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Tourism is big business around the world, but when it comes to wildlife, Africa is perhaps the most visited place on the planet. Keen to experience safaris and the incredible and unique wildlife of this massive continent, Africa welcomes more than 5 million visitors every year.
The Big Five is one of the greatest attractions when it comes to African wildlife, and tourism related to this brings in significant revenue for countries like South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Kenya through safaris, photography trips, and much more. Not only this, but because the tourist industry around the Big Five is so great, local job opportunities are created, and much of the income from tourism is put back into conservation projects.
But The Big Five wasn’t a concept designed to draw in animal-loving tourists from around the globe. The idea actually came from big-game hunting and these animals are considered to pose the greatest challenge when hunting on foot. Therefore, they are also considered to be the most highly prized. However, since hunting the Big Five is now illegal in most places, including South Africa, the focus is now on protecting these creatures and tourism.
Since most wildlife lovers travel to Africa to catch a glimpse of these spectacular creatures in their natural habitat, national parks such as Hwange in Zimbabwe and the Kruger National Park in South Africa use the Big Five to promote both conservation campaigns and tourist safaris.
But these animals aren’t just a way to attract visitors; they’re also important players in the ecosystem with each being considered a keystone species. Without them, the balance of the ecosystem would be completely thrown off and Africa would be a very different place.
1. African Lion (Panthera leo)
The African lion is perhaps one of the most iconic members of the Big Five and one of the most iconic animals on the planet. These big cats belong to the Panthera genus, which also contains the Indian or Asiatic lion.
They’re often called the King of the Jungle, although they don’t actually live in a jungle environment. African lions can be seen in savannas and grasslands, where they spend most of their time sleeping; up to 20 hours a day!
Appearance & Physical Traits
Smaller than tigers, African lions are the second largest member of the big cat family and when fully grown, males can weigh as much as 550 lbs (249 kg). While the lionesses are slightly smaller, they can weigh between 260 and 400 lbs (118 and 181 kg) when mature. In terms of length, from the tip of the tail to the head, male lions can measure as much as 10 feet (3 meters).
Female lions are slightly smaller and the sexual dimorphism between males and females is evident. But while males are larger and heavier, females still have a very muscular build, which aids them when taking down large prey animals like antelope and even, in some cases, hippos.
Lion coats and manes can vary in color quite dramatically between individuals; however, the fur usually ranges between reddish brown and light tan. In any case, the fur color is adapted to help the lion blend in with its environment, which comes in especially useful as they stalk their prey. In addition to camouflage, lions also have heavily padded paws that allow them to move silently and stealthily through their environment. They also have short legs which provide them with greater agility when chasing their prey.
It’s only male lions that have manes and again, the coloration of the mane can be as diverse as that of the fur. Some lions may have a very light blond mane, while others’ may be black. You can tell the age and health of a lion by the length and condition of its mane. Lions with a darker, thicker mane are generally healthier and this serves as an attractive trait to lionesses.
Male lions have manes for two purposes; to display their dominance but also as a method of protection when fighting to keep the neck from becoming injured. Since lions have sharp retractable claws that can grow up to 1.5 inches (38 mm) and a bite force of up to 1000 psi, these animals could do a lot of damage during a fight. Their powerful jaws are also used for tearing the flesh of their prey and chewing. Since their elongated fangs can grow up to 3.9 inches (10 cm), they’re ideal for delivering a deadly bite to their victims when hunting.
During a hunt, lions will pursue their targets by stalking and, when the time is right, they’ll make a short dash and pounce. However, in order to successfully locate prey both at night and during the day, they need to have excellent vision.
But the good news is that they have well-adapted eyes that allow them to see in both low light and daylight conditions. What’s more, like many cats, their pupils have the ability to dilate fully. Unlike domestic cats, their pupils are rounded rather than being slits. This means they have circular muscles that allow for dilation.
Lions are highly sociable animals that live in groups called prides. A pride usually contains more females and typically around three to four males. The females within a pride are always related, and numbers can grow up to around 40 members.
It’s normally the females that are responsible for hunting and they may hunt alone or in groups where they form a semicircle around their intended target. Weaker females will flank the semicircle, luring prey in towards the center where the stronger members will make the attack. Working together this way means a greater chance of being successful when hunting. Even though they are apex predators, lions only have a 25% success rate when hunting. At times, they may even scavenge the kills of other animals like leopards and hyenas.
That said, as a keystone species, the very presence of lions helps to keep herbivore populations in check which also ensures that vegetation is not overgrazed.
