have been found. But what does that actually mean? That you thought you saw a leopard but it could have been a fig tree? That perhaps you spotted a rhino in the distance, but it also could have been a rock? The best safari memories aren't preconceived, they're the surprises, intimate moments that only you experience. That could be one or more of the big give. It could also be something very different. Maybe a cheetah accelerating towards an impala, a loved up zebra pair grooming each other, or a rampaging hippo out of the water.

By focusing on the big five so much is missed. There could be a sense that a safari wasn't successful because one of the elite lists was missing. Seeing a leopard on a distant tree is very different to the experience of watching a leopard out on a hunt. Likewise, a distant elephant will certainly make you smile. But it's incomparable against a rumble of 30 elephants crossing just meters from your safari truck, or walking along with a calm small herd. The problem perhaps lies in when the big five narrative becomes firmly transplanted from the marketing strategy to a consumer. As it does, the focus is on a tick list, rather than the overarching quality of the safari experience. It turns the subjective into the objective, and that's not what an African safari is about. The great moments lie in the indelible imprints that struggle to be captured in words or photos. They lie in the feelings of experiencing the interaction between different species.

Concentrating on the big five also removes notions of quality and quantity. You're unlikely to see the big five in Botswana's Chobe National Park. But the park is home to close to 100,000 elephants. In Namibia's Etosha spotting the full collection is also unlikely. Yet that's must be compared with the sight of lion prides and hippos facing each other down at a scorched water hole. Many large famous are missing rhinos. But there's a huge difference in the abundance of their other wildlife when comparing these national parks to a small private reserve.


The Little Five and the Big Seven

As an argument against the notion of the big five, nature conservations started promoting the little five, enigmatic and cute creatures that emphasized the diversity of the African landscape. Each is a dramatic contradiction in size while maintaining part of the name. There's the elephant shrew, an impossibly cute rodent that jumps across Southern African savannah with strange shocks of color;  buffalo weaver, a busy little bird whose distinctive nests are easy to find; the leopard tortoise, named for a shell with similar markings to the car; the tiny lion ant; and the armor shaped rhino beetle, another that regularly goes unseen. These tiny creatures are unlikely to be the highlight of a safari but helped to broaden perspective on the possibilities of an African safari. Anyone able to see both the big five and little five on a single safari has done exceptionally well, and this is part of the argument. With so much to discover, a narrow focus seems to miss the point.

At the same time, marketers have started to push out the boundary of the big five. It's now the big seven in the south of South Africa; five land-based mammals joined by whales and sharks. Then there are East African safari companies adding chimpanzees and gorillas to the evocative list. What comes next? The big ten?


The Big Five as a Means of Conservation

Somewhat ironically, what started as a hunting term has become an aid for conservation. National parks and reserves have been reintroducing species that had become locally extinct. Huge effort and funding have gone towards preserving these majestic icons of Africa. In particular, rhinos are found in far more reserves than they were just a decade ago. These five have a visibility that makes them essential to the tourism industry, driving conservation efforts across the whole continent. There are some excellent success stories to discover on an African safari, including rehabilitation programs and reintroduced species.


An Alternative Phrase to Rival the Big Five

It's hard to deny that the hunter's relic is an advertiser's masterpiece. Alternative phrases can't rival the catchy simplicity of the big five. How could you summarize the vast quantity of animals that are spotted or the unusual and eclectic range of wildlife that's alive on Africa's untrammeled landscapes? There's nothing that can compete with the continent-wide universality of those two magical words. So while the big five can be seen as an outdated concept, it's unlikely to be wiped from the safari vernacular anytime soon.

The alternative lies in evoking the origins of safari, a Swahili word meaning “long journey.” Focusing completely on the big five makes the experience objective, suggesting something like being in a zoo, wandering around to tick off the animals you expect to see. But journey implies something unpredictable and surprising. No two journeys are ever the same, regardless of how many times you make them. Thinking about a “long journey” moves the emphasis away from anticipated sights to what you experience. Certain preconceptions are retained, but the daydream becomes a blank canvas that can be painted with a multiplicity of tones and colors. Safaris are intimate and personal, not merely the same photos and sights of everyone else. Viewing the safari as a journey celebrates the inimitability of the experience.


The Big Five

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