Interestingly tourists coming to South Africa are always keen to see the country's celebrated Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino) neglecting a wealth of smaller wildlife. Entire vacations are planned for the sole purpose of spotting them. But I would like to introduce you to the lesser known “Small 5”, whose names relate to their bigger counterparts, this is called the Little Five: elephant shrew, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and leopard tortoise.
The Elephant Shrew
Getting its name from the elongated snout that resembles an elephant’s trunk, the elephant shrew (pictured above) is the most adorable of the Small 5. It is also the hardest to spot. Weighing around 28 g, they are active during the day and are said to be highly nervous and intolerant of trespassers. To avoid nasty tempers, they prefer going unnoticed by remaining absolutely still. Their long legs make them proficient at lightning-fast sprints away from danger.
Named for its lion-like method of ambushing prey, the ferocious antlion is an insect with about 2 000 species worldwide. ‘Antlion’ is a term actually reserved for the larval stage of the insect’s life cycle. Adults closely resemble dragonflies. The antlion larva has a masterful art of digging conical pits in dry, soft sand that is easy to shift. It will take some effort to get a glimpse of this Small 5 predator, but you should see its little cone-like sandpits on the ground. If you’re patient, you may be rewarded with a spectacular display of ambush in action. Whether you spot one or not, you can impress friends with this useless fact: An antlion larva never poops. It waits until it is an adult before excreting all the left-overs from its time as an underground predator.
The Buffalo Weaver
Buffalo weavers live in the dry savannah and acacia woodland areas, where they forage omnivorously on the ground, often following the trail of buffalo herds. A beautiful find among bird watchers, these social birds tend to form large, loosely ordered colonies. Weavers build massive communal roosts in tall acacia and baobab trees, which can be easily spotted for their untidy appearance. There are two species of Buffalo Weaver. More common is the noisy Red-Billed Buffalo Weaver and there is the White-Headed Buffalo Weaver.
The Leopard Tortoise
The large leopard tortoise gets its name from its attractive black and yellow speckled shell, clearly resembling a leopard’s spots. The slow-paced tortoises are one of the easiest to spot of the Small 5 (you’ll hardly miss one lumbering across the road). They are typical grazers, found in semi-arid, thorny and grassland habitats throughout sub-Sahara Africa. Many African cultures see the tortoise as a sacred symbol, but they are also widely eaten and considered a delicacy.
The Rhino Beetle
Another Small 5 insect is the rhino beetle, which gets his name from the distinctive horn-like structure on its head. Both sexes have horns, which makes it difficult to distinguish between them. The horn makes an excellent digging and climbing tool, while the males also use them in combat during mating season. Adult rhino beetles are an impressive 2.5 – 5 cm long. Not only are they one of the largest beetle varieties in the world; they are also proportionally the strongest animal in the world, known to lift 850 times their own weight.
Have you spotted any of the Small 5 creatures before? Give it a shot next time you’re on safari in the Kruger National Park!