Meanwhile, male lions play an important role in protecting the pride from intruders and outside males and will mark out its territory using scents and vocalizations. Moreover, the male lions are responsible for mating with several females within the pride but rather than fighting for dominance, they will pick out a female and follow her around when she begins showing signs of fertility. When she’s ready to mate, she will assume a receptive position known as lordosis and copulation can begin.
Once cubs are born, the term ‘it takes a village’ couldn’t apply more than when talking about lions. The female members of the pride come together to help raise litters of between two and four cubs. For the first few weeks of life, the cubs remain inside dens, and various females will sit in for nursing duties and to protect the young. A healthy female may have as many as four litters throughout her lifetime.
The males within a pride may seek out a coalition with unrelated males when they are young in order to compete for dominance and territory. The benefit of this is that the pride becomes stronger and has a greater defense against potential threats.
Lions are often seen as lazy as they can sleep for between 16 and 20 hours a day. However, this is because they are largely nocturnal which is where that excellent vision becomes super important. What’s more, by resting during the day, they’re able to conserve energy for hunting at night.
Communication and bonding is essential within the pride, and grooming is an important social activity that helps bring individuals closer together. Not only this, but grooming is one way that lions show affection to one another; other ways include rubbing their heads together and flopping on top of each other.
Vocal communication is also essential for lions and we’re probably most familiar with their roar. While this may sound intimidating, there’s a good reason for this; lions roar to show dominance over their territory and to scare away intruders. However, they’ll also use a series of grunts, growls, purrs, and other sounds to communicate.
The African lion is largely found in savanna and grassland habitats where there is a good number of prey species. What’s more, this habitat gives them sufficient cover when hunting, being covered in long grasses. There also needs to be plenty of opportunities to rest so lions will be found where there is a good amount of cover, such as rocky formations and thickets.
However, there are also lion populations in mountainous and forested regions but are not found in deserts or rainforests.
That said, they’re still pretty adaptable and will adjust their habitat according to the season. For example, when it’s dry, they will move closer to a water source and take advantage of the fact that prey will likely be weaker. Since their prey often migrates with the seasons, lions are known to follow them.
Between July and October is considered to be the high season for spotting lions, but since they also make an annual river crossing migration between June and September, your chances of spotting them are heightened.
Range & Distribution
The African lion became extinct in the north of the continent back in the 1960s and can now only be found in sub-Saharan Africa in countries such as Botswana, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania.
They are largely found in national parks which offer protection to the lions from various factors, including human hunters. There are lots of national parks where lions can be seen, including Krugar, the Serengeti National park and Ngorongoro but it’s thought that the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya is home to the largest number of lions.
In West Africa, lions have a much harder time, but there are conservation efforts in place to help protect them, including those run by the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex in Benin.
Threats & Conservation Status
The IUCN Red List states that the African Lion is a vulnerable species and one of the main reasons for this is human activity. Because of urbanization and agriculture, much of the lions’ natural habitat has been lost. The more human activity grows, the more lions suffer. As a result of this, lions are often found wandering into human settlements which can cause conflict.
This usually happens when lions turn their attention to livestock instead of wild prey and results in humans killing these big cats. However, it’s not unheard of for hunters to go after lions to get their hands on their body parts and fur. Since lions are notoriously difficult to hunt, they’re often seen as a trophy. While this type of hunting is regulated, and even illegal in some places, it still happens.
As you can imagine, this, along with other types of hunting has led to the serious decline of lion numbers in the wild. In the west and central parts of Africa, this is particularly problematic.
However, there is some good news; conservation projects in Africa are ongoing with the aim of protecting lions and raising awareness in local communities to highlight the negative effects hunting and killing can have. What’s more, there are international agreements in place to protect lions, such as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species 1973.
Locally, various projects are going on, including efforts to maintain habitat and ensure sufficient prey in the western and central parts of Africa. The Born Free Foundation has ongoing projects in Kenya where they not only provide suitable habitat for lions but are also working with locals to reduce human/lion conflicts.
2. African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
African buffalos are some of the most enormous creatures to roam the African continent, with fully grown adults weighing anywhere between 1,000 and 1,800 lbs (453 and 816 kg).
They’re typically found in grasslands and savannas in sub-Saharan Africa, and while they’re large, they’re still preyed on by lions, crocodiles, and even humans.
Appearance & Physical Traits
The African buffalo is a large, robust animal that has a muscular body and immense strength. Despite their large size, they’re still a prey animal, but they have dark gray or black coats (females may be more reddish brown) which allow them to camouflage in shadowy spots in their natural habitat. As they age, their coats may darken, and some older males may even develop white patches around the eyes.
