The Big Five

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Bull elephant expresses his displeasure at our presence.

Our latest travels took us to South Africa with the intention of getting some wildlife photographs.  Although I’m fairly well travelled, this was the first time I’ve been on the African continent and I was looking forward to the trip.  Our schedule included time at the private game farms of Ukutula and Shambala, as well as a visit to the Pilanesberg National Park and Game Reserve.

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Adolescent lions enjoying an afternoon run.

Ukutula is a small reserve dedicated to research and wildlife management.  Among other programs they’re trying to ensure that a broad enough genetic diversity is maintained for the threatened species.  They fund much of their program by hosting lion walks and educational events, in some ways being a high end petting zoo.  Focused primarily on lions, they are also developing a cheetah population.

Pilanesberg National Park covers over 200 square miles and had an enormous diversity of game.  While it is a park open to the public and tours, for safety all vehicles must stay on the dirt roads meandering through the brush.  As a result there is seldom any conflict with other vehicles, and little difficulty in seeing and photographing the animals.

Shambala is a 24,000 acre private game reserve owned by Saxon Hotel magnate Douw Steyn.  Because of the smaller number of visitors it was possible for the safari vehicle to stray from the trails without causing damage.  This gave us excellent opportunities to photograph birds and animals throughout the area.

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Adult male lion relaxes.

The “big five” referred to in the title of this post are the five dangerous African game animals traditionally hunted by trophy hunters.  While I don’t have any objection to hunting for food and game management, I’m not interested in trophies other than of the photographic sort. Interestingly enough, only two of the five are predators, the rest being dangerous due sheer size and a bad attitude.  Starting the list is the lion, one of the few social cats. Man is not a normal prey for lions though they have been known to be “man-eaters.” While he most famous example is the 1898 case of the Tsavo maneaters where 28 railway workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway were killed by a pair of lions, there have been hundreds of cases of lion attacks documented over the last twenty years.

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Close up of the leopard.

Leopards are primarily night hunters, and as a result are difficult to find during the day.  We got lucky and spotted this one in Pilanesburg National Park.  As you can see they blend in well with the rocky scrub areas they prefer.  Powerful and stealthy, it’s easy to see why they would be considered dangerous, yet there are very few attacks documented in Africa.  In India and Nepal attacks are regularly reported.  Leopards do take livestock when available, and as a result are frequently killed by herders.

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Elephants at the water hole.

African elephants can be as large as 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh as much as 13,000 pounds.  Intelligent herd animals, they are incredibly destructive of vegetation and as a result must migrate over large areas.  The reduction in habitat and poaching for ivory are their biggest threats.  We were able to walk with some medium sized (6000 pound or so) females at the GlenAfric park.  These particular elephants were used to people and after being thoroughly groped by the largest one (they didn’t tell us elephants were crotch sniffers!) I found they liked having the inside of their ear rubbed. At Pilanesberg we saw the wild herd pictured above as well as some males who tend to be much more aggressive.

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Young male elephants deciding who’s boss.

We observed males establishing dominance on several occasions, and had bulls challenge the vehicle we were in a couple times as well.  African elephants are generally not used for working animals as are Asian elephants, although there was an effort in the 19th century to tame elephants in the Belgian Congo.

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White Rhinoceros grazing.

The White Rhino is a relatively easy going animal, easily hunted and poached since it tends towards herds, is near-sighted, and not particularly aggressive.  Its status with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is Nearly Endangered, meaning that it is suffering from a loss of habitat.  The Black Rhinoceros is Critically Endangered.  Far more aggressive they have as much as a 50% mortality rate from fighting each other.

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A water hole is an excellent place to find a variety of animals.

Despite the names, both rhinos are grey in color.  The difference between the two is the wide jaw adapted for grazing on the white rhino vs, a pointed jaw for eating brush and fruit.  Apparently english speakers mistook the dutch word wijd (wide) for white and applied the name to the wide mouthed rhino.  So the other one must be a black rhine, right?

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Cape Buffalo checking us out.

The Cape Buffalo is an unpredictable herd animal and is generally considered the most dangerous of the big five.  It has no natural enemies aside from man, and while lions will hunt them, the outcome is very much in doubt, particularly when dealing with a herd.  Cape Buffalo when wounded will attempt to trample and gore their attacker. Not closely related to other buffalo species, they have never been domesticated.  We managed to approach a herd of females and calves at Shambala where they are used to the vehicle and consider it another grazing animal.  Even though they didn’t seem concerned at our presence, they still have a way of looking at you like you just wrote them a bad check…

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Crossing the road with a calf.

Of the big five I was somewhat surprised to find that only the Black Rhino is critically endangered.  The rest fall into the Nearly Endangered category with the exception of the Cape Buffalo which is in the lowest category of concern.  Indeed, with the exception of the rhinoceros and elephant where poaching for ivory or horn is a problem, the biggest concern is reduction of habitat.

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