Africa’s BIG FIVE

Kariega_BullElephantAFRICA.  The dark continent. Well, not really.  It may be dark only because of a lack of fundamental infrastructure that prevents electrical service to many parts of the continent.  Or, as is the case in South Africa, dark because of a power grid that is woefully insufficient to meet the country’s demands.  But, that’s another story.

AFRICA. Home to the Big Five: Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino (white and black), lion, and the elusive leopard.  It’s taken nearly 10 years of intermittent game reserve visits to see all of these animals in an up close and personal manner.  And, if you’re in the right place at the right time, and timing is everything, you just might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of all of these magnificent mammals.  We hit the proverbial jackpot in a recent visit to Lukimbi Reserve within the confines of Krueger National Park in Mpumalanga Province, all in a single day!

DuggaBoy_KruegerThe Cape (African) Buffalo, affalo, nyati, or mbogo, is one massive animal.  It is the only bovid (think American Plains Buffalo) that occupies Africa, and can weigh upwards of 1000 kg (2200 lbs) for a bull.  Herds of buffalo graze in various sub-Saharan grassland habitats, but must be within “commuting” distance to a water supply.  That commute can be up to 20 km per day each way.   Each herd has an established  male-dominance hierarchy which determines which bulls breed. And, when older males are no longer sought after by the breeding females, they may wander away from the herd and live either alone or with other “dugga” boys.  The image is of one such “dugga” boy in the Krueger National Park.


The plight of the Rhino is haunting and disturbing, now being poached in greater numbers each year than in previous decades.  There is no logic or scientific evidence to confirm the notion that powered rhino horn, which is essentially the same chemical as your fingernails—keratin, is an aphrodisiac.  Yet, in traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed to be a cure for impotence.  Hence, it is highly profitable for poachers to slaughter animals either in remote places or at night, use a chain saw to cut off the horn, and illegally move the stolen goods across international borders for huge profits.  Not only is the horn considered special in Eastern cultures, but also in the Middle East where they are used to make scabbards for traditional daggers which are a symbol of a boy’s ascent to manhood.  Currently, very few game reserves purchase rhino to stock their lands because they know they only are buying an eventual carcass.

King_Lion_KruegerThe “King of the Forest” is a magnificent feline whose lifestyle is one of rest, relaxation, eating, and merriment in the form of procreation. This cat is the second largest in Africa, with only the tiger being larger.  The male pictured here is an older cat with a pride of females who were out hunting while he caught a beauty nap in the tall grassland.  This is typical for pride members, who may spend the day in several  groups that may unite to hunt during the night.  This male demonstrated a particularly common behavioral trait during the time we spent with him.  He arose and let out a distinctive roar that generally is sounded before a night’s hunting; in his case, he roared and then fell back down for some more relaxation.

Leopard_Tree_KruegerThe most elusive of the BIG FIVE, and it’s taken me more than a decade to see on in the wild, is the leopard. This panther is found from the tip of South Africa as far north as Manchuria, which is quite an extensive range for the species.  Its behavior is that of a loner,  generally approaching another animal during mating season.  This nocturnal animal also is a very good climber, often storing the remains of its kills in the branches of a tree.  Can you spot the leopard in its lair?   If not, scroll down.

Leopard_Male_KruegerWe were fortunate to come across a male, pictured here, and a female (see Lukimbi) both in the tree above.  The female is resting on the one of the lower right side branches, while the male was higher on the left side of the tree.  There was no kill because it appeared to be court-and-spark time.  When the male began his stealthy move down the branches to approach the female, there was a certain reticence on her part, as could be told from the hissing.   Similar to the plight of the rhino, leopards are still hunted for their pelts which are used in tribal rituals in some South African tribes.