Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Big Five

Visitors to the big game areas of sub-Saharan Africa are often exhorted to spot The Big Five.  And doing so is often a badge of pride.  The name The Big Five came about apparently because the five animals are reputedly the most dangerous to hunt.  

I've just returned from 10 days in the bush, so the idea of spotting The Big Five came up.  Fortunately we succeeded in seeing all five, including the most difficult, the leopard.

Here I am in my bush vehicle, ready to go.

The animals comprising The Big Five are:

The king of the jungle – the lion (incidentally, the lion hardly ever is in a jungle – it prefers bush land or plains)

I've got my eye on you.

Here, take my photo

Time to get out of the sun
Maybe it's time for a nap


The leopard – elusive and very difficult to spot (my favorite cat)

It's all mine

The elephant – my favorite animal by far

The rhinoceros – in danger of extinction due to the demand for its horn’s (non-existent) medicinal properties

A white rhino - a grazer

The buffalo – usually placid in a herd, but decidedly cantankerous when solo.

Don't come any closer

Many visitors are surprised by the size of the animals, so I thought I would provide you with some basic facts about each of The Big Five.

The elephant – or ellie as we like to call them

This is the largest terrestrial animal, with African ellies being somewhat larger than their Asian counterparts.

A large male African ellie can stand 4 metres (13 feet) high and weigh 7,000 kgs (15,000 lbs).  With its ears out and trumpeting, it is an awesome and terrifying sight.

Ears out an trumpeting

On one of our bush trips, a group of us were canoeing along the Zambezi from Mana Pools in Zimbabwe to the Mozambique border.  We stopped for lunch on a small island, whose side were small sand cliffs made carved out when the river was in flood.  We were in the midst of setting up our picninc lunch when an ellie walked out from under a tree.  It looked at us curiously, standing about 30 or 40 metres away.  It walked around another tree and peered at us again.  Then it walked back around the tree to take another look at us.  Without any warning, up went the trunk, a soul-chilling trumpet followed, and the ellie charged.

Our options were few.  Staying where we were was obviously not an option.  But jumping over the small cliff into the crocodile-infested, hippo-infested Zambezi didn’t seem very appealing either.  But we really didn’t have a choice, so we moved with some speed towards the top of the cliff – probably 3 to 4 metres high.  Just before we had to launch ourselves over the edge, the game ranger who was accompanying us, jumped in front of the ellie, waved his arms, and shouted.

The ellie skidded to a halt – literally – looked quizzically at the crazy ranger, turned and walked away.

Of course, we were very relieved and asked the ranger why he did what he did.  He replied that when young bull ellies charge like that, it is usually a mock charge – that they are just strutting their stuff.  ‘Usually’ we thought. 

We were very thankful to have someone with us with knowledge and courage, who provided us with a story for years to come.

In the Kalahari - running for a waterhole

As frightening as they can be, ellies are also softies.  I once watched a small herd drinking at a waterhole.  There was a tortoise at the edge of the water in potential danger of being trampled.  One ellie gently moved it out of danger with it foot.  Amazing.

People who spend time around ellies are constantly amazed at their behaviour.  They have a great sense of humour.  The story goes at the game farm where I have a share in a bungalow that a group of young men, highly intoxicated, were watching a herd of ellies.  The men were making a great deal of noise, as intoxicated men are wont to do.  One ellie apparently was so irritated at the intrusive noise in the quiet bush that it wandered over to the Land Rover in which the men were sitting, lifted the front of the vehicle off the ground, and dropped it.  It them repeated this to reinforce its point and walked off.  Needless to say the bush became very quiet.

Ellies, despite their size, are remarkably quiet when they walk.  Most people who spend time in the bush have stories about looking intently at some animal or other only to find an ellie or two are standing a few metres away.  They have walked up in complete silence.  A big ellie has a foot that can reach nearly half a metre across (that’s 18 inches or so). 

This is a small footprint - and I have a big foot

Ellies are vegetarian and go through a huge amount of leaves and grass a day, often up to 150 kgs (330 lbs).  They also consume up to 40 litres of water (11 gallons). 

Elephant teeth are very interesting.  Unlike humans who replace their baby teeth with one additional set, elephants have six sets, the baby teeth followed by five other sets.  Unlike humans, an ellie’s new teeth start at the back and push forward causing the old ones to fall out.  The last set typically comes when an ellie is about 40 years old (they can live to 70) and has to last the rest of its life.  If it doesn’t, the ellie loses the ability to chew and will die of starvation.

Ellie tusks are used for digging, debarking trees, lifting, and fighting.  Tusks are relatively soft and often wear down or break off.  The record length of an African ellie tusk is about 3 metres (10 feet).  Over the past couple of hundred years, elephant tusks have on average become shorter because of natural selection – the long tusked ellies were shot for trophies.  I’m sure Darwin would have had something to say about this.

Enjoying the water

Paddling in the Okavango Delta

The most fascinating aspect of ellies, other than their amazing social structure, is their trunk.  Made up of about 150,000 muscle fascicles, it is a remarkably versatile tool.  It can lift 350 kgs (750 lbs) and can take the shell off a peanut without breaking the nut inside.  It can hold 8 litres of water (about 2 gallons) which is used for drinking and spraying over its own body.  It is also used as a snorkel when the ellie goes swimming underwater – one of the great sights of the bush.  Last week I watched two ellie teenagers cavorting in a river pool, rolling on their backs, going completely under water except for their trunks.  A hippo that had been enjoying the pool, retreated behind some rocks and glared at the ellies’ intrusion into its space.

On the banks of the Chobe River - Botswana

Family portrait - face powdered

I can watch ellies all day (and night).  Normally they are placid, but one always has to be careful when one encounters a breeding herd - mothers and young.  As with all animals, mothers can be very aggressive when their kids are threatened or perceived to be threatened.

Talking of young, a baby elephant must be the cutest thing on four feet.  It is very small, often able to walk underneath its mother's belly.  It doesn't quite know what to do with tis trunk and sometimes trips over it.  And. like other kids, little ellies love to play.  A wonderful sight.

Well that’s enough for today.  Next time I’ll write about some of the other Big Five.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Thanks so much for taking us along, Stan. It's been a lovely way for me to start my morning.

  2. Thanks, Stan! Ellies are one of my very favorite animals! Intelligent, both alien and very familiar. I'm generally a very peaceful and mellow fellow, and don't believe in killing much of anything, but if I happened upon some poaches slaughtering Ellies, I'd have zero qualms about shooting each and every one of them. Talk about a crime...

  3. That brought to mind a postcard from a friend of mine. He had spend two weeks looking for the big five. On the postcard was 'So far all we have seen is the hotel cat in Mombasa.'

  4. Stan, talk about an adventure-- being saved by the Lone Ranger!

    And Everett, tusk tusk.

  5. Great stories. Elephants rule!

    A relative of mine who was in Sri Lanka durking the horrific tsunami, but was inland when it occurred, told me that her favorite experience was feeding a baby elephant -- who'd lost an ear to a tiger -- in the elephant orphanage.