Perhaps time to leave behind the ‘Big 5’ with those who originally adopted it and the emergence of ‘The Safari Seven’

For most of the world, the term Big 5 conjures up spectacular images of the most impressive mammals to be found on African soil.  The lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo are such iconic animals in Africa that each member of this illustrious group has their face on South Africa’s major bank notes.  The safari industry markets Big 5 in most of its literature and, such is the fame of these 5 beasts, people from all over the globe flock to our shores to catch a glimpse of as many as possible. The income is vital for the future security of these draw cards.  Many lodges and guides will claim that there is so much more to see than just these 5 animals, and they are most certainly correct, but it is the lure of this elite group that brings tourists and thus money to many African economies.

However, let us not forget that the history of the phrase ‘Big 5’ was not invented for the tourism industry.  It has been around for hundreds of years and actually has far darker connotations than the sugar coated version that we know so well.  The Big 5 was actually coined by the white colonial hunters in the 19th and 20th centuries and referred not to the size of the animals but to the danger that they presented.  Many people ask why the hippo, the alleged most dangerous animal in Africa, is not included but it is not hard to hunt a hippo – they spend the heat of the day lying in the water, a veritable sitting duck….and thus do not present much of a challenge to a hunter.

Over the last fifty years, the tourism industry has managed to at least subdue the stigma of hunting with their marketing campaigns.  The original Big 5 included the black rhino, not the white.  The black rhino prefers a far denser habitat and is notorious for its short temper while the white rhino is a far more placid animal (on paper at least).  Ironically, the white rhino is now accepted as a member of the Big 5 despite the fact that its inclusion was due to the devastation reaped on the black species by hunters, rendering it highly unlikely to see!

This is the crux of this article and the intention of Completely Unique Safaris – Education and a change in a rigid, set and standard mindset.  Yes, times and views have changed, and are continuing to change, but ask yourself this – do we really want to keep any connotation with a history of hunting and persecution?  This is not an attack on hunters by any means – Even though we do not partake in or arrange any hunting trips, their ventures bring in millions of dollars each year that aid conservation efforts. As long as the hunt is conducted ethically, with correct permits and within designated hunting areas, as well as assurance that the loss of the animal chosen has no effect on the gene pool, there is no reason to damn people’s free will.  However, the hunting and tourism businesses have become more and more separated thanks to the conservation initiatives that are so influential in the world today.

So we ask you this – perhaps it is time to leave the ‘Big 5’ with those who originally adopted it, and chose another, less complicated past?

If one looks at the members of the Big 5, all of them are suffering badly and most are in real danger of total extinction.  This is due to a variety of reasons including legal and illegal hunting over the years, and habitat loss.  Regardless of your views as to why, this is not the issue.  The issue is:

  • Lions are considered ‘vulnerable’ with less than 30,000 individuals left in the wild and we have lost nearly 90% of the population in the last 100 years.
  • Leopards are ‘near-threatened’ although their clandestine nature makes this assumption exactly that, an assumption.  Thousands are hunted and killed each year and without an accurate population estimate, how can we assume to know their status. (That is why Completely Unique Safaris fully funds and houses The Leopard Identification Project).
  • Elephants are ‘vulnerable’ with tens of thousands still being killed each year for ivory and many culled due to lack of habitat.
  • Black and white rhino species are ‘critically endangered’ and on the brink of extinction. We all know the poaching statistics and there is a very real possibility that one or both species will disappear within our lifetime.
  • The value of buffalo has increased so substantially due to the fact that there are very few ‘disease free’ buffalo remaining.

Do we still want to associate these magnificent animals with a history of persecution and hunting?  Perhaps it is time to adopt a new, fresh approach.  Perhaps the ‘Safari Seven’ that represents conservation and which could include the wild dog and cheetah which are critically endangered with very few remaining or even the giraffe and hippo – each iconic animals in their own right!  This will not be easy but if the tourism industry could be persuaded to utilize new terminology, with the power of social media and the buying power of the tourist, this could become common place within a generation or two.  If children are educated in this from a young age, the phrase would roll off the tongue with ease and finally we can put the checkered history behind us and embark on a new conservation motivated path. As I write this today, on Freedom Day in South Africa, we must remember that we are only truly free when our wildlife is free and safe too.

Written by Ben Coley, with input from Guy Ellis

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