Big­ger thrills than Big Five

Watch­ing hye­nas or dung bee­tles in ac­tion is more fas­ci­nat­ing than drowsy lions

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - MIKE UN­WIN

OUR OB­SES­SION with “Big” doubt­less has some Freudian ex­pla­na­tion. And schol­ars will prob­a­bly ex­plain how “Five” is hard- wired into our cul­tural psy­che. But why must this ex­pres­sion be­come the rai­son d’être of the African sa­fari? Big Five ex­pe­ri­ence, Big Five lodge, Big Five tea towel: it’s every­where.

The phrase, for the record, refers to the five most sought-af­ter an­i­mals on sa­fari, namely lion, leopard, ele­phant, rhino and buf­falo. It is not, of course, just about size – a leopard is dwarfed by a gi­raffe or hippo – but was coined by white hunters to de­scribe those crea­tures most danger­ous to hunt on foot.

Th­ese days few of us take a ri­fle on sa­fari, but the con­cept has stuck as a mar­ket­ing mantra. A tick-list of es­sen­tial sight­ings. With­out the tro­phy snaps – to­day’s mounted heads – your sa­fari is, im­plic­itly, a fail­ure. “Got the Big Five this morn­ing,” comes the tri­umphant cry, trump­ing your pal­try hye­nas.

Of course, who wouldn’t be ex­cited by see­ing a lion? But, whis­per it dis­creetly, watch­ing hye­nas in ac­tion is a good deal more en­ter­tain­ing than a half glimpse of slum­ber­ing big cat un­der a dis­tant aca­cia.

And that’s the prob­lem. Like all lists, the Big Five sug­gests that any­thing not on it is slightly in­fe­rior. Here, the sa­fari in­dus­try has made a rod for its own back.

Small re­serves feel obliged to im­port a lion or two – heed­less of eco­log­i­cal con­se­quences – just to boast the full set; game guides hur­tle around in search of the Holy Quin­ity, trash­ing the bush, just to meet vis­i­tors’ de­mands.

Enti r e c o u n t r i e s l o s e o u t be­cause they fall one short: Zam­bia, for in­stance, has the best walk­ing sa­faris in Africa but – hor­ror – no rhi­nos.

For the vis­i­tor, mean­while, the list sets a rather bul­ly­ing agenda. Big Five or not, the pro­fu­sion of wildlife on any African sa­fari is jaw-drop­ping. Who’s to say which beasts most de­serve your at­ten­tion? Per­haps you’ll find the hum­ble dung beetle, rolling away balls of buf­falo dung more than 500 times its own weight, more en­thralling than the bovine that pro­duced its prize. And what to do about the nu­mer­ous A- lis­ters – chee­tah springs to mind – that don’t make the cut?

Other des­ti­na­tions are fol­low­ing suit. Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage, for in­stance, has dubbed red squir­rel, ot­ter, seal, golden ea­gle and red deer their “Scot­tish Big Five”. (Osprey and dol­phin are seek­ing le­gal re­dress.) And the con­cept is not con­fined to wildlife. Check the in­ter­net and you’ll find most things, from brew­eries to or­ches­tras, now come in handy Big Five for­mat.

Even per­son­al­ity traits. Don’t show your face on a psy­cho­an­a­lyst’s sa­fari un­less you’ve ticked off neu­roti­cism and have the pho­tos to prove it.

But why stick at Five? Or Big? If we must have tar­gets, then can we not be a lit­tle more imag­i­na­tive? How about a Dis­ap­point­ing Dozen ( yes, wilde­beest, I’m look­ing at you), a Sus­pect Seventeen (A panda? In Africa?) or per­haps an Ar­bi­trary Eighty-Four?

And, in def­er­ence to celebrity, there’s al­ways the Fa­mous Five. Or has that been taken?

● Un­win is the author of the Bradt Guide to South­ern African Wildlife (Bradt Travel Guides) – The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day

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