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

Apr 14

This week we’ve crossed The Atlantic once more to find out if, like Ellie, the Wildscreen USA team think sea life is supreme or if their loyalties lay with life on land.

Maggie Graham – Program Assistant, Wildscreen USA

Favourite species? Lion

Why? They are a symbol of raw courage, beauty and freedom to me.

Favourite image on ARKive:

Lion image

The lion is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Conflicts with farmers are not uncommon as much of the lion’s original range has been converted into agricultural land, reducing the amount of available prey and habitat and providing new, easily accessible prey in the form of cattle. In certain areas, lions are viewed as pest species and are often shot or poisoned.

See more photos and videos of the lion on ARKive.

Mar 2

The African lion is under growing threat from US hunters, leading to calls for the species to be listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Photo of two African lions

The African lion occurs throughout sub-Saharan Africa, while a second subspecies, the endangered Asiatic lion, occurs in Asia.

The call to list this iconic predator is being made by a coalition of wildlife organisations, including IFAW, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, Born Free and Defenders of Wildlife. They report that US trophy hunters are emerging as a strong and growing threat to the lion’s survival, with increasing demand for trophy rugs and other lion parts helping to drive the species towards extinction.

Growing trade in lion trophies

During the last decade, around two thirds of lions killed for sport in Africa ended up being shipped to America, and numbers have been rising sharply.

According to Jeff Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), “The king of the jungle is heading toward extinction, and yet Americans continue to kill lions for sport. Our nation is responsible for importing over half of all lions brought home by trophy hunters each year. The African lion is in real trouble and it is time for this senseless killing and unsustainable practice to stop.”

Photo of African lion cub lying on female's back

When adult male lions are killed, new males may take over the pride and kill the previous male’s cubs.

Unfortunately, the number of lions killed by trophy hunters is only part of a larger picture. Hunters prefer to bag large male lions, which can set off struggles for dominance among the survivors, often leading to the deaths of other adult males, females and cubs.

African lion heading towards extinction

Despite being one of Africa’s most charismatic mammals, the African lion is already under serious threat and its population has fallen sharply in the last 100 years. Lions have been lost from large parts of Africa, and only seven countries are now thought to contain more than 1,000 lions each.

Photo of African lion carcass

Trophy hunting is just one of many threats faced by the African lion.

The single biggest threat to the African lion is conflict with humans, with many lions shot or poisoned by farmers trying to protect livestock. The spread of agriculture and development has also reduced the lion’s habitat and decreased the availability of its prey. The African lion is now becoming increasingly rare outside of protected areas, and its populations are becoming more isolated and fragmented within its shrinking range.

Controversial hunting ban

The new petition to the US government is calling for a ban on the import of lion parts into the United States in an effort to reduce this growing threat. A listing on the U.S. Endangered Species Act would also help to raise awareness of the importance of conserving this beautiful big cat.

Photos of African lionesses allogrooming

African lions have undergone a sharp decline in the last century. The species as a whole is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

However, some argue that responsible hunting can help preserve lion populations, and that existing regulations, such as CITES, should be reinforced to protect the African lion.

According to Luke Hunter, executive vice-president of Panthera, “If you remove hunting, the very real risk is that you force African governments to generate revenue from that land and the obvious thing is cattle and crops which just wipe out habitats.”

Read the petition to the US Government to list the African lion as endangered (PDF 2.69 MB).

View more stunning lion photos and videos on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

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