Your safari myths, BUSTED! Are the Big Five the biggest animals in the bush?

Posted on Tue April 21, 2020.

Is it true that female lions do all the hunting?
Is it true that hyenas are just motley scavengers?
Is it true that the 'Big Five' are the biggest animals in the bush?
Is it true that guide Matt keeps some secret road snacks hidden under his Akubra hat for in case of emergency?*

In this series of articles, guide Elly addresses some of the most common questions we hear on safari and takes the time to clear up a few misconceptions along the way. Want to see if your myth is busted? Then read on!

Myth: The 'Big Five' are the biggest animals in the bush

First time safari-goers often believe, with fair reason, that the Big Five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) are the largest and most spectacular animals in the bush. If this were the case then giraffes, which stand 4-5 metres tall and weigh between 800-1200kg, would undoubtedly be included.

On the other hand, leopards are much smaller than one would expect, weighing in at only 60-90kg, and appear to have made the cut. So what are the Big Five, if they aren't the biggest animals?

These members of the "bush royalty" 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.

What this has unfortunately resulted in is a 'checklist mentality' (or misonception) among safari-goers, who believe that to have had a successful or rewarding safari one has to have seen all of the 'Big Five'. Really, we have safari marketing to blame for this and not our guests themselves, with many advertisements highlighting the "uniqueness" of the Big Five as true symbols of the African bush.

Don't get me wrong, they are truly remarkable and thrilling creatures to witness up close, but I also like to point out to my guests that variations of the Big Five can be found elsewhere in the world, far beyond the African continent (credit to Antony Collett who initially put this idea in my head).

There are Asiatic lions and leopards throughout 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 around the world.

However, the animal that really is iconicly African is the giraffe. While not included in the Big Five, the giraffe is exclusively found in Africa (naturally occuring here, not in zoos) and is undoubtedly evolutionarily unique.

No other creature has adapted in quite the same way to access the same ecological food niche as the giraffe. The only other animal that comes close to browsing trees measuring over four metres tall is an elephant standing on its back legs and reaching up into the tree canopy with its trunk.

Giraffes, in all their towering splendour, have even evolved ways to mitigate the competition from their own kind, with males growing on average a metre taller than females. This allows them to browse at different heights on the trees, further reducing competition within the species.

Isn't nature ingenious? Now that is what I consider to be a unique, African symbol! So, it is false: The 'Big Five' are NOT the biggest animals in the African bush and while they are incredibly exciting to see up-close-and-personal on safari, we must not overlook the other, equally fascinating creatures that call this remarklable African wilderness their home. Myth: BUSTED!


If you enjoyed reading this article, please click the 'Share this post' button on the right to allow other people to learn something new today too, and stay tuned as we continue to bust more safari myths and misconceptions!

Article written by Elly Gearing with photos courtesy of Nerise Bekker and Elly Gearing