Friday, 01 June 2007 03:03

The Big Five

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THE BIG FIVE Originally used only by hunters, the term 'Big Five' refers to five of Africa's greatest wild animals - lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino.  

“Curious” Buffalo (Syncerus Caffer)

A giant herbivore with a short temper – and a sturdy set of horns to put to good use in defence against any perceived threat. Buffalo are gregarious creatures found in large herds, chiefly for protection against that ruthless predator, the lion.

Non-territorial roamers, buffalo adhere to a distinct hierarchy of dominant bulls and clans of related cows, with a “navigator” appointed to lead the herd to pastures and water. A phenomenon unique to the wild kingdom is that of synchronized births. Mating generally takes place on a regular schedule, ensuring the young are born within a short period. Nature thus guarantees that the herds lose fewer young to predators than they would if births were sporadic; there is indeed safety in numbers.

Lion “King of the Beasts” (Panthera leo)

Often called, "King of the Beasts", the lion has an iconic reputation as a cat of great strength and beauty. The largest of Africa's big cats, its regal legacy is enhanced by the male's magnificent mane, which ranges from a rich golden colour to a darker brown hue as the animal ages.
Of course, the dominant male lion seldom does its own hunting, preferring instead to allow the females and adolescent males of the pride do the hard work before coming along and claiming its share of the kill. Weighing in at well over 200 kg in the wild, and standing at up to 2 metres at the shoulder, this huge animal cuts a formidable figure.

The most socially co-operative of all the big cats, their real strength lies in their ability to work together as a pride, using group hunting tactics to make the kill. While they are primarily nocturnal, they are easily found during the day, conserving energy and resting in shady areas. The unwary tourist, enjoying the sight of these listless and "tame" animals while out on a game drive, would be well advised to note that lions are quick to become active if ever an easy meal opportunity may present itself.



Leopard the "quintessential cat" (Panthera pardus pardus)

The African leopard varies in base color throughout Africa, depending on the location and habitat. They can vary from reddish brown, cream and dark yellow. African leopards are covered in black rosettes. There are not normally spots within the rossetes. Each leopard's spots are unique in that their patterns are never the same.

A leopard's gestation period is usually between 90-112 days and they bear litters typically between 2-4 cubs. Leopard cubs stay with their mother for about 2 years. It is at about this age that they reach their sexual maturity. Male leopards roam a large territory so there is usually one leopard male with several females in his territory. The male marks his territory using feces, urine and facial marking and scrapings.

Leopards have a very varied diet which includes insects, rodents, reptiles, even large mammals. They sometimes take domestic livestock when other food is scarce. Leopards are the most elusive of the three big cats of Africa.

Solitary hunters, leopards seek company only to mate, and are constantly in danger of losing their kill to lions. For this reason, they use their supreme climbing ability to drag their prey into trees for safekeeping. While the more substantial kills are cached in this way, with the cat returning later to feed, leopards are opportunistic animals with an extremely flexible diet. They are happy to consume protein in almost any form, from beetles to animals almost twice its own weight and will readily eat carrion.

African leopards inhabit all of Africa. This ranges from mountainous regions to grasslands and savannas. They also can live in desert and forest areas. They are very adaptable to their surroundings. They are incredibly resilient animals.

African Elephant “Largest living land Mammal” (Loxodonta Africana)

At a sizeable height of up to 11 feet tall, the African elephant is slightly larger than its relative, the Indian Elephant. On average, the male African elephant (called a bull) weighs up to 13000 pounds. Its ears are also much larger than the Indian elephant's ears, and its trunk has two lips, whereas the Indian elephant's trunk only has one. It has very large feet that distribute this enormous weight over a large surface area.

Thick soles on the feet absorb shock and cushion legs when walking and running so well that it barely leaves any tracks in the dirt. Males have huge tusks, which are actually incisor teeth made of ivory that can measure up to 5 feet in length. The elephant uses these tusks to dig for food, clear debris, and carry logs up to 1 ton in weight. These tusks are very unique. The only other animal that has ivory tusks is the walrus.

The African elephant is a herbivore that favours mostly grasses, but also eats leaves, twigs, branches and bark. Since their bodies only make use of half of the food they consume, the elephant must eat between 330 and 350 pounds of food each day. In addition, they drink 22 to 30 gallons of water each day. To maintain this huge rate of consumption, the elephants must constantly travel to new areas in search of food and water.. A baby elephant’s mother is very protective of her young. When she is away, other females of the herd look out for her young.

