Whether you’re an Africa aficionado or a first-timer currently researching your maiden visit to the greatest continent on Earth, you’ve probably heard of the Big five. Initially coined by the big game hunters of centuries past, the phrase now refers to five of the most sought-after safari animals; namely, the elephant, the buffalo, the leopard, the lion, and the rhino. Less known is the pantheon’s smaller counterpart – the Little Five.
This term was introduced by conservationists who wanted to draw attention to the smaller creatures of the bush, many of whom are just as fascinating (and perhaps harder to spot) than Africa’s larger animals. In a clever marketing quirk, the names of the Little Five animals correspond to those of the Big Five celebrities. In this way, the elephant becomes the elephant shrew, the buffalo becomes the buffalo weaver bird, and the leopard becomes the leopard tortoise.
Arguably the cutest of the Little Five, the elephant shrew is a small, insect-eating mammal. It gets its name from its elongated nose, thought to resemble an elephant’s trunk. Elephant shrews are widely distributed throughout South Africa and found in a number of different habitats including desert and dense woodland. Despite their abundance and the fact that they are active during the day, the shrews are seldom seen. They are shy and exceptionally quick, reaching speeds of over 17 mph/ 28 km.
They can grow up to 12 inches/ 30 centimeters and have relatively long legs. Their little trunks are quite flexible and can be twisted to sniff out insects which they then flick into their mouths using their tongues. Elephant shrews can leap almost three feet in a single bound. They are not very social, although they live in monogamous pairs. They mark their territory with a strong scent produced by a gland under the tail. Scientists have recently discovered that the elephant shrew is not a true shrew, and is in fact distantly related to its pachyderm namesake.
Buffalo Weaver Bird
There are three species of buffalo weaver – the white-headed buffalo weaver, the white-billed buffalo weaver, and the red-billed buffalo weaver. Anyone of these constitutes as a check on your Little Five list. All three species are found in East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania; although visitors to South Africa can only spot the red-billed buffalo weaver. The three species look different (the red and white-billed varieties have dark bodies, while the white-headed is white and brown). Keep a bird book handy.
All three are common within their range and quite easy to spot, especially as (like all weavers) they’re very vocal. They live together in noisy colonies, weaving intricate nests from small sticks and dry grass. Buffalo weaver birds favor areas of dry savannah and scrubland and grow up to 9.5 inches/ 24 centimeters in length. They live on a diet of seeds, fruit, and small insects. The red-billed buffalo weaver is even known to prey on scorpions. Predators of these species include snakes, baboons and large birds of prey.
Worldwide, there are more than 300 species of rhinoceros beetle, around 60 of which are found in Southern Africa. All of them belong to the scarab beetle family. These curious-looking creatures are named for their body armor, and for the hooked horn that graces the head of the male. Some species can grow up to 6 inches/ 15 centimeters in length, although the beetles you’re likely to encounter in Africa are considerably smaller. The largest Southern African rhinoceros beetle reaches around 2 inches/ 5 centimeters.
Despite their large size and ferocious appearance, rhinoceros beetles are completely harmless to humans. Male insects use their horns to fight over territory or to dig for food inside rotting tree trunks. Their diet is surprisingly varied and can include fruit, bark, sap and vegetable matter. In proportion to their body weight, rhinoceros beetles are amongst the strongest creatures in the world. They have wings, although their large size makes efficient flight difficult. Spotting them is equally tricky since they are only active at night.
Leopard tortoises are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, in semi-arid areas of scrubland and savannah. They are named for their unique gold-and-black markings, which roughly resemble the rosette spots of a leopard. However, some tortoises’ markings are more defined than others. They graze on dry grass and often seek shelter from extreme weather in the abandoned burrows of other animals including jackals and anteaters. They can dig for themselves, but tend to do so only when laying eggs.
Leopard tortoises are usually solitary and are often seen on quiet stretches of road. Although typically much smaller, some leopard tortoises can grow up to 39 inches/ 100 centimeters in length, making this species the fourth-largest of the world’s tortoises. Their eggs are stolen by several species of birds and small mammals, and they are eaten by indigenous people throughout their range. However, they are exceptionally resilient, with incredibly hard shells. They can climb, swim, and live as long as 100 years.
The antlion is the smallest member of the Little Five club and is by no means unique to Africa. There are more than 2,000 individual species within the antlion family, found all over the world. When fully grown, antlions are winged insects that resemble dragonflies or damselflies; but when they’re in their larval stage, they are fearsome-looking beasts with hairy, obese bodies and sharp sickle-shaped jaws. The larvae are unique for their famously savage temperament, which mirrors that of their lion counterparts (albeit on a much smaller scale)!
Antlion larvae are capable predators. Many species dig tiny, crater-shaped traps in the sand, which they use to catch their prey (usually ants). They lie in wait at the bottom of the crater, then ambush their victims. Their jaws are hollow, enabling them to literally suck their prey dry. Once they’re done, they toss aside the carcass and wait for their next victim. Thanks to a range of special adaptations, antlion larvae are capable of subduing prey much larger than themselves. They can survive for months at a time without food, and live for several years.