On the spot: Safari visitors feel cheated if they don’t see a leopard, one of the Big Five, on an African safari / Getty Images


Our obsession with “Big” doubtless has some Freudian explanation. And scholars will probably explain how “Five” is hard-wired into our cultural psyche, from the wounds of Christ to the pillars of Islam. But why must this expression become the raison d’être of the African safari? Big Five experience, Big Five lodge, Big Five tea towel: it’s everywhere.

The phrase, for the record, refers to the five most sought-after animals on safari, namely lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. It is not, of course, just about size – a leopard is dwarfed by a giraffe or hippo – but was coined by white hunters to describe those creatures most dangerous to hunt on foot.

These days few of us take a rifle on safari, but the concept has stuck as a marketing mantra. A tick-list of essential sightings. Without the trophy snaps – today’s mounted heads – your safari is, implicitly, a failure. “Got the Big Five this morning!” comes the triumphant cry, trumping your paltry hyenas.

Of course, who wouldn’t be excited by seeing a lion? But, whisper it discreetly, watching hyenas in action is a good deal more entertaining than a half glimpse of slumbering big cat under a distant acacia.

And that’s the problem. Like all lists, the Big Five suggests that anything not on it is slightly inferior. Here, the safari industry has made a rod for its own back. Small reserves feel obliged to import a lion or two – heedless of ecological consequences – just to boast the full set; game guides hurtle around in search of the Holy Quinity, trashing the bush, just to meet visitors’ demands. Entire countries lose out because they fall one short: Zambia, for instance, has the best walking safaris in Africa but – horror! – no rhinos.

For the visitor, meanwhile, the list sets a rather bullying agenda. Big Five or not, the profusion of wildlife on any African safari is jaw-dropping. Who’s to say which beasts most deserve your attention? Perhaps you’ll find the humble dung beetle, rolling away balls of buffalo dung more than 500 times its own weight, more enthralling than the bovine that produced its prize. And what to do about the numerous A-listers – cheetah springs to mind – that don’t make the cut?

Other destinations are following suit. Scottish Natural Heritage, for instance, has dubbed red squirrel, otter, seal, golden eagle and red deer their “Scottish Big Five”. (Osprey and dolphin are seeking legal redress.) And the concept is not confined to wildlife. Check the internet and you’ll find most things, from breweries to orchestras, now come in handy Big Five format. Even personality traits. Don’t show your face on a psychoanalyst’s safari unless you’ve ticked off neuroticism and have the photos to prove it.

But why stick at Five? Or Big? If we must have targets, then can we not be a little more imaginative? How about a Disappointing Dozen (yes, wildebeest, I’m looking at you), a Suspect Seventeen (A panda? In Africa?) or perhaps an Arbitrary Eighty-Four (anything, really, as the mood takes you).

And, in deference to celebrity, there’s always the Famous Five. Or has that been taken?

Mike Unwin is the author of the ‘Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife’ (Bradt Travel Guides)