Visitors to South Africa are always keen to catch a glimpse and a photo of the country’s celebrated Big Five: elephant, lion, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard.
While the big game is magnificent and includes other giants such as giraffe, hippo, whale and dolphin – there’s much more to South Africa’s wildlife. The country has some of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots, with remarkable birdlife, abundant buck, small game and bizarre insects.
To promote these, some really clever people came up with another must-see list, the Little Five. They are the elephant shrew, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and leopard tortoise.
Focusing on the Small Five does not mean ignoring the ‘Big 5’. On the contrary, by revealing the hidden wonders that may be found in our reserves, one appreciates the bigger flagship species even more. Here’s the lowdown on some of Africa’s finest little creatures.
The ant lion (Myrmeleontidae) is an odd yet familiar feature of the bushveld, digging conical depressions in dry, soft sand with which to trap its prey – ants. In advanced stages this larvae-like creature has wings and sometimes resembles a dragonfly, although it’s not well-adapted for flight.
Red-billed buffalo weavers (Bubarlornis niger) are social birds that build their nests in the forked branches of tall trees. They nest in open colonies and are a rather noisy and busy lot. The weavers’ nests can be recognized by their rather bedraggled state, made from coarse grasses and with untidy twig structures.
The rhinoceros beetle (Scarabaeinae dynastinae) is one of the largest beetles in southern Africa, with horns on its head much like those of its larger namesake. Both males and females are horned, but only the males are known for aggressive behavior, using the horns to fight rivals. The horns are also used to dig, climb and mate.
The leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) is a striking feature of the bushveld landscape, getting its name from its black and yellow spotted shell. The animal is one of the largest breeds of tortoise in this part of the world; a mature leopard tortoise can weigh over 23 kilograms, with a shell circumference of up to one meter. The males are larger than the females.
Younger tortoises have dark brown patterns, while adult shells take on shades of yellow with somewhat smaller spots. Leopard tortoises live in savannah and grassland areas, close to water.
The Elephant shrew is a tiny insectivore that lives in arid lowlands, rocky outcrops and savannah grasslands, getting its name from its elongated snout. Elephant shrews (Elephantulus myurus) are found all over South Africa, and only grow to a length of 250mm, with an average weight of 60 grams. They feed on insects, fruit, seeds and nuts. They in turn are food for snakes and raptors, making them extremely shy and wary. The chances of spotting them are slim indeed, so if you manage to see an elephant shrew before an actual elephant, you can count your safari a real success!