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The "Big Five"

Elephants - one of the Big Five - "The Big Five" | Southern African Safaris | Classic Africa

The "Big Five" is a frequently encountered term in the safari vernacular. The origins of the term actually date back to the early days of hunting safaris - the "Big Five" are the five African species deemed most dangerous to hunt, and indeed many a hunter has met his or her fate in the pursuit of these denizens of the African savanna. The term has  more recently been adopted by the photographic safari industry to refer to five of Africa's most high profile mammal species.

The African lion (Panthera leo) has the well-earned reputation of 'King of the Beasts'. Lions are the second largest members of the cat family, weighing up to 500 pounds. They are the only conspicuously social species of wild cats, typically living and hunting in prides ranging in size from 3 to over 20 individuals. These prides are regulated by complex social interactions.

Lions are ferocious killers, and appear to exist for the sole purposes of eating, sleeping, and reproducing. They are only active for roughly two to four hours a day, but their activity is intense in these brief spurts. Competition with other lions, as well as other predators, is fierce, and lions lead a brutal existence. A lion's deep, resonating roar can be heard for miles, and is one of the most unforgettable sounds in the natural world.

In contrast to the lion, the leopard (Panthera pardus) is a reclusive loner, hunting alone using stealth and wit. Pound for pound these are the most powerful of all cats, capable of dragging carcasses heavier than themselves many feet high in trees, where they are safe beyond the reach of competing predators and scavengers.

Surprisingly, leopards are probably the most numerous of Africa's large predators but, because of their extremely shy, cautious nature, they are rarely seen. These sleek cats are mostly nocturnal but, in areas where they are less threatened, will frequently hunt in the early morning or late afternoon. They do not roar, but communicate via load rasping calls. They are arguably the most graceful and elegant of all cats, with unmatched poise and composure. A leopard sighting is a highlight of any African safari.

For many, elephants - the gentle, intelligent giants of the African bush - are the very symbol of Africa. Loxodonta africana is the biggest of all land animals, mature bulls reaching over six tons in weight. Their trunks are made up of roughly 100,000 muscle units, weigh as much as an adult buffalo, and yet are capable of the most intricate and delicate maneuvers. Elephants can live to be 70 years old, and are famous for their extended memories. Elephant society is matriarchal and tightly ordered, with the female-dominated breeding herd serving as nuclear unit.

Most amazing of all about these colossal creatures, as anyone who has ever had anything to do with them will attest, is their remarkable intelligence. Southern Africa is the only place in the world where the African elephant thrives unthreatened in its natural habitat.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is as tough and tenacious as the African bush itself. First time travelers to Africa often mistakenly refer to these large bovids as "water buffalo", but in fact they have no relationship to their more docile Asian counterparts. Due to their aggressiveness and ferocity, Cape buffalo have never been domesticated, unlike the Asian water buffalo.

Buffalo are very successful bulk grazers, and the species is encountered across a wide range of habitats, from floodplains to grasslands, forests to mountains. They are, however, very dependent on water, and herds are rarely encountered very far from a water source. Other than humans, the buffalo's only real predator is the lion, and even lions require a significant numeric advantage to take down an adult Cape buffalo.

It is largely due to the conservation efforts of Southern Africans that rhinos have been saved from extinction. Poached for their horns (which are used for ceremonial daggers in North Yemen and as an aphrodisiac in south east Asia), these animals are precariously endangered north of the Zambezi river.

There are two species of rhinoceros in Africa, so-called white and black rhinos (misnomers stemming from the Afrikaans word describing the white rhino's "wide" mouth). White rhinos have square lips, are strictly grazers, and are the world's second heaviest land animals (after elephants). Black rhinos are slightly smaller, with hooked lips for browsing, and are significantly more aggressive than the relatively placid white rhino. Rhinos are among the oldest of all mammals - fossilized remains of a black rhino have been found in Namibia that date back 23 million years. 

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