South Africa's Small Five

Source: Shutterstock

South Africa’s Small Five: Meet the iconic little beasties of the bush

You’ve seen the Big Five, but have you seen South Africa’s Small Five?

South Africa's Small Five

Source: Shutterstock

If you live in South Africa, chances are you’ve heard of the Big Five. If you’re a die-hard safari aficionado, you’ve likely already seen them all, multiple times.

And while we love the members forming this iconic group (leopard, lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo), we often like to remind our readers that there are plenty more brilliant beasts to see up-close in the bush. 

In case you haven’t yet heard, there is another special group of animals to add to your safari bucket list called the “Small Five”. And while this tiny troupe might still be overlooked because of their size, these little beasts are no less fascinating than their bigger (and more famous) counterparts. 

Ready to meet them all? Here’s introducing South Africa’s Small Five:

1. The Leopard Tortoise

With gold and black markings closely resembling a leopard’s spots, it’s easy to see how this unique tortoise got its name. 

Much like the elusive feline they are named after, leopard tortoises are solitary creatures often found hiding out in less-explored corners of the country’s parks and reserves. And although forming part of South Africa’s Small Five, they can grow quite large!

Unlike leopards, leopard tortoises are toothless, preferring to graze on succulents, shoots and fallen fruit. However, they do have to work just a little bit harder to avoid becoming a snack for jackals. What we do love most about these slow-moving little creatures is their resilience. They can live up to 100 years of age, and just like their feline counterparts, they too can swim! 

 Leopard tortoise
A leopard tortoise, Stigmochelys pardalis. Image: Envato

2. The Rhinocerous Beetle

Just like rhinos, these rotund and curious-looking creatures have an armoured appearance. They are also characterised by their impressive, hooked horn used for foraging, defending their territory and most importantly, attracting prospective mates. 

With their slick, black exoskeletons, these hardy beetles form part of the scarab family (Scarabaeidae), which also includes dung beetles. And much like their dung beetle cousins, rhinoceros beetles have a natural affinity for all things muddy and smelly. 

Considered the “Hercules of the insect world” they can carry up to 850 times their own body weight! 

South Africa's Small 5, rhino beetle
Rhinoceros beetles, Dynastinae. Image: Envato

3. The Antlion

Move over Simba, here’s introducing the new King of the Jungle: The ferocious and fearsome antlion. 

The antlion weighs in as the smallest member of South Africa’s Small Five, but don’t let his size fool you. Antlions are highly capable predators and can often be spotted digging sandy bunkers from which to catch their prey. 

Much like a skulking lioness, they’ll lie low and wait for an unsuspecting victim to pass by just close enough to use their sickle-shaped jaws to finish off the kill. Antlions really are fearsome little beasts and are known to take down a range of critters twice their size. 

Antlion, Myrmeleontidae. Image: Shutterstock

4. The Red-billed Buffalo Weaver

Characterised by its signature red beak, the red-billed buffalo weaver is the only feathered member of South Africa’s Small Five. Twitchers, assemble! 

Much like those brooding buffalos, these little birds prefer living together which makes them easy to find. They’re a rather noisy bunch, especially when skillfully weaving their nests using materials like thorny twigs and grass. They tend to set up camp in large trees like baobabs and camelthorn acacias and live on a hearty diet of seeds, fruit, insects and even scorpions on occasion. Yum!

South Africa's Small 5, buffalo weaver
Red-billed buffalo weaver, Bubalornis niger. Image: Shutterstock

5. The Elephant Shrew

We’re ending off South Africa’s Small Five list with arguably the cutest member of the group: The elephant shrew. These tiny, insect- and termite-munching mammals are named after an elephant due to their long trunk-like snouts and believe it or not, they are distantly related to them as well! 

Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, elephant shrews are exceptionally fast, reaching speeds of over 28km/h. Unlike those large and loveable ellies seen patrolling the Kruger or Addo Elephant Park, seeing an elephant shrew can be tricky, especially since they are exceptionally skittish and only live between two to four years. 

Elephant Shrew
Elephant shrew, Macroscelididae. Image: Shutterstock

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