Elephants have a matriarchal society, which means that the leader of the herd is an elder female. Male elephants are actually more solitary in nature and usually only join a herd during mating season. The herd has a complex social structure. Members communicate with each other using a combination of gestures and sounds. For example, an elephant expresses anger by violently beating ground with its trunk. Elephants have shown a strong sense of commitment to other members of the herd. They have been known to stop and wait on a young elephant if it falls behind.
Bull elephants battle for steed rights to the herd. Female elephants can start breeding at age 12. Once a female becomes pregnant, the baby will be born between 630 to 660 days later. This is the longest gestation period of any land animal. The baby elephant, called a calf, weighs about 200 to 250 pounds and is able to walk only 2 hours after it is born.
Elephants are very intelligent animals. They have shown very good problem solving skills. However, elephants have very poor vision. Their small eyes can only see 30 to 60 feet. They make up for their poor sight with keen senses of hearing and smell. An elephant’s large ears amplify sounds, letting it hear sounds that other animals cannot. Its sense of smell is thought to be superior to any other land animal. It also has a very good sense of touch. It also shows incredible balance when lifting large objects. Its sense of taste is much like that of other higher animals. It is able to tell the difference between food that tastes good and food that tastes bad, as well as food that tastes preferable.


Black Rhino (diceros bicornis)

In recent years, the Black Rhino has become extinct, or is nearing extinction, in 12 African countries. Its numbers have dropped 90% across the continent in the last 17 years and a recent survey shows that substantial numbers of Black Rhinos are now found only in Kenya (500), Namibia (390), South Africa (600), Zambia (100) and Zimbabwe (400).

Without proper conservation management, these beautiful mammals will disappear and become extinct.The Black Rhinoceros is 60 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs 2000-3000 pounds. It is distinguishable from the White Rhino by its smaller size, lack of nuchal hump, and by the smaller head which is carried high, giving a different silhouette.

Also, it has a pointed upper lip, as it is a browser; the White Rhino is a grazer. The Black Rhino lives in dry thorn bush country and males are usually solitary. They have very poor sight, but a good sense of smell and excellent hearing, which sometimes makes them dangerous if cornered or if encountered during the mating season.

White Rhino “horned beast” (Ceratotherium simum)

The record-sized White Rhinoceros was about 3600 kg. On its snout it has two horns made of keratin, rather than bone as in deer antlers. The front horn is larger that the other horn and averages 89.9 cm (23.6 inches) in length and can reach 150 cm (59 inches). The White Rhinoceros also has a noticeable hump on the back of its neck which supports its large head.

Each of the rhino's four stumpy feet has three toes. Its ears can move independently to pick up more sounds but it depends most of all on smell. The olfactory passages which are responsible for smell are larger than their entire brain.They are found in grassland and savannah habitat. Herbivores grazers that eats grass, preferring the shortest grains.

The White Rhino is one of the largest pure grazers. Regularly it drinks twice a day if water is available, but if conditions get dry it can live four or five days without water. It spends about half of the day eating, one third resting and the rest of the day doing various other things. White Rhinos like all species of rhino love wallowing in mudholes to cool down.

White rhinos can produce sounds which include a panting contact call, grunts and snorts during courtship, squeals of distress, and deep bellows or growls when threatened. Threat displays (in males mostly) include wiping its horn on the ground and a head-low posture with ears back, combined with snarl threats and shrieking if attacked.

Can reach speeds of 18 mph which it can maintain for up to 2 miles, and a galloping speed of 25 mph.Dominant bulls mark their territory with excrement and urine. The dung is laid in well defined piles. It may have 20-30 of these piles to alert passing rhinos that it's his territory. Another way of marking their territory is wiping his horns on bushes or the ground and scrapes with its feet before urine spraying.

They do this around 10 times an hour while patrolling territory. The territorial male will scrape-mark every 30 yards or so around its territory boundary. Subordinate males do not mark territory. The most serious fights break out over mating rights over a female. Female territory is overlapped extensively and they do not defend it.

Females reach sexually maturity 4-5 years while males reach sexual maturity at a later date which is 10-12 years of age. Courtship is often a difficult affair. The male stays beyond the point were the female acts aggressively and will give out a call when approaching her. The male chases and or blocks the way of the female while squealing or loud-wailing if the female tries to leave his territory. When ready to mate the female curls its tail and gets into a stiff stance during the half hour copulation. Breeding pairs stay together between 5-20 days before they part their separate ways. Gestation occurs around 16-18 months. A single calf is born and weighs between 88 and 143 pounds and are unsteady for their first 2 to 3 days of life. When threatened the baby will run in front of the mother. The mother is very protective of her calf and will fight for her baby vigorously. White Rhinos can live up to 40-50 years old. 98.9% of white rhino occur in just four countries (South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya).

Almost decimated to the brink of extinction in the early 20th century, they have made a tremendous comeback. In 2001 it was estimated that there was 11,670 white rhino in the wild with a further 777 in captivity worldwide, making it the most common Rhino in the world.Like the Black Rhino, the White Rhino is under threat from habitat loss and poaching, most recently by an offshoot of the janjaweed.

The horn is mostly used for traditional medicine although there are no health benefits from the horn. Poaching also has occurred for jambiyas, which is a dagger used in the Middle East.



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