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The classical Lion King - one of the Big 5

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? And…where, exactly?

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 in Laikipia.

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 one go.

Happy Hunting…!

Melinda Rees is an information provider for Eco-resorts. For more information contact Eco-resorts at www.eco-resorts.com or melinda@eco-resorts.com.

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