The beautiful Big Five
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The Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) are an important part of South Africa's wildlife scene. Ironically, their name derives from the days when these dangerous species were regarded as the five most desirable animals to hunt. Now, visitors prefer to 'hunt' them with their camera lenses and they are a big drawcard in our national parks.
It is true that the easiest way to spot a leopard is in a tree. However, these agile predators are so well camouflaged in their natural habitat that this is a task more challenging than it sounds. Nonetheless, spotting one is definitely a highlight of a South African game drive and a task made easier with the assistance of a trained guide.
Many visitors confuse leopards and cheetahs. A leopard has rosettes (a small flower design) on its coat whereas a cheetah's markings are more like spots. Leopards are also much heavier and more powerful.
Another member of the Big Five is the rhinoceros. You get two species in South Africa: black and white rhino. White rhino are identified by their flattened or square-shaped lips, whereas black rhino have more hooked lips. The white rhino is the more social of the two and can often be seen grazing in small family groups, whereas the black rhino is harder to spot, preferring thick bush where it browses on leaves.
Rhinos are surprisingly agile and fast for their large size and weight. They roll in the mud to cool down and the layer of mud acts like sunscreen and an insect repellent.
The African (or Cape) buffalo can be one of the most dangerous animals in the bush, particularly the old bulls. Generally, though, you are more likely to see large, peaceful herds of these cow-like creatures grazing next to the road. Just like rhino, buffalo also enjoy a good mud bath. The buffalo is featured on the R100 banknote.
A buffalo calf's coat tends to be a lighter brown and darkens as it gets older.
The elephant is a firm favourite among locals and visitors alike. One of the remarkable aspects of elephant behaviour is the way in which the calves are surrounded by the older elephants in the herd for protection. Though cute, the playful calves weigh over 100kg at birth, making elephants a formidable force.
One of the popular stories about elephants is that they get drunk on fermented marula fruit, but many wildlife specialists argue they would need far larger quantities of the fruit in order to do so. They use their remarkable trunks to reach the fruit they eat and to drink water; they also use them to help them tip over large structures such as tree trunks.
Often referred to as 'King of the Jungle', the lion is one of Africa's most beautiful, and dangerous, predators. They are beautiful animals to watch and the seeming laziness of the male lion, identified by a large mane, belies its power and strength – a lion's paw can be the size of a person's face. Lions live in prides usually consisting of a few male lions and many lionesses.
Lions are not frequent tree-climbers but will do so at times. You are more likely to find a lioness or a cub climbing a tree than you are to see a male lion doing so; one theory lions do this is to catch a cooling breeze. The lion is also one of the animals that is featured on South African banknotes. You'll find it on the R50 note.
The Big Five are just a handful of the animals found in the African bush. Come to South Africa to see these and the other incredible animals with which they share their natural habitat.