Little Five of Africa

Little Five of Africa

A typical safari experience in Africa consists of seeing the big game, or Big Five animals which are the Lion, Black Rhinoceros, Leopard, African Buffalo, and African Bush Elephant. The term was coined during colonial times and refers to the five most dangerous animals to encounter during a safari.

African bush elephants observed during a game drive

African bush elephants observed during a game drive

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 a Lion or Leopard.

Here is an overview of the Little Five animal species in Africa:


Elephant Shrew

The 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 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.

A short-eared elephant shrew

A short-eared elephant shrew

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, which 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 a 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 territory. 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 of time.

Elephant shrews are widely distributed throughout Africa, except for western Africa and the Sahara region.


Buffalo Weaver

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 buffaloes 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 has a black bill.

A white-headed buffalo weaver

A white-headed buffalo weaver

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 starlings 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 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, the western areas of Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.


Leopard Tortoise

It is the fourth largest tortoise in the world. It has striking markings of gold and red on its shell that mirror those of the large spotted cat, the leopard. This big and beautiful tortoise is a signature animal of the African savannah.

A leopard tortoise

A leopard tortoise

A leopard tortoise can grow up to 12 to 18 inches long and weigh almost 118 pounds. They can live anywhere between 80 to 100 years. As they mature or age, their markings, and spots become less vibrant. They have brownish or yellow heads, legs, and tails, which they can completely retract under their 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 most commonly spotted members of the 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 that of a lion. An Antlion is a larval form of a flying insect known for being a competent predator and for setting up deadly traps.

It has a hairy, rounded body with sharp mandibles. Adult Antlions have a long body, curved or clubbed antennas, wings mottled with black and brown colors, and protruding pincer-like fangs.

An antlion awaits its prey

An antlion awaits its prey

The Antlion follows an interesting method to trap ants and other insects. It uses its gray abdomen as a plow to dig a pit shaped like a funnel. The loosened particles are cleverly heaped on its large head and thrown 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 the empty skin out of the funnel-shaped pit.

The antlion larvae eventually make a sand and silk cocoon, where they transform into something similar to a dragonfly. Antlions are usually found in sandy areas, such as sandy bank roads, dry woodlands, and deserts.


Rhino Beetle

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, easily distinguishing them. 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!

A male rhino beetle

A male rhino beetle

Measuring 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 the soil and leaf litter to escape danger. They also use their horns to fight other males and win the attention of female rhinoceros beetles.

The rhinoceros beetle is found all around the globe except Antarctica. On the African continent, they are often encountered throughout Southern Africa. While spotting these beetles can be tricky, they are most often seen at night near light sources.

Conservationists have acknowledged the smaller, 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 rests near your campsite at night.


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