Jan 14

Although the term ‘The Big Five’ is commonly used today by African Safari Tour operators for marketing purposes, it actually has a much darker origin. The phrase was first coined by hunters, who considered these five large African mammals to be the most difficult to hunt, due to their ferocity and the danger involved in tracking and killing them. Today however, ‘The Big Five’ are among the most popular and well studied of all African animals.

African elephant

As the largest terrestrial mammal in the world, the African elephant is also one of the most charismatic. This emotive creature has a highly complex social structure that is perhaps what makes the elephant such a favourite among us. Each closely related family group of females and calves is led by an old ‘matriarch’ female, and male elephants leave the group at puberty, forming less tight-knit alliances with other males. Interestingly, there seems to be some scientific truth behind the expression ‘elephants never forget’. Studies have revealed that the dominant female is able to build a ‘social memory’, enabling her to recognise ‘friends’. Despite their seemingly gentle nature, elephants can be extremely aggressive and dangerous when threatened.

African elephant photo

African elephants fighting

Black rhinoceros

The Critically Endangered black rhinoceros is distinguished from the African white rhinoceros by its characteristic pointed, prehensile upper lip. It is known for its inquisitive yet aggressive nature towards humans and other animals. Twice as heavy as an African buffalo, the black rhinoceros should not be mistaken as a slow animal. It is surprisingly fast on its feet, reaching speeds of up to 31 miles per hour, and is able to make sharp turns whilst running full pelt. In spite of all this, new camera technology has revealed a softer side to the black rhinoceros, which appears to show that they meet at night in order to ‘socialise’.

Photo of male black rhinoceros charging

Male black rhinoceros charging

African buffalo

The iconic African or Cape buffalo has a menacing appearance, with its brownish black coat and magnificently curved horns that can be used defensively to great effect. Alongside the hippopotamus, the African buffalo is considered to be Africa’s most dangerous animal, known to attack and even kill humans and other animals without provocation. Given their vegetarian status, this inclination highlights their extremely aggressive nature. Female bonds are strong within a buffalo herd, and if one is attacked by a predator, it will be staunchly defended by the rest of the herd. Having seen a lioness held hostage up a tree for hours by a herd of buffalo, I can vouch for the loyalty of herds!

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour

Lion

Lions are the most social of all cats, living in groups of related females who often reproduce at the same time and suckle each others cubs. In many cultures the lion has become known as the ‘King of the Beasts’ due to its ferocious temperament and regal presence. Also one of the largest of the ‘big cats’, the muscular lion has powerful jaws and is able to hunt animals that are many times its own size. Male lions compete for access to females, and will commonly kill any cubs already present after taking over a pride. This behaviour is exhibited to increase the reproductive potential of the male in a short period of time.

African lions attacking a hippopotamus

African lions attacking a hippopotamus

Leopard

The graceful leopard is both majestic and elusive, its spots providing extremely effective camouflage in African habitats. Being skilled climbers, leopards will often drag their kill up into the trees to prevent it from being poached by scavengers. Leopards are powerful predators, with formidable jaws that dispatch and dismember prey with ease. They are equally able to hunt at night, with their long, sensitive whiskers enabling them to ‘feel’ their way in the darkness.

African leopard hunting

African leopard hunting

Africa’s ‘Little Five’

Whilst we talk about Africa’s most well known and ferocious animals, we mustn’t forget those smaller, but no less important. Did you know that for each of ‘the Big Five’ African animals, there is a ‘Little Five’ equivalent? These somewhat smaller, but equally impressive creatures include:

  • The rhinoceros beetle. The male has an impressive backward-curved horn on its head, hence its common name.
  • The rufous elephant shrew. These bouncing critters have kangaroo-like hind legs, allowing them to hop bipedally when moving fast.
  • The leopard tortoise. Named after its gold and black mottled shell, the leopard tortoise can live up to 50 years in captivity!
  • The buffalo weaver. These striking birds are most easily identified by their bright red rump and white head.
  • The ant lion. A winged larval insect, which digs conical shaped sand traps to catch small ants to feed on.
Rufous elephant shrew photo

Rufous elephant shrew

Watch out for our next Africa themed blog, which will explore the fascinating lesser-known African species the continent has to offer.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Jan 9

The African lion may be perilously close to extinction in some parts of Africa, according to a new report.

