The Big Five

What or who are the big five? If you’ve embarked on an African safari or planning to do so, chances are that you’ve heard of the “Big Five”, the must-see list of iconic megafauna. But for those embarking on your first ever safari experience, there is occasionally some confusion as to what the Big 5 is comprised of.

But.. this is totally understandable. The word “big” is often the misleading factor because it lets people to conclude that it is the five largest animals in the wild: elephant, rhino, hippo, buffalo and giraffe. These are all “big”right?

Actually, the “Big Five” refers to five of Africa's greatest wild animals, and was a term coined in the late 1800s during the height of Africa’s colonial period, referring to what trophy hunters considered to be the most challenging (and dangerous) animals to hunt on foot - lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Bringing down one of these big five animals resulted in the hunter receiving a trophy, hereby ranking these animals among the most sought-after animals in the big-game hunting world.

All of these animals range far and wide, and can be found in the following African countries: Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Malawi.

Take a moment to have a look at the images below and the write up accompanying each, that will provide you with a bit of information regarding these fascinating species.

Buffalo

The Big Five | Buffalo | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

The African buffalo is usually one of the most challenging subjects to photograph, not only because they usually congregate in large numbers resulting in very busy scenes, but also due to their dark skinned bodies.

This “darkness” makes for difficult exposure, which is something you have to keep front of mind. You need to ensure you are exposing correctly for the scene as a whole or you risk completely overexposing the image when your light meter struggles to compensate for their dark hides.

When they move in herds, they often kick up a considerable amount of dust, which, if backlit, makes for an wonderfully atmospheric picture.

Individually, as seen in this image, bulls are great for character studies with their big horns and sullen expressions. They like to wallow in mud, which may mean they can be found regularly at the same muddy spot. Caked in mud, flies buzzing around them and their bad tempered prize fighter expression makes for great compositions and an image lending itself perfectly to a black and white conversion.

Scroll up and look at this image again, what stands out? Simplicity and a background that compliments the buffalo? These two tips must be your go-to when you are facing a challenging subject to photograph.

Lastly, what do we mean by a background that compliments the subject. The short answer is contrast.

Contrast means difference. In the case of photography, the most common differences are achieved by changes in the tones (light) or colors that compose the image.

In this scene the darker buffalo really pops out in the image because of the much brighter (light contrast), orange (colour contrast) background.

As photographers, contrast is a crucial element to consider in all of our shots because it helps us to convey a mood or a message to the viewer.

Elephant

The Big Five | Elephant | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

Elephant are well-known for their intelligence, close family ties and social complexity. Their herds consist of a dominant female (matriarch) who is usually the oldest, therefore most experienced individual who is the backbone of the family unit (lower ranked females, babies and males younger that 16 years of age) because she provides stability and determines ranging patterns.

Females usually stay with there birth herd for life but do very occasionally get forced out by their matriarch if the herd size becomes too large which leads to food/water conflict but this is vary rare.

Unfortunately this is not the case for the males as seen in the image above.

How do we know they are males? Well size for one (which is not represented accurately in images) but if you look closely, their foreheads are large and rounded where as females have a squared off/sharp angled forehead and are generally somewhat smaller.

So as mentioned, females are extremely social and live a close nit life together but adult male elephant are solitary in nature, occasionally associating with other bulls (adult males) in small, unstable groups as seen above. Males will leave the family unit (natal unit) between 13 and 16 years of age which is when they become sexually mature.

Bulls that associate in small groupings have a hierarchal-ranking social structure. Leaders, determined by age and strength, protect the front and rear of the herd. More docile bulls do not seek leadership roles but serve as stabilizing members within the group. Hierarchical roles are re-established and re-adjusted whenever a male leaves or enters the group.

Although primarily solitary in nature, bulls will associate with non-natal family units (family units to which they are not related). Bulls do not have preferences for specific family units and will randomly move to different groupings daily and even hourly looking for reproductively receptive females. The bulls' nomadic (wandering) social system allows them to maximize reproductive potential. With this system, a single bull can potentially find up to 30 mates in a year, as opposed to fathering four calves in three years, if he associates with only one family unit.

Speaking of reproduction, male elephant come into a state of “musth” when they venture off looking for females ready to mate.

Elephant have a musth gland located just beneath the skin's surface, halfway between the eye and ear, on each side of their head. Annually, musth glands secrete a dark, oily, musky substance and become inflamed. This physiological change is associated with a behavior observed in male elephants called musth and is characterized by unpredictable, dominant, and excitable behavior. The musth period lasts between several days to several months. There is no seasonal pattern with musth as bulls come into it a different times.

Male elephant first experience musth about three years after sexual maturity (between eight and 15 years of age) is reached. The musth secretion increases gradually until the bulls reach their 40's, after which, it declines in strength and intensity.