However, individuals usually have worn areas of their coat which gives them a shaggy appearance, which is also characterized by their facial hair that looks rather similar to a beard. The end of the tail features a tuft of hair which is used to swat insects.
But perhaps the most well-known trait of the buffalo is its horns. Unlike a lot of species where only males have horns, both male and female buffaloes are equipped with large horns, although the males’ are larger and have a distinct s-shape.
These horns are primarily used as a display of dominance but also come in handy for self-defense and for clearing away vegetation when feeding or looking for water sources.
While buffalo are often found in grasslands and on the savannah, their large hooves are designed to allow them to adapt to different terrains. This is important as these animals may migrate closer to water sources during the dry season and may have to cross various terrains, including marshlands.
The head of the African buffalo is very distinct, with a hairy muzzle and a broad forehead. Just past the neck, male buffalo may have a prominent hump, and some subspecies may have a bony ridge above the eyes.
Buffaloes live in herds, which can number up to 500 members. The benefit of this is that there is strength in numbers, so these large groups offer greater protection against predators. Surprisingly, it’s not a male that’s in charge of the herd, but there is usually a dominant female with a strong focus on a matriarchal community. That said, the buffalo work together to prevent threats and protect the group.
Where threats do intercept, these large animals use their horns to scare off predators. Again, they’ll cooperate their efforts, often forming a circle that the attacker cannot get through, which not only acts as a deterrent but also provides protection to younger or more vulnerable members of the group that are located at the center.
Vocal communications are also important within the herd and are used in many different ways. For example, when changing direction, the leader of the herd may make sounds that aren’t all that dissimilar from those made by domestic cattle. They’ll also emit loud grunts and growls to show aggression.
Before mating season, males will remain in their own herds, preparing their bodies. When the time comes, they will integrate with mixed herds and will follow their chosen female until she is ready to mate. However, there is often some competition between males, so it’s not unusual for them to fight using their horns, make loud vocalizations, and perform displays of strength and dominance.
Copulation usually takes place twice over the course of around half an hour, and the females eventually give birth to a single calf after 9 to 11 months. At this time, the entire herd helps to raise the young again, proving that these are highly sociable animals capable of working together for the good of the herd.
Being grazing animals, buffalo need access to plentiful vegetation. They’ll spend their time following grazing patterns in order to find the best food but when sources are low, they are known to feed on other plant materials. They’ll often be seen grazing around dusk and dawn when it’s cooler and will sometimes remain active at night when fewer predators are active and they can graze in relative peace. During the day, when it is hot, buffalo take refuge in cooling mud which protects the skin and reduces body temperature as well as keeping pesky insects at bay.
African buffalo might be large, but they appear to be pretty docile. But don’t let their looks fool you as this species is considered to be one of the most dangerous in Africa. When provoked, buffalo are known to become aggressive, and there are even stories of them charging at vehicles on safari.
In terms of habitat, buffalo can be very diverse and may be found in various types of grasslands and savannas where there are ample grazing opportunities. However, they are easily able to adapt to different conditions, which is why they are sometimes found in mountainous regions or in woodlands. In wooded areas, the habitat needs to be relatively open, but the trees and shrubs provide the animals with adequate cover and shelter as well as protection from the sun in the height of the day’s heat.
Certain species, like the mountain buffalo are found particularly in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. In any case, buffaloes require a lot of water, so they’ll only inhabit areas where water sources are readily available. What’s more, they’ll likely move closer to water during the dry season.
As a keystone species, buffalo play an important role in shaping vegetation in their habitats and control through nutrient cycling and distribution.
Range & Distribution
African buffalo are primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa in countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Although there are some subspecies such as the Nile buffalo found in Central Africa and the Sudan buffalo found in western Africa in countries like Senegal and Cameroon. But the largest populations can be found in the southern parts of the continent.
Buffalo are protected by national parks and some of the largest groups can be seen in the Serengeti National Park and Kruger National Park as well as Maasai Mara in Kenya.
During the dry season, between June and August, buffalo will migrate in search of water and new areas to graze.
As I have already mentioned, there are several subspecies of buffalo, each thriving in their own unique habitat. For this reason, these animals can be found in various environments.
Threats & Conservation Status
While African buffaloes move in enormous herds, they’re still listed as being near threatened on the IUCN Red List. This comes as a result of several factors, including habitat loss because of human development.
It’s not only a loss of habitat but also habitat fragmentation that causes problems for buffalo when it comes to finding food, shelter, and even a mate. What’s more, where habitat is separated, it becomes more difficult for the buffalo during migration when they may not be able to access the resources they need.
