Seeing the Big Five has become the barometer of a successful African safari for travelers around the world.
The obsession around these iconic creatures — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo — is certainly understandable. Historically, the Big Five referred to those animals that were the most dangerous to hunt. Today, it has become the must-see list of wildlife species to tick off a safari bucket list.
But that obsession is one that tends to create unrealistic expectations that put the entire tourism value chain under unnecessary pressure.
“When traveling to Africa, tourists and guests are given the impression that they have to go on safari and see the Big Five, almost as if it’s embedded into their minds as something that is a ‘must-do,’” said African Travel president Sherwin Banda.
The Big Five concept does have value, according to AndBeyond chief marketing officer Nicole Robinson, in that it can help first-time safarigoers make sense of the information overload.
“For guests who are new to safari or travel to Africa occasionally, the amount of information around the various animal species — birds, plants, habitats — can be intimidating,” she said. “The idea of the Big Five is a simple and nonintimidating introduction to a few high-profile characters in the bush.”
But to others, the Big Five nowadays is simply a catchy marketing slogan, according to Marcelo Novais, general manager for North America at Ker & Downey Africa.
“The term ‘Big Five’ has been used extensively in safari marketing, so much so that it has become synonymous with safari travel,” he said, adding that the incentive of returning home from safari with bragging rights is a major motivator for many clients.
The problem comes when the idea of the Big Five distorts the expectations of a safari experience.
The media, and especially television and film, have played a huge part in hyping the bigger species, as they have greater entertainment value, according to Alistair Rankin, managing director at Machaba Safaris. Often, guests coming on safari assume they will see the same sights as they’ve seen on TV, perhaps not realizing it has taken filmmakers months or even years to capture these scenes.
Then, said Sean Kritzinger, executive chairman of Giltedge, the pressure is on all parties in the tourism chain to produce and promise the Big Five in an unrealistic time frame.
This is not the main purpose of a safari, he said.
“It’s all about the greater experience. The smaller animals, birds, insects and the flora are the ecosystem. Ticking off the five animals on the list isn’t. There’s so much more to the wilderness than just the Big Five, and because you’re in the wild, animals are unpredictable. That’s why a safari in Africa is amazing — because it’s not a zoo.”
The hype around the Big Five can also detract from worthwhile destinations across Africa.
“To be honest, the places that actually have the Big Five are quite limited,” said Gerard Beaton, director of operations at Asilia Africa. “South African national parks and private reserves do, but elsewhere on the continent, there are limited destinations which are home to the Big Five.
“The result of this is that a national park like Kruger receives over a million visitors a year. In contrast, a national park like Ruaha in Tanzania, which also offers exhilarating game viewing but does not have any rhinos, receives only a handful of visitors.”
The conservation conundrum
With the popularity comes an issue with poaching, according to Travel Beyond consultant Melanie Reger.
“Travelers should be aware of how endangered some of these animals are. If people on safari are posting photos of rhino all over their social media, this gives poachers precise locations on the rhino’s whereabouts,” she said.
Another concern, according to Wilderness Safaris Group impact manager Neil Midlane, is that many places too small or unsuitable for Big Five species for other reasons are bringing these animals in simply to attract guests. This can have a severely negative effect on the environment.
On the upside, the popularity does attract conservation dollars. According to And Beyond’s Robinson, the Big Five are the Big Five because they’re charismatic.
“Often, conservation initiatives are centered around these animals because, just as they’re on the safarigoer’s wish list, this is also often what donors are more likely to donate toward,” she said. “Is this the right way to do it? Protecting these species often does have positive knock-on benefits to less charismatic species and their surrounding habitats, but the end goal should be to protect biodiversity as a whole.”
Alan Yeowart, Singita’s head of safari operations and training, agreed and said the Big Five are part of the umbrella species. This means that they depend upon healthy savanna ecosystems. The conservation interventions aimed at protecting them also help protect all other species in the reserve.
Tour operators across Africa agreed that it is time to move away from a checklist experience and move toward a more authentic wildlife experience for travelers, where the emphasis would be, for example, on conservation and sustainability.