Female African elephants experience a much less intense form of musth. It is thought that the scent of the secretion primarily helps unify the herd. Musth has not been documented in Asian female elephants. Bulls in musth display a significant change in behavior and deep vocabulary of sounds, which signals strength and virility. These bulls will dominate a herd and are aggressive in warding off rivals which may include safari vehicles so just keep your wits about you next time you sit watching elephant.

Interestingly, although elephant are not territorial, musth males may rub secretions onto trees to scent-mark (signal to other males) their areas of dominance.

Once a male finds a female acceptive of his presence, the courtship between them is short lived. They will rub their bodies on each other and wrap trunks. The females tend to run away from the males and he will have to pursue her. This game of cat and mouse can continue for a while before the actual mating occurs. The male will fan his ears more than usual when they are ready to mate. This allows them to get their scent out a wider distance to attract other females that can become potential mates. Females become sexually mature at about 14 years of age and its the older males that are between 40 to 50 years of age are the most likely to breed with the females as they are stronger and will easily fight off younger males.

Now, once the courtship is complete, female elephant will carry their developing baby for 22 months before the quick (usually 5 minute) birth of her 90 – 100kg baby.

And with that, the cycle starts all over again.

Leopard

The Big Five | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye 

When you hear the word, leopard, I’m sure you also think of the word, tree?

There are many people out there that think you will only find or see leopard in trees but this is not the case. In fact, perhaps more often the case that they're not.

These incredible cats have indeed mastered an behavioral adaptation to carry their prey up into trees (sometimes up to double their own weight) and do so in order to keep their meal safe from other scavenging predators, namely lion and hyena.

But, think a little deeper, where do leopards meals move about, not in trees but on the ground. Leopards can hunt from trees, where their spotted coats allow them to blend with the leaves until they spring with a deadly pounce, but this does not happen too often as there is a greater risk of injury.

This tells us that these cats need to spend a lot of time on the ground prowling for their next victim but also to patrol their large territory. Both male and female leopard are solitary cats and extremely territorial and actively patrol and defend their territories from rivals. The sexes generally only accept each others presence when there is mating interest.

The leopard is very adaptable and can live in many different places across the globe. They are found in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, southwestern and eastern Turkey, in the Sinai/Judean Desert of Southwest Asia, the Himalayan foothills, India, Russia, China and the islands of Java and Sri Lanka, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

These large cats can live in almost any type of habitat, including rainforests, deserts, woodlands, grassland savannas, forests, mountain habitats, coastal scrubs, shrub lands and swampy areas. In fact, leopards live in more places than any other large cat.

With that said, these cats territories will vary greatly in size because territory size comes down to two main factors. Available resources (food, water, shelter) and sex (male have larger territories that overlap these of females).

Lets take the Kruger National Park for example; their territories can be anywhere from 10 square kilometers, to several hundred square kilometers. There is little or no overlap in male leopards’ territories, although overlapping does exist between the sexes.

Research has found that in Namibia the cats’ territories are much larger due to the expanse of available land and the lower concentration of food source. Here their territories can be double if not well over the size of the leopards found in denser environments such as the Kruger National Park.

Aggressive encounters have been observed on many occasions between male leopards, with death being the ultimate outcome for some. While females will also attack one another, their interactions are less brutal and seldom end in a fatality.

Leopards mark territory by scent-marking (spraying urine), clawing vegetation and calling, especially after a significant rainfall.

So the here is some of the best places and times to be on the look out for these elusive cats;

  • Cooler times of the day. Early mornings and at or just after sunset.
  • During or after rain fall as they move to go and sent mark again.
  • Riverine thickets or river beds and/or rocky outcrops offer good cover for these cats.
  • Around permanent waterholes in the dry months.

Lion 

The Big Five | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

Why do males always eat first? 

Well the social structure of the lion is very interesting to observe. Groups of females living together are called prides and these prides are usually made up of, typically five or six females along with their cubs. Every member of the pride has a role to play and this role can shift though depending on their needs and the size of the pride.

Usually all of the adults in the pride will work as a team to protect each other and the young from threats. However, there is often a hierarchy here that determines who will be dominant in that fight to protect them. Some of the lions may cover the outer perimeter with others remaining well protected inside of it.

There can be brutal battles between entire prides of lion over territory. When they have locations that overlap there may be a fight for who gets to keep it. Sadly, these battles are becoming more frequent now that humans are taking away so much of the area that the lions once called their home.

The topic of protection above leads us into the stand out feature in the image, the male.

Adult males do not and will never form part of any pride, ever.

The only time males will be a member of a pride is from the day they’re born to the day their father or dominant male in the area at the time aggressively chases them off to live a life on their own.

This brutal fair-well usually happens to male at the age of about 2.5 to 3 years of age. At this age males become sexually mature and show interest in their mothers, aunts or sisters and this is by no means accepted by the male in charge.

