What We Saw - The Big Five and Then Some
June 1999

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The "Big Five" are made up of the rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo. This is the most common term of important animals to spot on safari. The name goes back to the days of the big game hunters. The Big Five were the most coveted trophies or toughest to kill - depending on whose telling the story. We managed to see  cheetahs (in wild and orphanages), leopards (mother and cub), jackals, hyenas, baboons, black & white colobus monkeys, vervet monkeys, elephants, rhinos (the black and the white), buffalo, giraffes (the Maasai, the Rothschild and the reticulated), hippos, zebras (common and Grevy's), warthogs, wildebeests (AKA gnu), impala, eland, bushbuck, dik-dik, gerenuk, hartebeest, Grant's gazelle, topi, crocodile, ostrich, vultures and tons of other birds and plants that I can never hope to name.

There are two species of rhinoceros, the black and the white. Both types are actually dark gray in color, but the black rhino is smaller with a pointed upper lip. The white rhino can grow up to 4,900 lbs. and has a wide mouth. We learned that it was probably miscommunication between native guides and the first white hunters that "wide" became "white". Weighing 85 lbs. at birth after an 18 month pregnancy, a baby rhino reaches maturity in 6 years and will weigh 1 1/2 tons. Although their eyesight is poor, their sense of smell and hearing are excellent and they can run up to 35 mph. The older it gets the more vulnerable it becomes because of the value of its horn to poachers. The horn, (which is in fact compressed hair), is valued in the East for medicinal purposes as well as being considered an aphrodisiac. Despite the best efforts by wildlife organizations few rhinos will reach a peaceful end to their 40 year life-span.

The African elephant is the largest living land animal, weighing nearly 300 lbs. at birth after a 22 month pregnancy. An elephant keeps growing for over 50% of its life-span and will weigh up to 6 1/2 tons when it is 50 years old. Its existence is just one long feast - an adult's daily intake is over 600 lbs. of vegetation which is washed down with 40 gallons of water. This only leaves time for a mere 4 hours of sleep a night. When its sixth set of molars wear out, it usually weakens from malnutrition and dies from infection or disease. Both sexes have tusks, but the males are usually thicker. The combined weight of the heaviest tusks recorded is 440 lbs. We were surprised to see that the elephants were so emotional and affectionate with each other in the wild. We saw dozens in the Samburu and in the Maasai Mara.

The "King of The Beasts" actually spends most of the day sleeping. Weighing 3 lbs. at birth after a 4 month gestation period, he will grow to his adult weight 400 lbs. in 6 years. The average lion eats about 50 lbs. of food in one sitting and needs to kill twice a week. Prey is caught be stealth, as his top speed of 35 miles per hour is usually not enough to catch his quarry in a flat-out race. Lionesses are the primary hunters. Lions live to between 15 and 20 years and his regal title is often attributed to his ability to mate over eighty times a day! Our lion count got up to 15, we saw them sleeping, hunting, eating and playing in both the Samburu area and the Maasai Mara.

The most elusive member of the Big Five, the leopard is born after a 3 month gestation period in a litter of up to 6 cubs. They spend nearly 2 years with mother and then except for the mating season, lead a solitary life. A fully grown adult weighs 80-150 lbs. Due to their great strength they can carry prey, weighing over 150 lbs., up a tree, away from marauding lions and hyenas. Their life-span is uncertain but up to 21 years has been recorded in captivity. In the Samburu we spotted a leopard cub in a tree and later found the mother out hunting.

Cape Buffalo
Because of their unpredictability and aggressiveness, especially when cornered or wounded, buffaloes are considered by hunters to be the most dangerous of the Big Five. Most of the big herds seen on the plains are composed of females and calves dominated by a master bull and led by an old female. Because they need to drink daily and like wallowing in mud, they are usually found near water. Buffaloes are born after an 11 month gestation period, weigh one ton and live approximately 20 years. We spotted hug herds of buffalo everywhere we went.

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