The Big 5 of Africa w/ Walden’s Rhino

Many people talk of going to Kruger to spot the Big Five. Originally, the Big Five was a term used to describe the five most difficult African animals to hunt; but now often refers to what many consider to be the greatest of Africa’s wild animals. We were equally as excited to see zebras, giraffes, hippos, and monkeys; but you can’t help but get excited about these big guys.
Big Cats are most people’s coveted spot. When you see a traffic jam or cars parked in all kinds of crazy fashions, pointed every direction and people pulling all kinds of crazy stunts, you have a big cat spotting. We saw more lions than any others. Our first spot was from a helpful hint from another South African couple on our first evening out in the park. They were 2 males, lounging near the road. We cracked up at their leisurely evening. They were clearly not hungry, lounging on their backs rolling back and forth occasionally.

Later, we saw an injured female. We debated reporting her location and injuries to someone; but the South Africans assured us that was just nature, and she would be probably be eaten by hyenas or other lions. This was hard to accept considering how majestic an animal she was and after spending a week at Elephant Nature Park caring for injured elephants. But clearly, this lion had been injured in the wild, not by humans. Regardless of the idiot behind us throwing rocks at her to try and get her to stand so he could see better.

The lions are the largest of the African predators and sometimes form prides of up to 30. Now that would be a sight to see! They can haul up to two times their body weight from their jaws. Young males are allowed to hang around the pride till they start showing signs of a mane; then they have to move on out and find their own pride. Mothers usually have 3-4 cubs and gestation is about 100 days. They live to an average of about 21 years.

The day before we left the park, we were blessed with an unbelievable treat.

Two younger male lions crossed the road in front of us and decided to rest for a while. We were able to watch them for quite a while before the safari trucks diesel motor approaching scared them off.

And on our way out, we caught a glimpse of this king.

Lions and Leopards are part of the Big Five. We did see a leopard with the help of a crowd of other visitors, but it was a scant one in the bushes. They are incredibly well camouflaged, incredibly secretive, and usually solitary. The mother leaves the cubs in a well hidden den to go hunt and brings back food to them. Around 4-5 months, they will join her on the hunt. Leopards occasionally eat a stray baboon, but don’t do this out in the open or they pay severely for it from the troop. I can only imagine the melee that would ensue. The leopard often drags his kill into the trees for protection to eat; but we never spotted one in the trees, despite our best efforts.

 We are also still debating if we saw a serval or a cheetah. Unfortunately, it was on the move and we only got a good view of its back and movement. It was definitely a smaller cat and created a lot of excitement when it was spotted! Both the serval and cheetah are small and lean. They are both spotted. The cheetah is diurnal, most active in morning and late evening, but so are servals. We saw him in late afternoon. I thought it was interesting to learn that cheetah form strong bachelor groups and usually stay separate from the females. They only come together to mate, and they only fight each other over females in oestrus. The serval is found usually in tall grass or dense undergrowth, which is where we found it. So one point for servals, because cheetahs usually prefer a high vantage point. A serval is a bit smaller too, which seemed to fit with our find. However, servals are rare, so much less likely. Mom is sticking with serval, but everyone else says cheetah.
We saw a large cat for the first 4 days in a row, but the 5th and 6th were a bust, on the 7th we were lucky again!

We have done the touring on our own, but on the 5th night we decided to try a night ride with a ranger. They aren’t horribly expensive, about $17 a person. Still, we try to keep a budget and only wanted to splurge on this if we thought it was really worth it. We saw a scared to death porcupine and a black back jackal, and a lot of cool animals we see during the day too, but no cats.

We enjoyed the adventure though, riding in the safari truck with the open windows listening to our guide’s South African accent. Chris and Walden had a spotlight and excitedly scanned as our guide reminded, “Check the ground, check the trees, look for eye reflection,” so much cooler in that accent. You wouldn’t believe how cold it was, and Ella and I were curled together in the provided blanket. We all wore fleece or down, but still freezing. We arrived home about 10:15 PM and decided maybe we wouldn’t get up before sunrise the next morning.

Another of the Big Five is the Cape Buffalo, and they are supposed to be highly prevalent in the park; but we only saw a few. They are highly aggressive and responsible for many human deaths, regardless of their herbivore status. Their horns are perfect for ramming or goring their victims. They weren’t really on our list of favorites, but we still hoped to see one.

We are old friends of elephants after Thailand, but Asian Elephants and African elephants have a few differences.

Only male Asian elephants have tusks, where all African elephants do. Some bone structure differences are also present.

Approximately 12,000 elephants hang out at Kruger National Park, and they are listed as a member of the Big Five.

We were in awe of the large herds we witnessed while visiting, boasting the cutest toddlers on the list.

The adult male is the heaviest of all land animals, around 6000kg. If an African elephant wants to show you who is in charge, which we experienced twice, they often mock charge, trumpet loudly, flap their ears, and stick their trunk out. If they flatten back their ears and point their tusks at you, you better get the heck out of dodge; they are no longer bluffing. At puberty males leave the group, and only return to mate and then leave again. The family is ruled by the matriarch, and the females usually only have 1 baby at at time. An elephant averages a lifespan of 65 yrs old; but after it wears out its 6th set of molars, often they will start to decline from malnutrition. They flap their ears to cool off, which is a happy site to witness. They spend most of the day eating or drinking to maintain their needed daily intake – 200 liters of water and 250kg of grass! Watching a large herd cross the river was awesome, especially watching the little ones trying to manage their adorable awkwardness in the water. I could park by these guys for hours and just watch.

Rhinoceros are the last of the Big Five and Walden is going to tell you about them.

White rhinos are mainly recognizable because the square-lipped mouth, which black rhinos don’t have.

The white rhino has two horns with the first horn being much larger and reaching up to 59 inches. White rhino are typically found in grassy woodland area, where they usually are found cropping the grass with their huge square mouth.

The animals have terrible vision but a very good sense of smell and hearing. Rhino poaching is a serious problem throughout Africa. In Kruger, rhino sightings were not reported and our map didn’t tell us the number of rhinos in the park. Man is actually the rhino’s only predator. The horn of a rhino is used in a lot of folk medicine in China, to cure things like fever, rheumatism, gout and a hangover.

Black rhinos, which we didn’t see in Kruger, are smaller than the white rhino and the horns are more equal in size, getting up to 41 inches long. They have hook-shaped upper lips that they use to eat shrubs and trees. Like the white rhino, black rhinos have bad vision but great hearing and smell. The animal is considered highly endangered because of active poaching. 

Both animals are sometimes attacked by momma elephants who are protecting their babies, even though rhinos don’t show any aggression towards them. That just shows how powerful these creatures. Rhinos are tanks and they only way they can be killed is by a bigger tank or the guns of men.

We actually saw 4 of the Big 5 several days, but we never made it to 5 in one day despite our best efforts!

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