As sad as this is, it is very necessary to not only spread the lion genes into the gene pool (prevent in breeding) but it is also natures way of controlling male lion numbers in the wild. Studies state that young males pushed out of the pride usually only have a 50% chance of surviving.

When this day comes and a male lion gets sent off, they are forced to live their lives as nomads. They need to move like ghosts, without making a sound. The reason for this is because every step they’ll take will be in some or other dominant males territory who will kill them if found.

If they are lucky, males get sent off with a partner or five to six (rare) in crime. Blood brothers that have bonded since birth and will remain to do so until the day they die. Some are not so luck and are left to fend for themselves but do sometimes find other males in a similar situation that they establish a bond with and live the remainder of their lives together.

These groups of males are referred to as coalitions. From the moment they are pushed away from their natal prides they will have to live this nomadic life for the next two years or so. The reason for this is because only then are they strong and fit enough to compete other territory holding males for dominance. With that said, larger coalitions may step into the line of battle a bit sooner than a single lion or two.

Keep in mind the image above, the male is bloody and well fed yes?

Now, once a male/s have come out victorious and now dominant the turf they are walking on, this doesn’t only include the food/water source and available shelter but they also now own the prides that are within their new territory.

Their introductions to these prides (can be between 1 to 7 different families) are nowhere near a glamours experience. It is quiet brutal and can get very ugly if there are cubs younger than the age of one.

If there are young cubs, they will be killed by these new males as these males do not want to waste their time raising cubs with genes of which is not theirs. This behavior happens in many species you may not know of, zebra being one of them.

The reason they do this is because as soon as the youngster dies, the mother will come into estrous (readiness to breed) soon after and then these males can achieve their only goal in life – survive long enough to breed and spread their genes.

But this hope of mating with their new ladies is not as easy as they may have hope, particularly if they had just killed their babies. Before these males get lucky, there is a very important relationship foundation to be earned – trust.

Before these girls give in to these new boys they must trust them with their and their future cubs lives. So they will play very hard to get until they have full trust in the new males reason being is they want to make sure these males will stick around and not abandon them. For example, the females immediately give full access to the new males, mate, fall pregnant and then the males decide they do not like this area and leave. What happens now, new males come into the area, kill the new cubs and all that energy they females put into those new cubs were wasted. Just not worth it.

So trust must be established because the males main role in the social structure is to ensure his territory is safe and free of any threat and in turn this leads to the protection of his pride/s.

Once this trust is earned and the pride accepts him/them, then he does not hold back. Again, keep the image above in mind, the male had clearly eaten first and always will if he is in the area regardless of if he assisted in the hunt or not.

The females happily accept this behaviour for two simple reasons, firstly, the male needs to be well fed in order to have the energy to protect his territory and in turn protect them. Secondly, males are a lot stronger than females and they will try and minimise the risk of injury at all times because a badly injured cat is pretty much a dead cat.

Apart from being very greedy, this is why males usually always eat first.

Rhino

The Big Five | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

Did you know that there are five spices of rhino that still exist today?

The two, most well known being the white (squared lipped) rhino and the black (hook lipped) rhino. You will find these to species only on the African continent in the following countries, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

The other species are, the Greater One Horned rhino (India, Nepal), Sumatran rhino (Sumatra, Sabah), and the Javan rhino (Sumatra, Sabah).

This image shows off a white rhino mother and clalf. The white rhino is the worlds healthiest rhino population of roughly 18,067 individuals. For interest sake, lets look the rest of the species numbers, Black rhino - 5630, Greater One Horned rhino - 3,300 - 3,600, Sumatran rhino – less than 100 and the Javan rhino – 72. Quick shocking isn’t it?

But seeing that you’re looking at an image of a female white rhino and calf, here are some interesting facts that you may not have know.

Lets start with its name. There is a popular albeit widely discredited theory of the origins of the name "white rhinoceros" is a mistranslation from Dutch to English. The English word "white" is said to have been derived by mistranslation of the Dutch word "wijd", which means "wide" in English. The word "wide" refers to the width of the rhinoceros's mouth. So early English-speaking settlers in South Africa misinterpreted the "wijd" for "white" and the rhino with the wide mouth ended up being called the white rhino and the other one, with the narrow pointed mouth, was called the black rhinoceros.

So, the colour of either one of the species has got nothing to do with its colour. The colour of the skin will vary dramatically from destination to destination or even from different areas within the same park. How can that be you may be wondering.

Well, this is because rhino are not very hairy animals and so their skin is exposed to the harsh conditions on a daily basis. One way in which they have adapted is to wollow in mud to not only cool off but also cake themselves in this mud to protect their skin from the elements including external parasites such as blood sucking ticks.

So to conclude, the White rhino by “default” is a dull grey colour but as mentioned, they love wallowing in mud on a daily basis, their skin can become brown, red, black and/or take the colour of the mud they wallow in.

That's it for now. I do hope that this blog has taught you something about these incredible creatures. Please feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments below.

Until next time.

Michael

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