However, the African Wildlife Foundation is working with the governments of various nations to ensure proper planning when developments are taking place, considering the impact it may have on local wildlife.
Climate change is also an issue for buffalo since this has had an impact on the availability of grazing spots due to changes in vegetation patterns as well as a decreased availability of water.
Rinderpest, sometimes known as cattle plague, was a serious problem for buffalo populations back in the late 1800s. In susceptible herds, the death rate of infected individuals was almost 100%, so it’s not difficult to see why there was a significant decline in buffalo numbers. Fortunately, the disease was eradicated completely in 2011 after around 40 years of developing and administering a vaccination. However, this does not take away from the fact that the disease had a devastating effect not only on the animals but on humans as a result of loss of income from farming.
While buffaloes are farmed, they are also targeted by hunters who are looking to harvest their meat for food and their hide and horns for a trophy. However, while hunting of the Big Five is now illegal in South Africa, free hunting of buffalo is not prohibited in many countries and still continues.
3. African Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The second big cat in the Big Five is the African leopard. These stunning animals are smaller than their lion cousins but just as interesting and magnificent. With distinct markings on the coat and incredible hunting techniques, the African leopard brings in millions of tourists trying to spot it each year.
Sadly African leopards are considered to be vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to factors such as habitat loss and human conflict.
Appearance & Physical Traits
The leopard is perhaps one of the most iconic looking big cats thanks to its adaptable coat covered in black rosette markings. The main color of the coat can vary between a pale yellow and a dark golden color, but the fur tends to be coarser on the back compared to the softer fur on the belly. The markings on their coats act as camouflage, allowing the leopard to hide in its habitat while hunting.
However, it is worth noting that some leopards are affected by a condition known as melanism, which causes them to have a pure black coat. In some cases, you may still be able to see very faint markings. What’s more, the coloration of individual leopards will vary according to their habitat. For example, leopards that live in forested areas may have more dense markings than those that live on the open savanna. You may also notice that the main coat color is much darker in leopards that live in forests compared to the lighter yellow coats of those that live in open areas.
African leopards, like many big cats, show sexual dimorphism mainly in terms of their size. Males can grow to around 110 – 200 lbs (50 – 91 kg), while the females are much smaller and can weigh anywhere between 65 and 130 lbs (29 – 59 kg). They are considered to be medium-sized big cars.
The body of the leopard is extremely muscular and sleek, and they have long tails which feature a white tip and can grow up to 3.3 feet (1 meter) in length. The tail is used for both balance and stability as well as steering when in pursuit of prey. Their strong bodies allow them greater agility not only on the ground but also in the trees. These animals are known to spend a lot of time in an arboreal environment, and their muscular build even allows them to drag their prey up into the trees to protect it from scavengers. In addition to this, leopards have powerful, curved, retractable claws that can grow up to 1 inch (2.5 cm). These enable the leopard’s climbing as well as giving them a strong grip on their prey.
As well as having sharp claws which are ideal for hunting, leopards have incredibly strong jaws located in their large heads, meaning they are able to catch considerably large animals. Since leopards often hunt at night, good eyesight is essential, and this is possible thanks to rod cells inside the retina as well as slit-shaped pupils that control how much light enters the eyes.
While lions live in social groups, leopards are much more solitary animals that will spend much of their time hunting alone. Although when a group of leopards is spotted, it’s called a leap!
The only time that leopards will come together is to mate or to raise their cubs. However, it’s the females that do most of the rearing while the males will scour the area, protecting their territory using sounds and scent markings from urine and feces or by cheek rubbing on trees.
When they are confronted by other leopards, males are ready to fight. This usually happens when leopard territory overlaps, but those sharp claws and strong jaws certainly come in handy for this.
During breeding season, female leopards are fertile for a few days and, during this time, they will go looking for a mate. The scent markings I mentioned earlier are not only used for marking territory but also help females locate a male. When they meet, the pair will spend a few days together making various vocalizations, including growling. The males will also bite the females’ necks to show their interest.
After giving birth to between two and three cubs, the male will leave and the mother will remain with the cubs. For the first six to eight weeks of life, leopard cubs are vulnerable, so the female will hide them away in rocks or vegetation and do whatever it takes to protect them. After this, when the young are ready to eat solid food, she will begin teaching them to hunt. Leopards can live for between 10 and 12 years in the wild.
