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Safari guide Henrik Hult.
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  May 2010:
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Safari Patrol:
Big five or not?
January 2009
The Big Five is a set of African mammals - elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard - that big game hunters used to want for trophies. These species were dangerous and difficult to hunt, so having a full set of trophies was prestigious.

Many of today's safari-goers, not hunting with guns but with cameras, know about the Big Five and want to see them. It's not a bad thing - you should want to see as many different kinds of animals as possible during your safari. But your chances of seeing the Big Five may not be the most important factor when choosing a tour. Seeing the Big Five is not what makes a safari good.

Rhino and leopard hardest to spot
It's not that big a feat seeing the Big Five on a safari. Taking pictures of those species from a vehicle is far less dangerous than hunting them on foot. It's safe enough for you to bring the kids. And finding the Big Five is much a matter of booking a tour that includes the right parks, and booking it with a good tour operator.

Two of the Big Five, the rhino and the leopard, may take some effort spotting. The rhino is rare, and the leopard is secretive. But if you go to the right parks, you will probably see them. I have seen leopard every time I've been to Serengeti, and rhino every time in Lake Nakuru and close to every time in Ngorongoro.

Elephants, buffalos and lions are common enough to be seen a number of times on any decent safari tour. It's a harder challenge trying to find eland, bushbuck, cheetah, serval, bat-eared fox, and other secretive or rare species.

Professional safari guide Henrik Hult in Serengeti, Tanzania.
Safari guide Henrik Hult on
the Big Five in January 2009
The Big Five aren't the five largest land mammals in Africa. Elephant and rhino qualify, but the other three are outsized by hippo, giraffe and eland.

Big Five parks
Parks that have populations of all the Big Five species are sometimes referred to as Big Five parks. Masai Mara in Kenya and Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania are such parks.

Most safari-goers don't see all five in those parks, though. The rhino is hard to see in Serengeti and Masai Mara, while the leopard is hard in Ngorongoro. The best way to see the Big Five, and to see the widest possible variety of species, is to combine different parks. Going to only one park reduces your chances.

Having rhinos in a park, or in a private ranch, may indicate a high level of conservation efforts. These efforts may reflect themselves also in the general wildlife, and such areas may be nice to visit if you want to see a lot of animals.

Enclosures for rhinos
Some of these areas have enclosures for the rhinos, though, that may have been reintroduced at very high costs, or may need much protection from poachers. Fair enough. The rhinos need protection. But should such a park be called a Big Five park? Not really. If a fence prevents the rhinos from going wherever they like, they are not wild but kept. Most of these parks call themselves rhino sanctuaries or suchlike, and that's fine. That's what they are.

Lake Nakuru, which is one of the main national park in Kenya, is the best place in the country to see rhinos. But the whole park is fenced. Does that mean Lake Nakuru is not a true national park but rather a free-range zoo? That's for you to decide. The park is larger (188 km2/73 sq mi) than the maximum home range size for the mammal species that live there, including the rhinos. But most animals cannot leave or enter. It's not a wilderness.

Season more important than Big Five
Many travel agents/companies never mention that the wildlife is not equally good throughout the year, but varies from season to season and from park to park. Knowing about these variations, and booking your tour from this knowledge, may be more important to the quality of your safari than knowing which parks are Big Five parks.

Both Kenya and Tanzania are good safari countries, and you will probably see enough to fulfil your expectations irrespective of which time of year you choose to go, as long as you visit a couple of different parks. That would typically be a round-trip safari by road, which is the most common type of safari in East Africa.

Going to single parks or single lodges
But if you choose to spend your whole safari in one single park or in one single lodge (which is common on safaris by air), you should seriously consider the season you're going. The local conditions within an area may vary much from one part of the year to another. You may also want to check which lodge you will be staying in. For example, if you stay far west or far north in Serengeti, you will probably not see the Big Five, as the main rhino area of that park will be out of reach. And the large wildebeest and zebra herds, which are a remarkable wildlife spectacle, occupy different parts of Serengeti and Masai Mara depending on season. You'd probably like to go to an area where you may see them.

 
 
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Page updated 18 February 2009