A typical safari experience in Africa consists of seeing the big game or Big Five animals which are the lion, black rhinoceros, leopard, the African buffalo, and the African bush elephant. The term was coined during colonial times and refers to the five most dangerous animals to encounter during a safari.
Spotting the Big Five is on every wildlife enthusiast’s list, but there is another group of animals that deserve just as much attention and limelight. The Small Five or the Little Five of Africa are a group of animal species that are much harder to spot. They are named after the Big Five due to a physical resemblance or shared behavior.
The Little Five may be small and less popular, but witnessing them in their natural habitat is just as exciting as seeing the lion or leopard.
Here is an overview of the Little Five animal species in Africa:
Elephant Shrew is a tiny insect-eating mammal that has a flexible snout, resembling an elephant. It is also known to be the most endearing out of all the Small Five animals. They superficially resemble shrews although they aren’t related to them. Elephant shrews are, in fact, closely related to sea cows, aardvarks, and elephants. Altogether, there are 19 species of elongated shrews living in Africa.
This animal appears with a long-pointed head and a prolonged mobile, trunk-like nose. They grow 22 to 30 centimeters long, excluding their tail that grows another 9 to 12 inches. This tiny animal is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Further, they have long legs and move in hopping fashion just like a rabbit. Thus, they are also called jumping shrews.
The nose of an elephant shrew is incredibly sensitive to smells which helps them detect predators as well as prey. A gland found on the underside of their tail produces a strong scent that marks their territories. The musky smell acts as a deterrent against carnivores. Elephant shrews often form monogamous pairs, but they are seldom seen together as they only meet during the mating season for a short period.
Elephant shrews are widely distributed throughout Africa except for the western Africa and Sahara region.
Named after the buffalo, there are three species of the buffalo weaver bird. These are the white-headed, the red-billed, and the white-billed buffalo weaver. These birds derive their names from water buffalos due to their habit of following them to feed on the insects stirred by their hooves.
The red-billed buffalo weaver is broad and chunky. The male has red legs with chocolate brown fur and a huge vermilion tail. The female, on the other hand, is streaky and paler underneath, with a paler bill. The white-billed buffalo weaver is bulky and has a longer tail. While the male has a white bill the female displays a black bill.
A buffalo weaver’s nest is easily recognizable as they are known to breed communally in poorly built nests made from masses of sticks in trees or power poles. They also forage on the ground in small or large groups, often accompanied by starling and other birds. Buffalo weavers eat insects, fruits, and seeds. One can recognize a buffalo weaver through their calls as they have an odd electronic sound vocalization that makes up for a noisy gathering.
Buffalo weavers live in dry areas and are commonly found in East Africa, particularly Kenya and Tanzania. It is also a common resident of Botswana and the west areas of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
It is the fourth largest tortoise in the world. It has striking markings of gold and red on its shell that mirror the large spotted cat, the leopard. This big and beautiful tortoise is a signature animal of the African savannah.
A leopard tortoise can grow up to 12 to 18 inches long, and weigh almost 118 pounds. Their life expectancy ranges from 80 to 100 years. Their markings and spots get dull as they mature or get old. Their heads, legs, and tails appear brownish, yellow which they can entirely draw under the shell. Leopard tortoises are herbivores, mainly feeding on grass, and weeds as well as occasionally on mushrooms, and fruits.
A leopard tortoise leads a solitary life and is the only species of tortoise found in Southern Africa that can swim. They are well adapted to the semi-arid conditions of the African savannah and cannot tolerate cold and damp weather. They live across East and Southern Africa and are easily encountered during a safari. This makes them one of the commonly spotted members of Little Five.
The smallest member of the Little Five group is the Antlion. It is widely known for its aggressive and predatory behavior, similar to a lion. Antlion is a larval form of a flying insect, known for being a competent predator and for setting up deadly traps.
An antlion has a hairy, rounded body with sharp mandibles. Adult antlions have a long body, curved or clubbed antennas, wings mottled with black and brown color, and protruding pincer-like fangs.
An antlion follows an interesting method of trapping ants and other insects. An antlion larva digs a pit shaped like a funnel by using its gray abdomen as a plow. It cleverly heaps the loosened particles on its large head and throws them away from the pit.
As the pit is completed, the antlion buries itself in a way that only projects its jaw. When a small insect ventures around the pit’s edge, it slips to the bottom and the antlion seizes it with its strong jaws. After the antlion has finished sucking the contents of its prey, it throws away the empty skin out of the funnel-shaped pit.
The antlion larvae eventually makes a sand and silk cocoon where it transforms looking similar to a dragonfly. Antlions are usually found in sandy areas such as sandy bank roads, dry woodlands, and deserts.
The rhinoceros beetle is a member of the scarab beetle family. Similar to a black rhino, the male rhino beetles have horn-like projections on their heads, distinguishing them easily. Another name given to them is Hercules beetles because they are extremely strong and are one of the few species that can lift up to 850 times their weight!
Measuring at 7 cm in length, a rhinoceros beetle is often black, greenish, or gray. While most appear shiny, some beetles are even covered with soft hairs. As male beetles have horns, they primarily use them for digging themselves into soil and leaf litter to escape danger. They also use their horns to fight other males and win the attention of female rhinoceros beetles.
Rhinoceros beetle is found all around the globe except for Antarctica. In the African continent, they are often encountered throughout Southern Africa. While spotting these beetles can be tricky, they are seen during nighttime near light sources.
Conservationists have acknowledged the smaller and less noticed yet charismatic animals living in the African savannahs. So, along with checking off the big game from your list, don’t forget to keep an eye on the Little Five! You may never know when a buffalo weaver soars above your head or a rhino beetle resting near your campsite at night.
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