Following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace
June 15, 2023
Anyone with dreams of going on safari will likely imagine the Big Five – elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos and leopards. These highly-prized sightings were originally deemed ‘the Big Five’ by hunters who considered them the most difficult animals to track on foot. Not the happiest of origins! Today the Big Five refers to the most sought-after wildlife sightings for enthused safari-goers in Africa.
But did you ever consider the darker beasts of the expansive African plains? There are lurching, shifty animals populating the wilderness, whose iffy reputations and unappealing looks have led them to be deemed the ‘Ugly Five of Africa’. Read on to discover more about where to seek these lesser-loved alternatives to elephants and lions. After all, everybody loves an underdog (even when it’s a hyena)!
The lolloping, ungainly form of the wildebeest is well known in the safari canon – most often seen as one of the masses in a faceless stampede, or as a panicking loner separated from the herd, chased down by a lion or hyena. Perhaps unfairly, wildebeest carry a reputation for being mindless, mainly due to their herding and migrating behaviour. Their ‘swarm mentality’ during the Great Migration means many drown in rivers or end up trampled underfoot.
Nevertheless, the Great Migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara is a fascinating natural phenomenon that draws thousands of tourists to Africa every season and successfully leads the vast herds to the best grasslands year after year. To see it yourself, you can visit Tanzania or Kenya during late November to December. Wildebeest are scattered across the African continent, and can also be spotted in Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique and more.
The hunched figure of the Marabou stork can reach up to five-feet tall; so foreboding with its cloak-like wings that it is sometimes called ‘the Undertaker bird’. No doubt this deathly moniker contributes to its ‘Ugly Five’ status. The Marabou’s feeding habits are also suitably grotesque – it is widely believed that its bald head prevents blood and flesh sticking to its feathers while it gorges on any dead animal it comes across.
It is also notoriously ill-tempered, intimidating even flocks of vultures who will quickly make room on a carcass when one lands nearby. When they aren’t feasting on flesh they have appetites for almost anything including human rubbish, and will swallow shoes or even pieces of metal on landfill sites. Marabou stork are found in most of tropical Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda. You can also look out for them in iSimangaliso Wetland Park in St.Lucia, South Africa.
Probably due to a particularly well-known Disney film, the iconic tusked pig of the African savanna is often seen as the butt of all jokes. The warthog is usually depicted as cowardly (their main defence from predators is to flee – and quickly) but they will occasionally fight back, especially in mating season or when guarding their young.
The common warthog is the only pig species to adapt to savanna and grasslands, and they have unusual social behaviours. Females tend to stick together in groups called sounders, while young males congregate in ‘bachelor-style’ gangs – but fully adult males tend to roam the vast plains alone. You’re unlikely to see a solo warthog socialising with a meerkat, but anything is possible. Keep an eye out for your own Pumbaa when on safari; they dwell mostly in open grassland of sub-Saharan Africa but are also spotted up to 3,000 metres up Mount Kilimanjaro.
With its hunched torso, dark plumage and taste for blood and guts, the vulture has long been seen as bloodthirsty and cold-natured; a feathered symbol of death. It’s no wonder they often feature in depictions of Hell or the Underworld. Though it’s true that vultures will target dead, weak or injured animals and have even been spotted on battlefields, they also serve an important purpose in Africa’s ecosystem. Having cleaned the plains of fresh carcasses, their highly acidic stomachs also digest germs and viruses, preventing them from spreading.
The vultures of Africa are mostly old-world scavengers, and their bald heads are integral to regulate body temperature; they tuck it in when it’s cold, or stretch out their necks in heat. You might be lucky enough to see an intimidating ‘wake’ of vultures while on safari in one of many African destinations, including Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Botswana and Tanzania.
Famed the world over for their bolshy, greedy behaviour and of course, their maniacal laughter, hyenas definitely sit at the ‘least cuddly’ end of mammals on the animal spectrum. Commonly seen in many African cultures as evil and contemptuous, folklore tales show hyenas robbing graves, kidnapping children and generally bringing bad luck to communities. Nevertheless, they are fascinating animals. Spotted hyenas – the ones you’re most likely to see in Africa – exist within a complex, hierarchical social structure almost akin to monkeys, and, just as The Lion King depicted, are in fact in direct competition with lions for food and territory.
Spotted hyenas are the noisiest and most deadly of all four hyena species, being the only hyenas to hunt and kill their prey – which could be any animal at all. Keep your eyes and ears open for these ruthless predators and decide for yourself if they deserve their reputation… You will likely see them in Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. Fun fact: Hyenas surprisingly have no relation to dogs!
Make it happen
The Ugly Five and the Big Five are just a handful of the incredible animals living in our African destinations. To go on safari and live out your own wildlife-seeking adventure, you can click the links above, explore our destination pages, or get in touch with our local experts.