Did you know?
South Africa is one of the world’s ‘mega diverse’ countries because of its biological riches.
You get the Big Five, the Little Five, the Shy Five. But you also get the Ugly Five, an entirely subjective and somewhat jokey designation.
So which animals are considered so unsightly that they deserve their very own little club? Turns out the members are mostly of the scavenging variety – vultures, marabou storks and hyenas.
The other two are vegetarians – warthogs and wildebeest.
Warthogs are so named for good reason. The huge protuberances under their eyes are a little distracting, even with a mud pack (a firm warthog favourite), but ugly? The French would call such a beast a ‘jolie-laide’ – so ugly it’s beautiful.
Now, the wildebeest. And here, one would have to admit that the wildebeest shape is not one of beauty and grace. It has skinny legs, high shoulders, short neck, and a barrel chest. The black wildebeest in particular has some really strange facial hair going on. But does a lack of pleasing proportion automatically relegate an animal to the ugly club? Debatable.
The hyena also has some peculiar proportions, with all the power stacked in the forequarters (and jaw), and the weak-looking hindquarters tacked on as something of an afterthought. The females and males are hard to tell apart since their undercarriages look very much the same. If anything, the females are a little larger and more imposing than the males.
The hyena’s predatory, scavenging ways have typecast it as the baddy in plenty of cartoons and wildlife documentaries. But scientists who work with them swear they are absolutely beautiful.
The birds in the Ugly Five group are both completely dependent on carcasses for their meals, and perhaps the gruesomeness of their ecological niche is a little distasteful. But vultures are quite beautiful in the air, with broad wingspans and effortless grace.
On the ground, all that hopping around with the head extended isn’t lovely. And granted, the naked head of a lappet-faced vulture can be ugly to the uninitiated, but if you look at a noble Cape vulture profile, you’ll gasp in admiration.
In addition, you’d think they smell bad. But most vultures are meticulous about their hygiene. Up close, once they’ve bathed after feeding, Cape vultures (also called Cape griffons) have a sweet, talcum-powder smell.
It’s doubtful that you’d want to get close enough to a marabou stork to smell it, though. Usually found picking through carrion, the marabou has the oily, unctuous air of a Dickensian undertaker.
Marabous are the only storks (an otherwise beautiful family) to eat carrion, and have a bald pink head and neck for easy washing.
The lack of feathers in the hot African sun sometimes gives them blisters on their heads. This is definitely the president of the Ugly Five.
Travel tips & Planning info
How to get here
The Ugly 5 are found in areas of savannah like the Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, Marakele National Park and the Pilanesberg Game Reserve.
Best time to visit
If you’re heading for the Kruger National Park, Marakele or Pilanesberg, the winter months (May to September) offer cooler temperatures and less greenery, which means animals can be seen more easily.
Looking out for the Ugly 5 is a fun pastime if you’re having no luck in ticking off the Big 5 (rhinos, elephants, leopards, lions and buffalo). Searching for the Ugly 5 is best done in your own vehicle.
Length of stay
In any game reserve, 2 nights should be a minimum stay to give you a decent amount of time to hunt down the animals you’re looking for.
What to pack
Bring along a camera with a long lens if you can. You’ll definitely want to get some close-ups of the ‘uglies’.
Where to stay
South Africa has so many wonderful national parks and there are also many excellent provincial reserves - take your pick!