What’s really interesting about the African leopard is its hunting ability. These are incredibly sensitive animals with amazing vision, hearing, and olfactory senses. They largely hunt at night where they will go after animals like ungulates and monkeys. While they usually seek out medium sized prey, there was one report of a male leopard taking down a 900 lbs (408 kg) impala!
When hunting, leopards are incredibly stealthy, which explains why they have an impressive 38% hunting success rate. They will, like many other felines, stalk their prey, hiding in vegetation and shadow, before making a fast-paced final move to ambush them. However, their hunts are not always planned as leopards are known opportunists. What’s more, where food is sparse, they’ll even scavenge off other animals.
After successfully taking down their victim, leopards are not keen to share, so will drag their prey into a tree where they may cache it to keep it away from other animals. Amazingly, they can carry prey that weighs up to three times their own body weight.
Leopards are found in areas where there is a lot of vegetation cover as this aids them when hunting. Primarily, they are found in grasslands and savannas but they’re also common in forests, especially considering there is a lot of tree cover, which allows them to remain stealthy but also provides them with resting and caching spots.
Although less common, it isn’t unheard of for some leopards to live in the mountains. In fact, there was a record of leopards living at an elevation of 18,497 feet (5,638 meters) on Mount Kilimanjaro.
But regardless of where they live, leopards must have access to a water source which is why they’re often found near rivers and lakes. Not only do they use these bodies of water for hydration but also for cooling off in the intense African heat. However, they will mainly spend their days under the cover of shade and only come out at night to hunt when it’s much cooler.
The size of an individual leopard’s territory can vary greatly, and factors such as the availability or prey and the quality of the habitat will affect this. However, on average, males will occupy an area between 12.73 and 14.68 square miles (33 and 38 square kilometers).
Range & Distribution
While leopards are classed as a vulnerable species, they do have a wide distribution around Africa. They’re primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa and are now considered to be extirpated in the northern parts of the continent.
Leopards are not known to migrate and will spend their lives within their given territory. Leopards are not known to hibernate, and if you want to spot one then they’re most active at dusk and dawn.
Some of the most well-known National Parks in Africa are home to leopard populations, with the Kruger National Park in South Africa being one of the biggest havens due to the excellent range of habitats. The Hluhluwe-imfolozi Park in South Africa is another great place to spot them.
However, they can also be found in Tanzania in the Serengeti National Park, where there is a good amount of grass and forest cover. In Kenya, similar habitats are available in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, while Malawi’s Liwonde National Park provides excellent woodland habitat.
Threats & Conservation Status
Sadly, African leopards are considered to be a vulnerable species, and their numbers are decreasing in the wild.
While leopards are somewhat resistant to changes in habitat, the loss of habitat as well as fragmentation is one of the leading causes of their declining numbers. Fragmentation, caused by urbanization and the building of highways, means that leopards do not have as easy access to potential mates and where they are able to mate, the genetic diversity is not as great.
Another significant problem for leopards is conflict with humans. Because of habitat loss, these animals are more likely to enter human settlements where they may attack livestock. Naturally, this isn’t welcomed by humans, who may then go on to shoot and kill leopard intruders.
Unfortunately, leopards are also the targets of hunters who poach them for their bones, skin, and other body parts. While some countries have offered legal protection to leopards, some still allow trophy hunting, so there’s still a long way to go. Still, where leopards are being poached and their products sold, they are protected against international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
One of the most wonderful ways to help leopards comes in the form of tourist conservation holidays where individuals can sign up to volunteer to monitor leopards and help charities. What’s more, getting locals involved and providing education and resources may help to reduce human/leopard conflicts.
Leopard populations in national parks are afforded more protection than others as these parks are designed to provide a safe and habitable environment.
4. African Elephant (African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) & African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis))
The African elephant is one of the most majestic creatures on the planet and the largest land mammal. There are two subspecies; the bush elephant and the forest elephant which are differentiated because of their natural habitat and physical characteristics.
African elephants are now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, although being a keystone species with the ability to shape the ecosystem, they are given a good amount of protection.
Appearance & Physical Traits
There are two types of African elephant, and while they may look similar, they do have their own distinct traits.
For example, the African bush elephant is much larger, and the males can get as heavy as 26,000 lbs (11,793 kg), while the male forest elephant typically only weighs around 15,000 lbs (6,803 kg). In terms of height, bush elephants can grow to around 9.8 feet (3 meters), while forest elephants aren’t usually much taller than 7.9 feet (2.4 meters).
Where coloration is concerned, bush elephants typically fall somewhere between brown and gray, but the forest elephant is much darker which is believed to be related to the forest environment in which they live. African bush elephants have much thicker skin with prominent wrinkles and skin folds designed to increase surface area, which allows the animal to cool down.
