The phrase “the Big Five” was invented by big game hunters and refers to the five most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt. Once popular trophies for hunters, these large and often dangerous animals have continued to capture the imagination of young and old alike. This information is provided by the Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF) — so be sure to visit the site for further details on many, many more species.
Physical Characteristics: The African elephant is the largest living land mammal. Of all its specialized features, the muscular trunk is perhaps the most extraordinary. It serves as a nose, hand, extra foot, signaling device and tool for gathering food, siphoning water, dusting, and digging. The tusks are another notable feature of both males and females. Tusks differ in size, shape and angle and researchers can use them to identify individuals.
Behavior: Elephants are gregarious and form small family groups consisting of an older matriarch and several generations of relatives. These family groups are often visited by mature males, who check for females in estrus. Several interrelated family groups may inhabit an area and know each other well. When they meet at watering holes and feeding places, they greet each other affectionately.
Smell is the most highly developed sense, but sound deep growling or rumbling noises is the principle means of communication. Some researchers think that each individual has its signature growl by which it can be distinguished. Sometimes elephants communicate with an ear-splitting blast when in danger or alarmed, causing others to form a protective circle around the younger members of the family group.
Usually only one calf is born to a pregnant female. An orphaned calf will usually be adopted by one of the family’s lactating females or suckled by various females. Elephants are very attentive mothers, and because most elephant behavior has to be learned, they keep their offspring with them for many years. Tusks erupt at 16 months but do not show externally until 30 months. The calf suckles with its mouth (the trunk is held over its head); when its tusks are 5 or 6 inches long, they begin to disturb the mother and she weans it. Once weaned usually at age 4 or 5, the calf still remains in the maternal group.
Physical Characteristics: Mature male lions are unique among the cat species for the thick mane of brown or black hair encircling the head and neck. Both male and female lions roar, a sound which can be heard as far as 5 miles away.
Behavior: The lion is an exception to the usual solitary existence of most cat species. It has developed a social system based on teamwork, division of labor and an extended but closed family unit. The average pride consists of about 15 individuals: 5 to 10 females, their young, and 2 or 3 territorial males. These are usually brothers or pride mates who have formed a coalition to protect their females. Because a nursing lioness will come into heat a few weeks after the loss of cubs, males with newly won prides will often kill existing cubs, enabling them to sire their own. When resting, lions seem to enjoy good fellowship with lots of touching, head rubbing, licking and purring.
Litters consist of two or three cubs that weigh about 3 pounds each. Some mothers carefully nurture the young; others may neglect or abandon them, especially when food is scarce. Usually two or more females in a pride give birth about the same time, and the cubs are raised together. A lioness will permit cubs other than her own to suckle, sometimes enabling a neglected infant to survive. Capable hunters by 2 years of age, lions become fully grown between 5 and 6 years and normally live about 13 years.
Physical Characteristics: The African, or Cape Buffaloes have earned a bad reputation from hunters and other people who come in close contact with them. They are unpredictable and can be dangerous if cornered or wounded. Though they have been known to ambush people and are often accused of deliberate savagery, they are usually placid if left alone.
There is only one species of buffalo in Africa, but two distinct subspecies exist: the large savanna buffalo and the much smaller forest buffalo. The forest subspecies is only found in central and West Africa. Savanna buffaloes are large, heavy cow like animals. They vary greatly not only in size, but in the shapes of their horns and color. Adults are usually dark gray or black (or even look red or white if they have been wallowing in mud of that color) and the young are often reddish-brown. The smaller forest buffalo maintains the red color even as an adult, although in western Uganda, many savanna buffaloes are also red or pale orange instead of black. Adults lose hair as they age. Both male and female buffaloes have heavy, ridged horns that grow straight out from the head or curve downward and then up. The horns are formidable weapons against predators and for jostling for space within the herd; males use the horns in fights for dominance.
Behavior: Buffaloes can live in herds of a few hundred, but have been known to congregate in thousands in the Serengeti during the rainy season. The females and their offspring make up the bulk of the herd. Males may spend much of their time in bachelor groups.
Sight and hearing are both rather poor, but scent is well developed in buffaloes. Although quiet for the most part, the animals do communicate. In mating seasons they grunt and emit hoarse bellows. A calf in danger will bellow mournfully, bringing herd members running at a gallop to defend it.
Females have their first calves at age 4 or 5. They usually calve only once every two years. Although young may be born throughout the year, most births occur in the rainy season when abundant grass improves the nutritional level for the females when they are pregnant or nursing. The female and her offspring have an unusually intense and prolonged relationship. Calves are suckled for as long as a year and during this time are completely dependent on their mothers. Female offspring usually stay in the natal herd, but males leave when they are about 4 years old.
Physical Characteristics: The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the shrewdest. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the large cats and capable of killing prey larger than itself. Leopards come in a wide variety of coat colors, from a light buff or tawny in warmer, dryer areas to a dark shade in deep forests. The spots, or rosettes, are circular in East African leopards but square in southern African leopards.
Behavior: Leopards are solitary creatures and predominately nocturnal. Each individual has a home range that overlaps with its neighbors; the male’s range is much larger and generally overlaps with those of several females. Leopards continually move about their territory, seldom staying in an area for more than two or three days at a time. Ranges are marked with urine and claw marks and leopards announce their presence to other leopards with a rasping cough. Leopards also growl, roar and purr.
A litter includes two or three cubs, whose coats appear to be smoky gray as the rosettes are not yet clearly delineated. The female abandons her nomadic wandering until the cubs are large enough to accompany her. She keeps them hidden for about the first 8 weeks, giving them meat when they are 6 or 7 weeks old and suckling them for 3 months or longer.
Physical Characteristics: The rhinoceros is a large, primitive-looking mammal. The white or square-lipped rhino is one of two rhino species in Africa. The white rhino, which is actually gray, has a pronounced hump on the neck and a long face. The black, or hooked-lipped, rhino, along with all other rhino species, is an odd-toed ungulate (three toes on each foot). It has a thick, hairless, gray hide. Both the black and white rhino have two horns, the longer of which sits at the front of the nose.
Behavior: Rhinos live in home ranges that sometimes overlap with each other. Feeding grounds, water holes and wallows may be shared. The black rhino is usually solitary. The white rhino tends to be much more gregarious. Rhinos are also rather ill-tempered and have become more so in areas where they have been constantly disturbed. While their eyesight is poor, which is probably why they will sometimes charge without apparent reason, their sense of smell and hearing are very good. When attacking, the rhino lowers its head, snorts, breaks into a gallop reaching speeds of 30 miles an hour, and gores or strikes powerful blows with its horns. Still, for all its bulk, the rhino is very agile and can quickly turn in a small space. The closest rhino relationship is between a female and her calf, lasting from 2 to 4 years. As the older calves mature, they leave their mothers and may join other females and their young, where they are tolerated for some time before living completely on their own.