Africa's little five

2013-03-22 08:20
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Richard Branson's Ulusaba lion cubs

Richard Branson recently spent time at his Ulusaba Private Game Reserve is set in the heart of the Sabi Sand reserve on the border of the Kruger National Park.

We all know about the Big Five - the leopard, lion, buffalo, elephant and rhino. But how many of us know that there is an insect as ferocious as a lion? Or a beetle that is proportionally as strong as a rhino?

The Big Five got their notoriety from the fact that they were the most prized trophies for hunters. Today they are hunted by a camera rather than a gun (hopefully), but are not the be all and end all of a safari.

Sometimes while we stare hard into our binoculars to catch a glimpse of an elusive leopard, we miss some hot action going on at our feet. Africa is filled with fascinating smaller creatures and they are all guaranteed to make an appearance - none of this hiding up a tree or basking in the shade nonsense.

Add the Little Five to your must-see list on your next safari and you will find that there will never be a second for a child to moan "are we there yet?" or for you to wish for a DSTV distraction.

Getting to know the Little Five

The rhino beetle

At between one and two and a half inches, the rhino beetle hardly sounds ferociously scary. But shrink yourself down to insect size, and this beetle is not something you want to come across in a dark alley... or dark bush rather.

Considered the strongest animal on the planet in relation to its size - a rhino beetle can lift up to 850 times its own body weight.

The rhino beetle is a formidable force in the insect world

These horns are used as weapons during a fight for a female or a feeding site, but are rarely used against other insects. Otherwise, you might see a rhino beetle using its horn to dig, climb or mate... you might have to see that one to figure it out!

Where to look

During the day a rhino beetle can be found under a log or in the undergrowth, foraging and hiding from potential predators. The larvae can be found in rotting wood or logs where they will feed until they reach adulthood.

The ant lion

This is probably the most elusive of the Little Five and is a real treat when you find one - especially as they are fascinatingly ugly.

The predators of the ant world, ant lions dig conical holes in soft loose sand in order to trap other ants. Watching an ant lion dig this hole, while tossing the excess sand over its head is a bewitching sight. Within 15 minutes the trap is ready. The ant lion hides in the bottom of its spiral, literally with its mouth open waiting for an unsuspecting ant to fall through the sand and into the waiting jaws.

The ant lion goes from larvae, to predator, to flying creature

Upon maturity, the ant lion pupates into a dragonfly-like creature, that is a poor flier and somewhat less impressive than its larvae youth.

Where to look

The ant lion likes to dig its pits in dry, sunny spots as the sand is easier to move. Look for spots that are sheltered from the wind and rain, usually on south-facing slopes.

The leopard tortoise

At nearly two foot long and between 50 and 100 pounds, the leopard tortoise is the biggest in Africa. Their name comes from the leopard-like spots on their shells, which are much larger and more prominent in younger tortoises.

Spotting a leopard tortoise is a real treat

Males are easily spotted as they have longer tails than females. Their thick, club-like legs are covered in scales and lead down to sharp claws. When necessary, a leopard tortoise can almost fully retract into its shell - so be careful when inspecting a seemingly abandoned shell.

Where to look

There is something fascinating about watching a slow moving tortoise - like a reminder of the dinosaur era. Leopard tortoises live across East and Southern Africa and can usually be found in grasslands with running water.

The elephant shrew

With an elongated nose like an elephant's trunk, there is no question as to where this animal got its name. There are over 275 species of shrew and this fascinating little creature is a treat to spot. Small and mouse-like, these creatures are also known as sengis, their original African name.

It is clear where the elephant shrew gets its name from

The elephant shrew is an insectivore and spends its time foraging for invertebrates, small fruits, seeds and green plants. While it may look cute and cuddly - their large canine teeth are not to be messed with.

Where to look

Elephant shrews have no particular area, but rather can be found anywhere and everywhere, from forests to deserts and rocky outcrops. So wherever you are driving on a safari, keep a look out for this mini-elephant to pop out.

The buffalo weaver

The buffalo weaver is a seed eating bird that is native to sub-Saharan Africa. The males are brightly coloured and can have white or red bills or a white head.

Known for their nests, weaver birds create the most intricate and elaborate homes for themselves. The buffalo weaver is one of the messiest nest-builders and often chooses to rather squat in another bird's carefully-constructed home.

The white headed buffalo weaver

I can't find a single reason why the buffalo weaver gained the buffalo title. If you know please add a comment below!

Where to look

Buffalo weaver colonies often build their nests near to a water source, so while you are watching some real buffaloes have a drink, look up at the birds too.

Does anyone have any pictures of one of the Little Five? If so, please share it with us and send it to

Read more on:    travel south africa

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