In both subspecies, the males and females are equipped with tusks, but the forest elephant’s tusks are usually narrower and straighter than their bush cousins, whose tusks are more curved. What’s more, the tusks of a male bush elephant can weigh as much as 220 lbs (100 kg)!
When looking at the bush elephant, you will notice the ears are large and fan-shaped, while those of the forest elephant are significantly smaller and more rounded. Elephants use their ears to fan themselves to avoid overheating in the hot African climate.
Again, both the bush and forest elephants have two finger-like appendages at the end of the trunk which allow them to grasp items. This is not a characteristic seen in their Asian cousins. Not only is the trunk used for drinking and breathing, but elephants also use it for communication, which I’ll discuss more in the coming sections. Bush elephants also have teeth to help them grind food, as their large molars are replaced up to 6 times throughout their lives.
Elephants are incredibly social animals that live in groups called herds, which can number up to 100. However, generally speaking, there are usually around 10 individuals in a group. Groups are typically led by the oldest female, demonstrating the matriarchal community in which they live. However, any given group may contain a number of females and their young while the males usually live alone, only joining the group for mating. It’s also worth noting that the social structure between forest elephants is much less complex than that of the bush elephant. What’s more, forest elephants tend to avoid human contact and are known for their shy, reclusive nature. They spend most of their time hiding among the vegetation in the forest, and their smaller size makes this possible.
Within the herd, communication is key and elephants will make a variety of sounds which can be heard over distances as far as 6.2 miles (10km) away! In forest elephants, getting sound to travel through the dense vegetation might pose a challenge. But they’re able to emit low frequency infrasound that is much better able to pass through trees and plants.
That said, they’ll also use body language and other cues, such as intertwining their trunks as a greeting. How adorable!
The African bush elephant is an immensely intelligent creature that is known to use tools. They’ve been observed using sticks to sate an itch and even for swatting away pesky insects. Although their tails and ears also come in handy for this. What’s more, studies have shown they’re excellent problem solvers and can even recognize human body language cues.
Both subspecies of African elephants are considered to be a keystone species which means that, without them, their environment would look very different. Their very movement through the environment shapes it as well as the way that they consume vegetation, being herbivores. The forest elephant disperses seeds which aids in new tree and plant growth, keeping the ecosystem in balance. Reports state that a single elephant may disperse as many as 346 seeds every day.
In terms of diet, both species of African elephants consume enormous amounts of vegetation, including fruit, leaves, grass, and bark. The bush elephant has a very impressive appetite and can consume up to 330 lbs (150 kg) of food in a single day.
As well as eating lots of food, bush elephants have significant water requirements which is why they’re often found near a water source. They also use these bodies of water for bathing and, during the dry season, will migrate over distances up to 62 miles (100 km). Interestingly, any given herd will follow the same migration route year after year.
As their names suggest, the two types of African elephants have vastly different habitats. While the bush elephant is more adaptable and may be found in grasslands, savannas, and deserts, the forest elephant spends its days in tropical forests, primarily in central and West Africa. They are easily able to navigate these forests thanks to their small, rounded ears and smaller body size. They’re also known to clear trails through the forest, which they use time and again.
But even though they do impact the structure of the forest, they also give back to it through seed dispersal.
Sadly, habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging has had a serious impact on the African forest elephant. It’s crucial that forests remain connected to allow them to freely move around in order to ensure genetic diversity. But since these animals are highly sensitive to their environment, these changes have had a serious impact on their populations.
The bush elephant, on the other hand, is much more easily able to adapt, which is evident by its diverse habitat. However, they must have access to water so often remain in areas where lakes and rivers are close by.
During times of migration, the very movement of elephant herds helps to shape the landscape where they’ll make clearings and create habitats for other wildlife; this is what makes them such an important keystone species.
Range & Distribution
The range of the forest elephant covers much of Central Africa, including countries like Cameroon. However, with more than 90% of Gabon being covered in elephant habitat, it is here where populations are most stable.
In the Ivory Coast, the Tai National Park is home to one of the most impressive forest elephant populations and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which affords it protection by the government. In the Central African Republic, the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park has various conservation and research programs in place that are designed to protect the forest elephant.
African bush elephants are found in sub-Saharan Africa in countries like Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, and Tanzania. They’re a common sight on safaris, and people flock to the Kruger National Park in South Africa where there are reported to be around 20,000 individuals thanks to the diverse habitat found here. That said, the Serengeti National Park also has a healthy population of around 7,000 elephants.
