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All creatures great & small

Aside from the obvious, there is a host of wildlife out there to seek and admire, including the more common mammals, amphibians, insects and those elusive nocturnal animals. And often these creatures are the most captivating of all. Philip Briggs showcases some of the many species that are often overlooked. Photographs by Will Burrard-Lucas
Keep your distance: The spotted hyena is an adept hunter, capable of killing an animal as big as a wildebeest, as well as being a ferocious scavenger. It has the most fascinating social structure of any large carnivore, living in matriarchal clans of up to 50 individuals

Once little more than an arbitrary grouping of anecdotal interest, the so-called Big Five — lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and black rhino, in case you need to ask — has over recent decades been elevated to the Holy Grail of the safari experience.

Fair enough, to a point — this venerated quintet does include some of the world’s most awe-inspiring beasties. But equally you could argue that the safari industry’s obsession with the Big Five has nurtured a tunnel-vision mentality detrimental to experiencing the African bush in all its holistic variety.

In South Africa, for instance, a growing number of artificially stocked small private reserves charge top dollar because visitors can tick off the Big Five in the course of one or two guided game drives. Meanwhile, the industry tends to overlook and undersell many larger, more biodiverse and more genuinely important conservation areas — the likes of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg, or pretty much any forest or fynbos reserve — simply because it ranks lowly on the scale of, well, Big Zero to Big Five.

It helps place the Big Five fetish in perspective to recall that it started life as a shortlist of animals feared most by colonial big-game hunters. And today, the term is in some respects as obsolete as the trigger-happy scene from which it originated. Most modern safari-goers would surely be more thrilled at the prospect of watching a cheetah stalk lithe and lean through the grass, or having a herd of stalk-necked eyelash-blinking giraffes stare at them over the acacia tops, or a denning jackal or bat-eared fox playing with its pups, than watching a few oversized cattle (read: buffalo) chew the cud and think happy bovid thoughts. So why are we all so hung up on the Big Five in the first place? And what more does Africa have to offer in terms of wildlife great and small?

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About Travel Africa

Special Wildlife Issue, celebrating Africa's fauna • Big Cat lovers • Understanding elephants • In praise of primates • Painted dogs • Snakes • Birds • The wildlife in forests, deserts and rivers... and much more!