Have you ever heard of the Shy Five? Completely and utterly different to the Big Five, you’ll have to get up early to see this alternative game-viewing list. Keep a sharp eye out, because these animals spook easily and keep a very low profile. But they’re well worth the trouble.

Did you know?

Many Kalahari animals rely on aardvark burrows to shelter from the region's extreme weather.

This is a story about the animals you’d be lucky to see. The Shy Five, as they’re called, are very elusive, masters in the art of melting down a handy burrow. In short, an alternative game-viewing experience to the bolder Big Five.

They are: the meerkat, the aardvark, the porcupine, the aardwolf and the bat-eared fox. All are nocturnal beasts except for the meerkat.

The strongest of the group is the solitary aardvark, a powerful termite-eating digger that uses its formidable excavation prowess to break open ant hills or dig an escape route. Its old holes are often renovated and occupied by all other members of the Shy Five.

The most prickly customer is the porcupine, a large, quilled rodent that devours juicy bulbs, warding off danger by stamping its feet and rattling its black and white quills. If that doesn’t work, it will charge in reverse, driving its painfully sharp quills into predators.

The aardwolf looks like a miniature, striped hyena at first glance, but this dog-like animal lives on a steady diet of termites. Its jaws are most unhyena-like - small and weak with peg-like teeth. It frightens away attackers by puffing out its huge mane, and making scary roaring noises.

Another doggie character is the beautiful bat-eared fox, with its fluffy tail, robber mask face and huge ears, all the better to hear bugs with. This insect-muncher will stand peering at the ground, detecting every tiny twitch of larvae or beetles underground. It digs them up with its elegant, black-stockinged forelegs, then trots on, usually with its family.

And then there is the ever-photogenic meerkat (another insect-lover). At first glance this seems like the odd one out among the Shy Five. Isn’t this the cheeky Timon in The Lion King? The soapie star of Meerkat Manor? Yes, and there are meerkat troops that are habituated to humans. But usually their superb sentinel skills send them scampering down a burrow at the mere sight of you.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

SANParks Reservations
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
Email: reservations@sanparks.org

How to get here

The Shy Five have distribution ranges all over the country. But the best chance to see all Five of them in one place is in the Kalahari and the Karoo, collectively the arid heartland of South Africa. Head for the Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park near Upington, the Tswalu Private Game Reserve near Kuruman, or the Samara Private Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet.

Best time to visit

Unless you're a night owl (preferably with infra-red goggles), the best time to see the Shy Five is in deep winter (May to August). That's when even the most strictly nocturnal creatures will often be seen in the early morning. Give the meerkats time, though. They hate getting up early on cold days.

Around the area

If you're in the Karoo or Kalahari, hunting for the Shy Five, keep your eyes open. You're quite likely to also see the Big Five, the Small Five and all kinds of other intriguing animals.

What will it cost

Only the cost of your accommodation, wherever you choose to stay.

What to pack

A game drive at night on an open vehicle can get very chilly, even in summer, so take along a jacket, scarf and beanie. Don't forget your binoculars, or better still, night vision binoculars if you can.