Bagging 'The Big Five'
By Melinda Rees
Who are the 'Big Five' anyway?
The present title-holders are the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion
and leopard, so-called because they were the preferred shooting targets of the
erstwhile 'Great White Hunters', the romantic heroes of the early 'safaris'.
Nowadays the only shots to be fired on safari are on film, but
that doesn't stop most visitors from developing an overwhelming urge to capture
all of the famous five on film, video or crossed off the list in their guide-books.
As a result, binoculars in hand, cameras primed and eyes out on
stalks, thousands of latter-day, khaki-clad 'hunters' scan the horizons, comb
the grasslands, hunt through the thickets and peer up into trees in search of
the uncontested superstars of the wildlife world.
The trouble is, that in a country the size of Kenya, with celebrities
as reclusive and cunning as this elusive quintet, what do you look for precisely?
It's a bit of a conundrum. Especially if you're trying to spot
an elephant by looking for a large grey shape in Tsavo National Park, where the
largest herds are reputedly to be found. If so, you'll be sadly disappointed because
when in Tsavo you need to look for a large pink shape. Why? Because the Tsavo
elephants rather confusingly cover themselves with the deep, red, iron-oxide soil,
to keep away the insects.
The truth is that the best, indeed the almost guaranteed 'elephant
spot' is to be found at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park.
Here, vast herds of elephant, up to their stomachs in water, can be spotted feeding
on the lush green grasses of the Amboseli swamps. What's more their grey-brown
colour stands out clearly against the bright green grass, making them absurdly
easy to discover. Also, because researchers have been tracking the herds for the
past 20 years, the Amboseli elephants are familiar with humans and relatively
un-phased by close-up viewing. Keep an eye on the large matriarch though, who
tends to be VERY protective of her family!
If it's the 'Big Cats' that head up your 'Big Five' wish list,
then head immediately for the Masai Mara National Reserve where the wide-open
plains and tree-lined rivers offer happy hunting grounds for lion and leopard
alike. The cool, shady thickets also provide lion-resting-stations for the large
prides that return, replete and tired, from a hectic night's hunting. A good trick
is to keep an eye open for a twitching ear or the sudden flash of creamy-white
fur as a lioness rolls lazily over and exposes her stomach to the sun. You might
also see some cubs tumble out of the bush in a flurry of fur, paws and claws,
much too engrossed in their wrestling match to realise that their cover is blown.
When looking for the ever-elusive leopard, watch out for the giveaway
swinging tail; usually high up in a tree, draped across a tree branch and cleverly
camouflaged, the leopard itself will be totally hidden with the long tail the
only clue to his lounging presence. An exceptionally shy and solitary animal,
the leopard is seldom found in company and since each animal maintains an individual
territory, the only viable way to search him out is often by seeking local advice.
Dawn and dusk are the best viewing times, but keep an eye on that shadow at the
bottom of the tree. It might just walk off into the long grass.
As for the highly endangered rhino, these great, grey, prehistoric
creatures are best found in thick, scrubby bush, particularly in those sanctuaries
that have been founded to protect them. These areas include the Tsavo East National
Park sanctuary and a number of private sanctuaries around Solio and Lewa Downs
Large, lumbering and very short sighted, this greyish-brown herbivore
is surprisingly good at hiding in thickets and is often only given away by the
mound of droppings, known as a rhino midden, that he leaves behind. Look also
for telltale movements as the rhino stamp their feet or swish their stubby tails
against a branch.
Of all the 'Big Five' the buffalo are by far the easiest to 'bag'
because huge herds roam the Masai Mara, Tsavo, Laikipia, Amboseli, the Aberdares
and the slopes of both Mount Elgon and Mount Kenya. The best clues to their presence
are the dark shadows that dot the hillsides and betray a herd of buffalo on the
move. Beware though, because up-close buffalo herds can become decidedly skittish
and often break into a lumbering run at the approach of a vehicle.
Perhaps the best buffalo photo-opportunity is that offered by
a grumpy old male alone in dense thicket from whence only a large yellow-brown
eye gleams and a wet black nose protrudes. But don't get too close! Buffalo are
probably the most dangerous of all the Big Five!
When all else fails and the hunting hints have let you down, why
not try tiny Lake Nakuru National Park? Famous for its pink flamingos, this park
also offers a rhino sanctuary, some remarkable tree-climbing lions and a large
leopard population. So you might get three out of five of the big ones, all in
Melinda Rees is an information provider for Eco-resorts. For more
information contact Eco-resorts at www.eco-resorts.com