If you’re headed to Africa to spot wildlife then the best time to observe bush elephants is during the rainy season, when they’ll be seen feeding on the grasses. What’s great about elephants is that they’re active both during the day and at night.
Forest elephants are also more likely to be seen in the wet season, but they’re known for their elusive nature, and so are not as easy to spot.
Threats & Conservation Status
You’re probably aware of the history of poaching elephants for their tusks which are made of ivory; a highly prized valuable material. In fact, even though there are international efforts in place to prevent illegal poaching, the ivory industry is still worth a massive $23 billion each year. While bush elephant tusks are sought after, the straighter tusks of the forest elephant are even more valuable.
This trade has been devastating for elephants, not to mention the cruel practices used to obtain the tusks. However, many efforts are in place which restrict the sale of ivory products unless they are antiques over 100 years old. There are also organizations working with law enforcement to monitor poaching in various areas that also push for convictions on a global scale.
With elephant numbers at worrying levels, we also have to look at other factors that have contributed to their decline, including habitat loss. Logging, deforestation, urbanization, and other human activities have encroached on elephant territory, much of which has been lost, and what’s left is significantly fragmented. The problem is that, as human settlements expand, more elephants are entering these areas causing damage to property and crops. In retaliation, humans are killing elephants, which further adds to their decline.
In these cases, organizations are working with local farmers to create deterrents so that they don’t have to resort to harming or killing elephants.
But habitat isn’t only being lost as a result of human activity, the effects of climate change on elephant habitat are clear. With changing conditions, the food availability for bush elephants has been affected, which is why it is so important to continue with ongoing efforts to protect existing habitats. This is something that is being implemented by national parks, and in some areas, like the Tai National Park of the Ivory Coast, habitats are being protected for forest elephants. In these same areas, projects to educate local people on the importance of maintaining and protecting forest habitats is also ongoing.
However, it’s worth noting that elephants often cross land borders, so the cooperation of African countries is incredibly important. Even the United Nations has set up its own program to help protect elephants from poaching and other harmful activities.
5. Rhinoceros (Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) & White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum))
In Africa, there are two subspecies of rhinoceros; the white rhino and the black rhino. Although, interestingly, both are more gray in color. However, there are some distinct differences in their physical appearance in relation to size, mouth shape, and other things.
The rhinoceros, regardless of subspecies, is one of the most endangered animals on the planet and is currently listed as near threatened (white) and critically endangered (black) on the IUCN Red List.
Appearance & Physical Traits
The black rhino is significantly smaller than the white rhino and can weigh up to 3,000 lbs (1,361 kg), whereas the white rhino could weigh as much as 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg) when fully grown. Moreover, the black rhinoceros is stockier and has a barrel-shaped body, which helps it when moving through dense vegetation. On the other hand, white rhinos, being grazing animals, have a longer body.
While their names would suggest that they are black or white in color, both subspecies can range anywhere between gray and brown. However, the white rhinoceros is significantly paler than its black counterpart. What’s more, black rhinos will often be seen with an even darker complexion owing to the fact that they use mud to cover the skin and protect it from the sun and pests.
Both species of African rhinoceros are equipped with two horns made from keratin. In black rhinos, these horns have a distinct curve, with the front horn being much longer, potentially growing to 4.3 feet (1.3 meters) in length. The same is true in white rhinos, whose front horns are also longer but get much bigger than black rhinos and could reach 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length!
However, the most notable difference between the white and black rhinoceros is its mouth. White rhinos are sometimes called square-lipped rhinos owing to their wide mouths that are better designed for grazing. On the other hand, the black rhino feeds on leaves and twigs, so its prehensile upper lip better allows it to grasp leaves and pull them from the plant.
A group of rhinos is called a crash and they usually contain around 10 individuals. However, some crashes are much larger and may be made up of a few dozen rhinos. It’s worth noting that only white rhinos exist in groups as they’re much more sociable. Black rhinos are far more solitary, and the only time you’ll see them in numbers is when you spot a mother with her calves. Even then, it’s usually just two rhinos as they typically only have one calf at a time.
What’s more, black rhinoceroses are far more territorial and are known for their aggression when their territory is threatened. There have even been sad examples of this species killing humans as they charge at them with their horns. Conversely, the white rhino is more likely to turn and run in the opposite direction when faced with a threat.
In terms of feeding, I mentioned earlier the dietary differences between white and black rhinos. White rhinos are often found grazing among grasses during the day, being diurnal, while the black rhino feeds on vegetation and is largely nocturnal and the darkness provides them with good camouflage. The fact that they also cover themselves in mud keeps them hidden among the trees.
