The Big Five – an outdated concept?

By Samara on December 5, 2016

It’s almost impossible to go on an African safari without hearing mention of the ‘Big Five’. This nickname denotes the animals traditionally seen as the most desirable to spot on a game drive: Lion, Elephant, Black Rhino, Leopard and Cape Buffalo. There’s no denying that the Big Five are impressive: each is an African icon in its own right, and to see one in the wild is an experience to cherish. But there are a number of limitations to the term.

It is in many ways a gross simplification of the beauty and emotion of a safari, conferring bragging rights on those who complete the five-box ticklist, despite the fact that the lion in question might be hidden in the long grass and the rhino in the distance could actually be a rock.

It also excludes a myriad other no less fascinating and charismatic creatures, from the impressive hippo to the endangered wild dog or cheetah, not forgetting a universal favourite – the giraffe. Is the sight of what might be a leopard up a tree a few miles away any more thrilling than encountering a wild cheetah on foot with her cubs, or witnessing the wildebeest migration up close and personal? In a country like South Africa, the 3rd most biodiverse in the world after Brazil and Indonesia, focusing solely on the ‘biggest and baddest’ beasts leaves safari-goers vulnerable to neglecting the multitude of smaller, less obvious, but no less interesting species – from primates to butterflies to birds.

Image (C) OranjeSafari.nl
Image copyright OranjeSafari.nl

Perhaps most importantly, however, the ‘Big Five’ moniker is really quite outdated. Originating in the hunting fraternity as a collection of the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot, and hence the most coveted trophies, the term was enthusiastically adopted by the safari industry as a way of encapsulating Africa’s spectacular wildlife in two simple words. But does this term with such a controversial past have any place in modern ecotourism? And is there not a risk that relying on the commercial boon of offering the Big Five turns smaller fenced reserves into nothing more than zoos, with one lion here and one elephant there?

With plenty of arguments for and against, the jury is still out on that one. But a growing number of safari enthusiasts are widening the debate beyond the Big Five. Several other groupings have been suggested, from the Big Seven (Big Five plus Great White Shark and Southern Right Whale) to the Super Seven (Big Five plus Cheetah and Wild Dog), not forgetting the Little Five, which includes mammals, reptiles, insects and birds that share a name with the original ‘Five’ (namely Buffalo Weaver, Ant Lion, Leopard Tortoise, Elephant Shrew and Rhinoceros Beetle).

However, most of these new additions to the safari vernacular still focus on animals whose presence evokes a sense of danger, a certain thrill and unpredictability (Great White Sharks are a case in point). As long as it promotes conservation of said species, we don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that, but in a world of rapidly diminishing biodiversity – the 6th Great Extinction – we desperately need to raise children who care about and understand nature in all its glory. And in our experience, one of the best ways to get kids engaged is through humour.

That’s not to say Samara will never be a ‘Big Five’ destination one day – all five species historically occurred in the Great Karoo region, and we are already home to Black Rhino, Cape Buffalo and the occasional Leopard. But our decision to reintroduce Lion and Elephant will be for ecological reasons, rather than to add to the background noise of Big Five ‘Ferrari safaris’.

Stay tuned for our next blog, in which we present our fun, quirky and kid-friendly alternative to the Big Five!

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Johan Bouwer

I think the big five concept is outdated. Informed conservationists and tourist need to understand the CONTEXT of the specific environment and Samara, specifically, has so much more to offer than the boring old ‘big five’! Market your purpose and product to people and companies who share you passion and you will be amazed!