Novais of Ker & Downey Africa said he would like more focus to be placed on the value gained from spending more time experiencing all elements of a safari. There is so much to see, feel and experience on a safari that more emphasis should be placed on longer stays and more customized experiences, he said.
“I would love safaris to be sold less as bucket-list, tick-box items and more for the transformative experience they provide; less for the luxurious rooms and bathrooms with a view (which they all have) and more for the unforgettable moments of connection (to themselves, their families and nature) they create; less for the safari selfies and more for the recruitment of wildlife ambassadors.”
Craig Glatthaar, Wilderness Safaris business manager for North America, explained that although tour operators might not overtly steer clients away from the Big Five, one could argue that Covid-19 has created a larger awareness of the interconnectedness of all species on Earth.
Wilderness, for example, has started promoting “different” safaris.
An example is a unique safari that combines a Botswana safari or a Namibia safari with … Antarctica.
Wilderness has two such itineraries planned. On the first, which departs in November, guests will travel from Cape Town on a four-and-a-half-hour flight to White Desert’s new Wolf’s Fang Camp in Antarctica and from there to Atka Bay, where they will see emperor penguin chicks hatching and participate in activities like trekking through ice waves and exploring crystal caves and ice tunnels. Guests return to Cape Town before departing for Botswana.
The Antarctica option makes for “a spectacularly different itinerary when combined with iconic destinations in Africa. This makes for the ultimate Covid-19 ‘revenge’ exploration but done in a purposeful, conscious and sustainable manner,” Glatthaar said.
Hilton Walker, chief marketing and sales officer for Great Plains Conservation, said that change to the narrative has started. Great Plains doesn’t refer to the Big Five at all in its collateral.
Still, he said, “it is not a message that will be solved overnight.”
The role of travel advisors
The travel trade has a role to play in building a more sustainable safari future. The onus will be on them to set realistic expectations and talk about the greater experience, Kritzinger said.
It’s up to the travel advisor and tour operator to narrow down what the traveler can expect and tailor the perfect experience for them, said Cheryle Velsor of Alluring Africa.
“When most people visit Africa for the first time, their decision to go on a safari is usually driven by wildlife. A successful safari experience is when a traveler is on their flight home messaging you that they want to plan their next safari as soon as they get back,” Velsor said. “They want to return to Africa not only for the wildlife but for all the other things that make this continent so special: the friendly people, fascinating culture, warm hospitality and mesmerizing landscapes.”
The mystique of the Big Five actually offers unique opportunities for specialist safari operators to educate clients on all the aspects of a safari, according to Holden Safaris president Jim Holden.
Travel advisors in the U.S. agreed that education was the way to change perspectives, and they said they found that travelers to Africa were generally open to considering alternatives.
“I feel new clients who want to go on safari just say ‘Big Five’ without really knowing what it means, just as another catchphrase is ‘Great Migration,’” said Theresa Jackson of Enlightened Journeys Travel, an affiliate of Travel Experts in Allendale, N.J. “Both require a bit of educating the client before delving into an itinerary based upon one or the other.”
Crisney Lane, luxury travel advisor and Africa Specialist at the Departure Lounge, agreed and said that by educating the clients about all there is to see and do rather than focusing on a few animals, advisors are helping safarigoers to broaden their understanding about all there is on offer.
“My clients will then tend to become more interested in learning about the birds and the medicinal uses of the plants,” she said. “They want to learn about the local cultures and learn the names of animals in the Shangaan language. I think we can contribute to our clients understanding of Africa before they travel so they are open to everything.”
The reality is that every traveler is different. That means there isn’t a single answer about the right safari, said Elizabeth Gordon of Extraordinary Journeys.
“There will always be clients who are fixated on catchphrases and brands, and that’s OK,” she said. “We can still plan the best safari with the information and parameters we have, and maybe there’s an eye-opening opportunity awaiting them on the ground.
“Or, in the best-case scenario, they fall in love with African travel and plan another safari, which continues to support conservation work and local communities. Each one of us would plan a different ‘ultimate’ safari, and I think that’s what’s so exciting about African travel.”