Photo of young male African lion with cub

The report, by conservation group LionAid, says that as few as 645 lions may now remain in the wild in western and central Africa, following a worrying decline in recent years. This decline has been mirrored across Africa, with estimates suggesting that only around 15,000 wild lions remain across the whole continent, compared to about 200,000 a few decades ago. This iconic species is now extinct in 25 African countries, and virtually extinct in another 10.

There has been a catastrophic decline in the populations of lions in Africa, and particularly west Africa,” said Dr Pieter Kat, LionAid Trustee. “These lions have been neglected for a very long time and do not have adequate protection programmes. They are in real danger of extinction.”

Lions under threat

The report follows a series of studies that have raised concern about the future of African lions. In one study, researchers found that about three-quarters of Africa’s savanna habitats had disappeared over the last fifty years, and used this information to estimate the number of remaining lions, which they put at around 32,000. LionAid suggests that the real number of lions left in the wild is actually far lower, although calculating the species’ exact population size is difficult.

Photo of African lionesses and cubs drinking at water hole

We put the figure… at around 25,000 lions, but whether you use these figures, the LionAid report or the Duke study, there is common agreement among everyone involved in conservation of African lions that the situation is extremely serious,” said Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation.

West African challenges

The LionAid report says that West Africa faces particular conservation challenges, due to a mixture of poverty, lack of political interest in conservation, and an underdeveloped wildlife tourism industry. In Nigeria, for example, the lion is declining fast, with only around 34 individuals remaining, down from 44 in 2009.

Even though the national parks in West Africa contain very distinct and very important fauna compared to eastern Africa, people tend to ignore that West Africa is a very special place,” said Dr Kat. “As a result the populations in West Africa are declining so quickly, as a biologist I would say that in a country like Nigeria, which has only 34 lions left, they are already extinct. It’s almost impossible to build up a population from such a small number.”

Photo of African lions on lookout

Trophies and culture

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it would look at whether lions should be legally protected under the Endangered Species Act, with U.S. trophy hunting being blamed as a factor in the lion’s decline. However, conservationists say that powerful pro-hunting lobbies are frustrating efforts to impose stricter regulations on the trade in this magnificent big cat.

According to Sarel van der Merwe, Chair of the African Lion Working Group, “In central to west Africa, lion numbers are too low to allow any means of negative impact on the populations and hunting should be prohibited, as should any form of killing, irrespective whether a few lions may be habitual livestock killers. Otherwise, we may well lose the lion as a species.”

Photo of two African lions

Lions are important in the culture of many African nations, and more still needs to be done to protect this iconic cat.

When you look at a lot of the African countries, what you see is that lions feature on their coats of arms, their flags, and are part of their culture, yet as a species they are not being protected,” said Dr Kat. “What Africans involved in conservation keep telling me is that we are letting a huge amount of African history and culture that is important in national heritage of African countries just slowly disappear.”

 

Read more on this story at The Guardian – West African lions on verge of extinction, report says.

Find out more about the work of LionAid.

View photos and videos of lions on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Jan 8

The world’s second largest continent, Africa is home to a spectacular array of wildlife and landscapes. Its outstanding diversity is spread across deserts and savannas, forests and swamps, and some of the most iconic species on earth are found there. With the launch of BBC One’s new Africa series, we thought we would explore some the most popular African species on ARKive.

1. Meerkat

Meerkats are one of the most popular African animals, due to their highly sociable and charismatic nature. Meerkat groups are usually made up of around 50 individuals, including a dominant pair and ‘helpers’ of both sexes. Meerkats demonstrate an extraordinary division of labour: when out hunting, one or more individuals keep lookout to protect the rest of the group from predators, and when young are born, non-breeding adults take turns to ‘babysit’ while the rest are out foraging.

