What Is Safari… The Big Five Delusion

What is safari? Where did it start and where is it going?

If you look up the definition of ‘safari’ in the Oxford English Dictionary it says the following:

” An expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat, especially in East Africa.”

In recent years, the definition of safari has developed so far away from the one above, and has in fact done a full circle to become aligned once again with the initial origin of the word. Derived from the Arabic word سفر (safar) meaning a journey and the Swahili verb kusafiri meaning to travel, the word safari has come to mean trip or journey in the Swahili language. As such, the word was often used to describe any type of journey, including bus trips from Nairobi (Kenyan capital) to Mombasa (city in Kenya) and ferry trips between Dar es Salaam (Ethiopian capital) and Unguja (an island in Zanzibar, Tanzania). So, how did safari develop from what could be, by definition, described as the morning commute to work into the stereotypical image of wide-eyed tourists staring at sleeping lions from open-top vehicles?

Back in 1836, English military engineer William Harris led an expedition that was purely focused on observing and recording wildlife and landscapes. Harris was the guy who initially established the style of journey that we’ve come to know as ‘safari’ – waking up at first light followed by a day of walking, a rest in the afternoon and ending with the group sitting around a table sharing stories over drinks and tobacco during a formal dinner. Those who have been on a modern-day safari may recognise that many of the activities we take part in today are reminiscent of those Harris introduced almost 200 years ago.

As a guide, it is very much our role to take guests on a journey. Safari itself has evolved far beyond the initial aspects of simply observing animals in their natural habitat; it has become a fully-involved experience of the African bush. Undoubtedly, a large part of this is watching wild animals, but to truly leave with an understanding of the bush as a whole we must provide our guests with an immersive experience that shows them how interconnected the plants and the animals really are.

Despite our best efforts, however, a common dilemma faced by modern safari guides is managing the desires and expectations of guests, resulting from what I call the “Big Five Delusion”. This is the misconception that to have had a successful or rewarding safari, guests have to leave having seen all of the ‘Big Five’. These are considered the five most well-known, characteristic and/or ‘potentially dangerous’ animals in the African bush – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo. Most first time safari-goers aren’t even sure why they need to see these five animals in particular, but unfortunately this “checklist fantasy” is propogated in part by the industry and the lodges’ choice of marketing. Take, for example, these direct quotes from articles and safari tour operators online:

Located in the heart of a Big 5 reserve…

Guests can expect to encounter the Big Five...”

Enjoy unrivalled opportunities to view the Big 5…

…best place in the world to see the Big Five

“…the Big Five represents safari royalty

and the list goes on.

In my recent experience, there are three main issues or misunderstandings that come with the Big Five Delusion, and I’ve discussed them here in relation to the three questions I get asked most commonly while on safari.

1) Why aren’t giraffes one of the Big Five?

People arriving on safari for the first time believe, with fair reason, that the Big Five are the largest and most spectacular animals in the bush. This is entirely untrue, as giraffes stand 4-5 metres tall and weigh between 800-1200kg and are not included on the Big Five checklist! On the other hand, leopards, which are one of the Big Five, are much smaller than one would expect, weighing in at only 60-90kg (half that of a lion!). So what are the Big Five, if they aren’t the biggest animals? They are actually the five animals that are considered to be the most dangerous to hunt on foot, however, safari operators have since borrowed the term from the game hunting industry and popularised it for use in their own marketing efforts.

Much of this marketing highlights the “uniqueness” of the Big Five as true symbols of the African wilderness. What I like to point out to my guests is that variations of the Big Five can be found elsewhere in the world, far beyond the African continent (credit to Ant Collett who initially put this thought in my head). There are Asiatic lions and Indian leopards in India, Asian elephants in Southeast Asia, Sumatran and Javan rhinos in those respective countries and Water buffalo in South Asia, China and Australia, among many other closely related species. The animal that really is iconicly African, however, is the giraffe. While not included in the Big Five, the giraffe is exclusively found in Africa and really is evolutionarily unique – no other animal has adapted to access the same food niche as the giraffe. The only creature that comes close to browsing trees 4+ metres tall is an elephant standing on its back legs and reaching upwards into the tree canopy with its trunk. Otherwise, giraffes, in all their towering splendour, are not competing with any other species in the animal kingdom. Now that is what I consider to be a unique, African symbol.

2) Why is the wild dog your favourite animal?

