My Big 5

Many of you will have heard the term “The Big Five” or “Big Five Game”. It’s a term used to collectively describe the 5 hardest animals in Africa to hunt on foot – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and cape buffalo. They’re the faces of currency throughout South Africa and a big advertisement for game reserves all over Africa. Countries where all the members of the big five can be found include Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Malawi.

So here’s my big 5 – my top 5 animals. Interestingly, only one of the Big Five makes the cut, but 2 of the less famous “Ugly Five” (awarded the title of the ugliest animals found in Africa) got a mention, because who isn’t a fan of the underdog, hey?

5. Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

It’s fair to say that the hyena’s reputation isn’t the best – always depicted in popular culture as the bad guys, stealing the kill, scavenging and being well just plain nasty. But it’s time to give them a break and see them for the intelligent hunters that they are. They have the strongest jaws on the continent and are willing to chase prey across long distances for a meal, up to speeds of 60km/h. The only parts of a kill not fully digested are hair, horns and hooves. Impressive, right? That’s not all. Despite popular belief that they are mighty scavengers, they actually get around 75% of their food from their own kills – it’s far more common for the proud lion to steal a kill from one of these strategic hunters. I’ve seen a few hyenas during my travels through Africa but none beat the face of this absolute gem.

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4. Adélie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)

I have to say I love all penguins, from the blubbery Emperors to the funny looking Chinstraps, but my favourite has to be the adélie. Whether it’s the way they walk in that peculiar way with their heads bobbing forward, or their seemingly innocent, child-like personalities and lack of ability to detect danger, I can’t get enough of watching these little sea birds. What fascinated me most is their sexual selection ritual; the males collect stones of all shapes and sizes and arrange them into a neat circle to impress nearby females. Nice to see the males doing the work for a change! Unfortunately I’ve not got a photo of an adélie taken by myself but here’s one from penguins-world.com

3. Common Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)

Yes, you read that right. Clocking in at number 3 is the common warthog – most famously portrayed by Pumbaa in Disney’s Oscar-winning Lion King. I guess you could call me a fickle fan of these tusked machines, because before not so long ago I was just another person calling them ugly, unintelligent and every other name under the sun. So I hold my hands up, because boy was I wrong. It wasn’t until I saw these little porkers for he first time in the flesh that I realised they were so much more than just those hairy pigs that resemble grumpy old men. What is it that’s so great about them? I think a better question would be what isn’t so great about them – the answer would be a lot shorter. From their family bonding techniques, their wonderfully loving social structure, and their playful antics to their stamina to stand strong against a predator, there’s few animals I equally like to observe in the wild than the warthogs of Africa. The turning point for me, when I realised just how special these guys are, was witnessing their hilariously cute movements; the way they trot across the Savannah in close family units, that’s a scene I’ll never forget.

I guess it really is true, that you should never judge a book by its cover.

2. White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)

These gentle giants never fail to fascinate me. If you placed them in a dinosaur film they wouldn’t look too out of place; with their armour and weaponry, it would be easy to believe if they were a close ancestor of the legendary triceratops. Gentle they may seem but they’ll certainly put up a fight when threatened. Sadly though, a gun and a machete in the hands of a poacher far too often win the fight. I’ve had the incredible experience of working with rhinos, particularly orphans of poached mothers, in South Africa, which was where I fell in love with the white rhino. Whether it was their adaptable yet peculiar call or the way they excitedly play with each other that left me in awe, I don’t know. But I know there’ll never be a dull moment in the precious company of these beautiful giants.

1. Guinea pig (Cavia porcellus)

So here it is, probably the most underrated animal of them all, yet many people have encountered them. The guinea pig. It gets its name from the word Guiana, a place near their homelands in South America, as well as the fact they often make pig-like sounds. People have also claimed they were called guinea as they were sold by sailors for a Guinea in Britain (the currency back when they were first brought over), or due to people calling any distant land Guinea. One thing’s for sure, the noises they make are hilarious. Everything they do is hilarious: how they greet you with loud wheeks when you get home from a long day, how they “popcorn” when they get excited (this is when they literally pop by jumping uncontrollably), when they have all the food they could need but still sniff the air for more, how they can sleep through fire alarms, doorbells or loud music but if the fridge door opens they’re straight to the edge of their cage waiting for you to feed them.

All I can say is, if you’ve never owned guinea pigs then go and get some. You won’t be disappointed. It really is a shame how the outside world just isn’t up to speed with just how great little piggies really are.