Photo of a meerkat family group

2. Blue wildebeest

Thousands flock to Africa’s National Parks every year to see the famous blue wildebeest migration. Forming some of the largest migratory herds of all antelope species, wildebeest rely on short grass and water to survive, so must migrate between seasonal grazing sites throughout the year. Wildebeest are well known in Africa as the ‘spare-parts animal’, as they are said to look as though they are made up of several different animal parts.

Photo of blue wildebeest jumping into river during migration

3. Shoebill

The shoebill is a baffling species with a distinctively prehistoric appearance. While it shares many similarities with storks, pelicans and herons, it remains a unique species with many characteristics setting it apart from any other African bird. The shoebill resides in some of the most inaccessible wetland habitats in Africa. Usually feeding at night, it hunts by ambush, standing stock-still until its prey is near, and then snatching it from the water with its sharp, hooked beak.

Shoebill photo

4. Hippopotamus

The hippopotamus is a surprisingly speedy animal, both underwater and on land, despite the fact that a male hippopotamus can weigh as much as 3,200 kg. This, coupled with its aggressive nature, makes it one of the most dangerous African animals. Its semi-aquatic lifestyle earned the hippopotamus its name, which means ‘river horse’. Once widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, the hippopotamus is now mainly found in the East African countries, particularly Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique.

Hippopotamus photo

5. Giraffe

There are nine types of giraffe living in Africa, six of which may be genetically distinct subspecies, and the different types can be distinguished by their spot patterns. The Latin camelopardalis means ‘camel marked like leopard’, and the giraffe’s brown blotches help to camouflage it in the shade patterns created by the trees it feeds on. Giraffes are surprisingly hard to see among the trees for this reason; however, out on the plains they can be seen in their full glory. Despite its extremely long neck, the giraffe actually has the same number of neck vertebrae as most mammals, including humans.

Photo of giraffe's necking

6. Ostrich

This flightless bird is the fastest running bird in the world, reaching speeds of up to 70 km per hour. To add to this, it is also the heaviest of all living birds and has the biggest eyes of all land animals. The ostrich is an instantly recognisable bird with a long bare neck, soft smooth plumage, and prehistoric-looking feet with just two toes. The male ostrich produces a booming call which is said to sound like the roar of a lion. Ostriches are found across the majority of the African continent, and have also been introduced to southern Australia.

Photo of ostrich running

7. Plains zebra

Clearly related to horses, the plains zebra is another of Africa’s most iconic animals. Its most characteristic feature is the pattern of black and white stripes all across its body. There are many theories as to the purpose of the conspicuous black and white stripes, but one likely explanation may be a social one, with the stripes being thought to encourage group structure and grooming behaviour. Zebras are the most abundant of all Africa’s grazers, and are preyed upon by several of Africa’s large predators, such as lions and hyenas.

Group of plain's zebra

8. Eastern gorilla

Gorillas are the largest of the living apes, and have now been recognised as two separate species – the eastern and western gorillas. Eastern gorillas are found in Rwanda,Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), although one subspecies is solely restricted to eastern DRC. There are two subspecies: the mountain gorilla, occurring at altitudes between 1,160 and 4,100 metres, and the eastern lowland gorilla, which is found between 600 and 2,900 metres above sea level. Each family group of eastern gorillas is led by a dominant silverback male, and groups can sometimes be made up of more than 50 individuals.

 Eastern gorilla portrait

9. Nile crocodile

The Nile crocodile is a formidable African predator, and one of the largest of all crocodilians. To enable it to lie low in the water and ambush prey, its eyes, ears and nostrils are located on the top of the head. A valve at the back of the throat stops water from entering when the crocodile grabs prey in its jaws and holds it underwater. The Nile crocodile is capable of taking prey as large as buffalo, zebras, wildebeest and other antelopes, which it drags into the water, but the female can also be surprisingly gentle, carrying her newly hatched young to water in her mouth.

Photo of Nile crocodile

10. African rock python

As Africa’s largest snake, the ill-tempered African rock python is not to be reckoned with. It is a non-venomous snake, killing its prey by coiling around it and squeezing tighter with each breath the victim takes, until its prey dies by cardiac arrest. The African rock python can feed on animals as large as crocodiles, and is found across most of sub-Saharan Africa.