People bring along their ‘safari checklist’ to the bush which usually consists of the five aforementioned animals, thereby overlooking some of the most fascinating and charismatic species that the bush has to offer. If you ask any safari guide what their favourite animal is the chances are they won’t list one of the Big Five. In fact, 90% of the guides I have met and questioned also share my favourite animal – the African wild dog (also known as painted wolves). Interestingly, many people come on safari not even knowing what an African wild dog is*! They have never heard of it, primarily because they are incredibly endangered and rarely seen, but also because they do not belong to the ‘Big Five’ and are therefore not widely marketed.

*Another question I get a lot is “So, why doesn’t David Attenborough ever feature the wild dog in his documentaries?” Actually, he does, and fairly regularly too compared to many other African animals. Some of the most breath-taking footage I have ever seen of the African wild dogs came from the BBC/Attenborough documentary called The Hunt, followed more recently by an entire episode of BBC’s Dynasties dedicated to a pack of wild dogs that the film-makers followed for two years!

So, why do all the safari guides rave about this animal? For one, there are only between 350 and 400 of them left in the whole 20,000 square kilometres of Kruger National Park, so finding them is both rare and exciting. Secondly, they are one of Africa’s most efficient predators, making a successful kill about 8 out of 10 hunting attempts. To put that in perspective, lions kill successfully about 3 out of 10 times and leopards about 4 out of 10 times. Because of this, and the fact they hunt upwards of 3-4 times a day (and during daylight hours), you stand a good chance of seeing some sort of hunting action if you are lucky enough to locate one of the packs. Finally, not only are they mesmerizing to look at with their blotched coats and massive Mickey Mouse-inspired ears, but they are always doing something. Even when the pack is resting after a meal, the pups will be playing in much the same way as domestic puppies; often tug-of-war with a stick or chasing one another. In this way, their natural behaviour is perpetually entertaining to watch.

Yes, lions are cool to see when they’re actually active (which is usually at night), but you can almost guarantee that, at best, you will sit there watching a lion sleep. Why? Because they do this for approximately 20 hours a day. Now, that’s not to say I would turn down the opportunity to see a lion but, given the choice between lions and wild dogs, I know which one I would choose and without hesitation. So, given that wild dogs are critically endangered, perhaps lodges should be marketing that they are “located in a reserve that is frequented by rare wild dogs” as a way of attracting clientelle, instead of contributing to the delusion that the Big Five are the most interesting and elusive animals to witness on safari? Who’s the real “safari royalty” here?

3) So, what haven’t we seen yet? Just a leopard, right?

These dreaded words send shivers down my spine.

I’ll tell you what you haven’t seen: a red-crested korhaan doing it’s unbelievable courtship display, or a trail of thousands of Harvester ants collecting grass seeds to feed the colony, or two kudu bulls locking horns to test each other’s strength, or hippos yawning in the early evening, or a huge flock of red-billed quelea twisting and turning through the sky, or a spotted hyena whooping and calling to its family members, or a giraffe calf suckling from it’s mother, or a male southern masked weaver collecting blades of grass to masterfully craft a hanging nest for his partner, or perhaps even a dung beetle rolling away a dung ball more than ten times its own body weight!

My point here is that there is so much to see in the African bush beyond the Big Five animals. Coming on safari with a ‘checklist mentality’ really narrows one’s openness to experience and appreciation for all of the smaller (“less dangerous and/or exciting”) players in the natural world. I must add here that I, by no means, want to devalue the Big Five animals – they are undoubtedly some of my favourite animals to watch in the bush and have certainly provided me with some of my most memorable animal encounters. However, an open-minded approach to safari will certainly see people leave feeling more enriched and satisfied with their safari experience at the end of their stay. Really, the bush is the bush: it is unpredictable, it is exciting and you never know what you will find around each corner. We are so privileged that these animals allow us to be in their home and their space, and there really is no guarantee (even in a Big Five reserve like ours) that you will be lucky enough to see all Five ‘dangerous’ animals during your stay. As such, it pays to stay open-minded, take every drive as it comes and to sit and appreciate every encounter you have with every animal, large or small. At the end of the day, animals like impala (a common and often underappreciated sighting) are one of the reasons we see the predators like lions and leopards.

So, when planning your next safari experience, leave your checklist at home!

Understand that the animals don’t always make an appearance when you want them to (otherwise my job would be a whole lot easier than it is!), but that won’t mean you don’t see some awe-inspiring things. Safari is a journey through the bush, an immersive experience and a privileged insight into the everyday lives of Africa’s wild animals. Keep an open mind because you won’t see the same things as the last guy or the next guy, in fact, you will have your own, completely unique, string of sightings and experiences that no one (except the six or seven other people on your car) will ever see again. Remember, no day in the bush is the same and that is what makes safari so exciting.

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