During the day, when it’s very hot, black rhinos can often be found taking a nap in shaded areas like under rocks and trees.
As I discussed in the previous section, white rhinos often live in groups called crashes. The calves may spend an especially long time with their mothers, up to five years, as the social structure is very beneficial to them.
During mating, male rhinoceroses can be quite determined in getting a female. They will usually follow them around for up to three days, nudging them or tackling them to show their interest. However, where females are not responsive and leave the male’s territory, he will normally give up.
Rhinoceroses are found in various habitats but of course, this largely depends on the subspecies. Black rhinos, for example, have a more diverse habitat range, including grasslands and savannas, deserts, and forests. As long as there is sufficient vegetation on which to feed, they are quite happy in a number of different environments. That said, they’re more likely to be found where vegetation is most dense.
However, since they require regular access to water, their habitats are usually in close proximity to a body of water such as a waterhole or river.
On the other hand, the white rhino, being a grazer, is usually found in open grasslands and savannas. Again, they require a good amount of water so will usually choose locations with a nearby river or lake.
Range & Distribution
Being a critically endangered species, it will come as no surprise that the black rhino’s range is not as large as it once was. They’re typically only found in southern and eastern parts of Africa and, according to the IUCN Red List, there are only around 3,000 individuals left in the wild. That said, reports indicate that their numbers are increasing. Before this, the species could be found all over the sub-Saharan regions of the continent.
In South Africa and Namibia, the population of black rhinos is strongest where they’re found in national parks such as the Hluhluwe-imfolozi National Park and the Etosha National Park.
The white rhino has a similarly small range and is also found in the southern and eastern parts of Africa. Most notably, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya has a very successful white rhino breeding program but there are also protected habitats in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, as well as Zimbabwe and Namibia.
While the range of white rhinos is not large, populations are relatively stable, despite the animal being listed as near threatened. Still, it is estimated that there are more than 10,000 individuals in the wild at the time of writing.
Rhinoceroses are not known to display migratory behavior but they may move between habitats when food and water are sparse.
If you’re heading off to Africa to check out the wildlife then heading to the Kruger National Park is usually the best option. Here, white rhinos are active during the morning and again in the afternoon when they head to the waterhole to drink. With black rhinos, this subspecies is usually active at night, so they’re typically more difficult to spot.
Threats & Conservation Status
Like elephants, rhinos are poached for their horns which are thought to have medicinal purposes, as well as being something of a trophy. While rhino poaching is now banned in South Africa, there is still a worrying black market for the trade of their horns. Armed patrols are being sent out to monitor areas and deter poachers, and their importance cannot be understated. There are even retired US war veterans that have joined the movement to protect these vulnerable animals.
But sometimes, a more drastic approach is needed.
For example, in South Africa, National Park workers are having to remove rhino horns while the animal is under sedation. Since the horns are made from the same material as your hair and fingernails, this doesn’t hurt the rhino, and the horns will eventually grow back. However, removing the horns means taking away an important self-defense mechanism from the animal.
But it’s not just poachers that are causing a decline in rhinoceros numbers; human activity such as urbanization, road building, and agriculture are all responsible for a drop in available rhino habitat. As is the case with many animals, where humans have settled, rhinos will often visit and this results in conflict between the two.
Local efforts to educate humans and provide them with alternatives to killing rhinos are in place as well as habitat protection in the form of National Parks. Some of these National Parks, such as the Ol Pejeta Conserve in Kenya, are successfully breeding white rhinos. Other efforts include attempts to release 2,000 white rhinos back into the wild.
What is the Best Time to See the Big Five?
The best time to see the Big Five in the African wild varies greatly depending on your location. However, typically speaking, you’ll have the greatest chance of spotting these animals if you visit during the dry season as the vegetation is not as dense so the animals will be more visible.
Again, your chosen location will determine when the dry season occurs. For example, if you’re in the eastern part of Africa, June to October is best, whereas you’ll want to visit the southern part of the continent between May and September.
What’s more, during the dry season, the animals are likely to be more active as they’ll constantly be on the move in search of water.
In the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya (one of the hottest safari spots in Africa), the Big Five are usually most active between July and October. If you’re heading to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, it’s typically best to go between June and September, as this is when vegetation is at its most sparse.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the time of day can also play a significant role in animal activity. Mostly, the Big Five are active around dusk and dawn, which is great news if you’re an early riser! In the height of the day’s heat, they’re usually much more difficult to spot as they’ll be hiding out in the shade, trying to stay cool.