Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Elusive Five

Chasing down giraffes on foot in Amboseli

Back when safaris comprised tracking down animals on foot and shooting them, enthusiasts defined the 'big five': Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard. Tourists continue to obsess about sighting these 'big five'. But, as Min rightly pointed out one day on a bushwalk during which we were endeavoring to chase down some giraffes on foot, if the point of labeling these five was how big they are, then surely giraffe, not to mention hippopotamus, should have made the list. The trick, by the way, to catching up to giraffes is not to behave like an intelligent predator. If you try to cut them off - walking towards where they are headed - they'll freak out and run even faster and further. If you 'give them way' and just tail along behind them stupidly, like a cattle egret might, they lose interest in running and settle down to browsing on Acacia trees instead. This tendency to flee is why giraffe is not one of the big five. The five were chosen because they "won't give you way" (quote from our guide, Leperes, in Amboseli), but will stand their ground and attack if challenged, making them particularly dangerous to hunt on foot. But times have changed. Safaris today are done in vehicles with radios, telephoto lenses and guides trained in the ways of the modern bush. Yes, everyone knows circling vultures can lead you to a lion kill, but even more useful bush signs can be read today. Excited sounding radio messages in Maa, and speeding convoys of safari vans, for example, are a sure sign of the supposedly elusive rhino, cheetah or leopard. Perhaps the true safari enthusiast should define a new 'elusive five' as those that are most difficult to photograph while on a commercial safari. Aardvark would certainly be among these new 'elusive five'. They never come anywhere near roads, only leave their subterranen dens at night (precisely when all the big carnivores are out looking for something to eat), and bolt back underground as soon as they sense anyone coming. The other four are so elusive I can't even say what they are, and I certainly don't have any photographs of them

Potential candidate for the elusive five: Osterich with head corkscrewed 540 degrees?