Bigger than the Big Five: Safari operators eye a new narrative
Seeing the Big Five has become the barometer of a successful African safari for travelers around the world.
The obsession around these iconic creatures — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo — is certainly understandable. Historically, the Big Five referred to those animals that were the most dangerous to hunt. Today, it has become the must-see list of wildlife species to tick off a safari bucket list.
But that obsession is one that tends to create unrealistic expectations that put the entire tourism value chain under unnecessary pressure.
“When traveling to Africa, tourists and guests are given the impression that they have to go on safari and see the Big Five, almost as if it’s embedded into their minds as something that is a ‘must-do,’” said African Travel president Sherwin Banda.
The Big Five concept does have value, according to AndBeyond chief marketing officer Nicole Robinson, in that it can help first-time safarigoers make sense of the information overload.
“For guests who are new to safari or travel to Africa occasionally, the amount of information around the various animal species — birds, plants, habitats — can be intimidating,” she said. “The idea of the Big Five is a simple and nonintimidating introduction to a few high-profile characters in the bush.”
But to others, the Big Five nowadays is simply a catchy marketing slogan, according to Marcelo Novais, general manager for North America at Ker & Downey Africa.
“The term ‘Big Five’ has been used
extensively in safari marketing, so much so that it has become
synonymous with safari travel,” he said, adding that the incentive of
returning home from safari with bragging rights is a major motivator for
The problem comes when the idea of the Big Five distorts the expectations of a safari experience.
The media, and especially television and film, have played a huge part in hyping the bigger species, as they have greater entertainment value, according to Alistair Rankin, managing director at Machaba Safaris. Often, guests coming on safari assume they will see the same sights as they’ve seen on TV, perhaps not realizing it has taken filmmakers months or even years to capture these scenes.
Then, said Sean Kritzinger, executive chairman of Giltedge, the pressure is on all parties in the tourism chain to produce and promise the Big Five in an unrealistic time frame.
This is not the main purpose of a safari, he said.
“It’s all about the greater experience. The smaller animals, birds, insects and the flora are the ecosystem. Ticking off the five animals on the list isn’t. There’s so much more to the wilderness than just the Big Five, and because you’re in the wild, animals are unpredictable. That’s why a safari in Africa is amazing — because it’s not a zoo.”
The hype around the Big Five can also detract from worthwhile destinations across Africa.
“To be honest, the places that actually have the Big Five are quite limited,” said Gerard Beaton, director of operations at Asilia Africa. “South African national parks and private reserves do, but elsewhere on the continent, there are limited destinations which are home to the Big Five.
“The result of this is that a national
park like Kruger receives over a million visitors a year. In contrast, a
national park like Ruaha in Tanzania, which also offers exhilarating
game viewing but does not have any rhinos, receives only a handful of
With the popularity comes an issue with poaching, according to Travel Beyond consultant Melanie Reger.
“Travelers should be aware of how endangered some of these animals are. If people on safari are posting photos of rhino all over their social media, this gives poachers precise locations on the rhino’s whereabouts,” she said.
Another concern, according to Wilderness Safaris Group impact manager Neil Midlane, is that many places too small or unsuitable for Big Five species for other reasons are bringing these animals in simply to attract guests. This can have a severely negative effect on the environment.
On the upside, the popularity does attract conservation dollars. According to And Beyond’s Robinson, the Big Five are the Big Five because they’re charismatic.
“Often, conservation initiatives are centered around these animals because, just as they’re on the safarigoer’s wish list, this is also often what donors are more likely to donate toward,” she said. “Is this the right way to do it? Protecting these species often does have positive knock-on benefits to less charismatic species and their surrounding habitats, but the end goal should be to protect biodiversity as a whole.”
Alan Yeowart, Singita’s head of safari
operations and training, agreed and said the Big Five are part of the
umbrella species. This means that they depend upon healthy savanna
ecosystems. The conservation interventions aimed at protecting them also
help protect all other species in the reserve.