African rock python photo

These are but a few of the most well-known and fascinating animals that Africa has to offer. Over the next few weeks we’ll introduce you to some lesser-known species, as well as ‘the big five’, ‘the little five’ and more…watch this space!

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Nov 14

The world population of mountain gorillas has risen significantly in recent years, according to a new census released by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Photo of mountain gorilla infant

The census, carried out in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, found over 400 gorillas living in 36 distinct social groups. This brings the total world population of mountain gorillas to 880, an increase of over 10% since 2010.

According to David Greer, WWF’s African Great Apes Programme Manager, “Mountain gorillas are the only great ape experiencing a population increase. This is largely due to intensive conservation efforts and successful community engagement.”

Photo of silverback mountain gorilla resting with group

Mountain gorilla conservation is now balanced against the needs of local people, for example by tackling illegal firewood collection in gorilla habitat by providing communities with alternative energy sources.

Mountain gorillas have only survived because of conservation. Protected areas are better managed and resourced than they have ever been, and our work is a lot more cross-cutting to address threats – we don’t just work with the animals in the national parks, but also with the people,” said Drew McVey, Species Programme Manager at WWF.

Mountain gorilla silverback, portrait

Threatened subspecies

The mountain gorilla, Gorilla beringei beringei, is a Critically Endangered subspecies of the eastern gorilla, the largest of the living apes. In addition to the population at Bwindi, a second mountain gorilla population is found in the Virunga Massif, a range of extinct volcanoes that spans the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

The Virunga population has also increased in the last decade, but the two populations do not interbreed and both remain under threat from deforestation, disease, regional conflict, poaching, and snares set for other animals. There is also concern that proposed oil exploration in the Virunga National Park could bring new problems for gorillas and other wildlife in an area already beset by conflict.

Photo of guard showing all the animal traps collected within two months in Virunga National Park, habitat of the mountain gorilla

Guard showing animal traps collected within two months in the Virunga National Park

More people in Virunga would likely lead to an increase in deforestation, illegal hunting and more snares in the forest,” said Greer. “At least seven Virunga mountain gorillas have been caught in snares this year and two did not survive. The gorilla population remains fragile and could easily slip into decline if conservation management was to be disregarded in the pursuit of oil money by elites.”

Tourist draw

Although the increase in gorilla numbers in recent decades is encouraging, experts say that it should not be taken as a sign that the fight to save the species has been won.

Gorilla populations are incredibly fragile and sensitive to environmental change. There are only two populations, so disease could easily wipe out an entire population,” said McVey. He added that, “Mountain gorillas are only found in protected areas, and outside these areas there are more than 600 people per square kilometre, so there is immense pressure to secure their habitat and pay their way.”

Photo of juvenile mountain gorilla

Many mountain gorilla groups have become accustomed to humans and are a major draw for tourists. Revenue from tourism is in turn helping to fund the protection of parks and is being reinvested into local communities.

The amount of revenue and jobs that gorillas generate is so important for these areas that are so desperately poor,” McVey said. “People really see gorillas as important for the national and local economies, and a portion of this goes back to conservation efforts and the local community.”

Read more on this story at WWF – Mountain gorilla population grows and The Guardian – Mountain gorilla numbers rise by 10%.

Find out more about gorilla conservation at the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

View photos and videos of mountain gorillas on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Jan 12

Mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, plant, coral, insect…the choices are never ending, but will this week’s team member choose a gentle giant like Laura Sutherland or opt for a slightly less substantial species?

George Bradford – ARKive Media Researcher

Favourite Species: Honey badger

Why? I admire the resourcefulness of the honey badger that allows it to exist over a large range and variety of habitats from savannah to rainforest. It can make a meal out of venomous snakes, small mammals and even roots and berries. It has been reported that the honey badger uses its anal gland to fumigate bee hives so it can access the larvae within. That’s street smart.

Favourite honey badger image on ARKive:

Honey badger image

Honey badger with python kill

 

The honey badger is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List. Its threats include being trapped and snared by poachers and small livestock farmers as well as bee farmers. Its claws are used in traditional medicine to confer the patient with the fearlessness and ferocity characteristic of this species.

See more photos of the honey badger.

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