The Big 5 and Little 5

Africa contains a large diversity of animals and wildlife; however, there are two groups of animals, the Big 5 and Little 5 , which became popular because of their difficulty to hunt, and their names.

Now the Big 5 are the most sought-after animals by those visiting Africa. Even though there are other large animals in Africa, such as the hippopotamus, giraffe and cheetah, these are the five animals that were considered the most dangerous animals to hunt.  The Big 5 animals include the lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, and leopard. 

The Little 5 exist as a group merely because their names, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, rhino beetle, and ant lion, are associated with the Big 5.  Just as there are many more big animals to see, there are many other smaller animals and insects to see in Africa than the Little 5 .

You can help reintroduce animals from the Big 5 and Little 5 into Mwavi by sponsoring the Big 5 or Little 5.

The Big 5

Lions Lion - Photo by Emmanuel Keller

When we think of Africa, this is one of the first animals that springs to mind. It is one of four big cats, the second-largest after the tiger.  Wild lions currently exist in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia, having disappeared from North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia. They typically inhabit savanna and grassland, although they may take to bush and forest. Groups of female lions typically hunt together, preying mostly on large ungulates (hoofed animals).

The lion is a vulnerable species, having seen a possibly irreversible population decline of 30 to 50 percent over the past two decades in its African range; populations are untenable outside designated reserves and national parks. Although the cause of the decline is not well understood, habitat loss and conflicts with humans are currently the greatest causes of concern.

We have had lions at Mwabvi, although they are not resident now. Two young males were circling the Reserve entrance and villages last year and have now moved on.


African Elephant Elephant - Photo by Emmanuel Keller

The African Elephant is the largest land mammal. African elephants are bigger than Asian elephants with males standing 12 ft tall at the shoulder and weighing the same as four Aston Martins (12,000 lbs), while females stand 10 ft and weigh 8,000 to 11,000 lbs. Their tusks are teeth and they use them for digging for roots and stripping the bark off trees for food, for fighting each other during mating season, and for defending themselves against predators. They are made of ivory, which is very valuable and led to their widespread poaching.

The influence elephants have over many plant and animal species means they are often referred to as keystone species that are vital to the long-term survival of the ecosystems in which they live.  For example, some plant species need to go through the elephant’s digestive system in order to germinate, or their passage through vegetation leaves gaps for new plants to grow and create natural fire breaks.

There are no elephant at Mwabvi now but someday we will have a small herd back to benefit from the high levels of mopane trees we have there.



Black Rhinoceros  Black Rhinoceros - Photo by Nathan Dixey

These are a species of odd-toed ungulates. The Rhino is characterized by large size capable of reaching one ton or more in weight; herbivorous diet; and a thick protective skin, 0.5-2 inches thick; brains the size of a baby which is relatively small for mammals this size (0.8–1.3 pounds); and a large horn. Rhinoceroses have acute hearing and sense of smell, but poor eyesight. Most live to be about 60 years old or more. The black and white rhino have the same skin colour but the main differences lie in the shape of the mouth and the position of its head. The Black Rhinoceros has a hooked, prehensile nose, carrying its head high on its shoulders, as opposed to the low-hanging head, hump-shoulders and wide mouth of its relative, the grazing White Rhino.

The Black Rhino is critically endangered because, just like with the elephant, it was extensively poached for its horn and it suffers from habitat loss.  We are trying to reintroduce the black rhinoceros back into Mwavi, see what you can do to help .


Buffalo Water Buffalo - Photo by Vince O'Sullivan

Closely related to the domestic cow ,the African buffalo is one of the most successful grazers in Africa. Buffalo are completely dependent upon surface water, so are absent from arid and semi-arid regions but live in swamps, floodplains as well as mopane grasslands and forests of the major mountains of Africa. Buffalo can be found from the highest mountains to sea level areas, and prefer habitat with dense cover such as reeds and thickets. Herds have also been found in open woodland and grassland.

Not surprisingly, however, they provide good meat and are hunted for this.  Buffalo are also host to several diseases which are lethal to domestic cattle and so have been eliminated from areas suitable for ranchlands.

Buffalo are the most common large mammal at Mwabvi Wildlife reserve, we have around 150 ot them - but counting them is difficult without the fence to keep them together!


Leopard Leopard - Photo by Ed Glickman

Leopards are the smallest of the four big cats. The leopard has relatively short legs and a long body, with a large skull. Physically, it most closely resembles the jaguar, although it is usually smaller and of slighter build. Its fur is marked with rosettes which lack internal spots, unlike those of the jaguar.

The leopard is known for its ability in climbing, and it has been observed resting on tree branches during the day and descending from trees headfirst. It is a powerful swimmer, although, not as strong as some other big cats, such as the tiger. The leopard is also very agile, and can run over sixty kilometres an hour, leap over six metres and jump up to three metres vertically. The leopard is primarily a nocturnal creature, and many of its operations are done by night.

We used to have leopards at Mwabvi, and may have still. A member of the Wildlife and Environment Society of Malawi came across leopard cubs there less than 10 years ago, so we hope to find them there in years to come when their food stocks of smaller antelope and kudu have increased.


The Little 5

Buffalo Weaver  Buffalo Weaver - Photo by Pat Allan

Locally, they are a common bird found in East Africa. A buffalo weaver’s nest is built high in a tree in a fork of branches. It is a large, rather untidy structure of twigs and coarse grasses.

Social weavers (Philetairus socius) build huge nests, the most complex of all avian structures. The birds are sparrow-like in size and appearance. The individual birds join forces and weave a grass roof in the branches of a tree. They then weave vertical tunnels upward that widen into chambers just under the roof.

Wherever you go in the parks and reserves with dry bush or savanna, there will be trees festooned with the nests.



Elephant Shrew Elephant Shrew - Photo by Eric Kilby

They are small insectivorous mammals native to Africa. Their traditional common English name comes from a fancied resemblance between their long noses and the trunk of an elephant, and an assumed relationship with the true shrews (family Soricidae) in the order Insectivora.

They are widely distributed across the southern part of Africa, and although common nowhere, can be found in almost any type of habitat, from the Namib Desert to boulder-strewn outcrops in South Africa to thick forest. Elephant shrews vary in size from about 4 to 12 inches, from just under 1.7 ounces to over 1 pound.




Leopard Tortoise Leopard Tortoise - Photo by Aleksander Dye

The leopard tortoise is approximately 2 feet long which is the biggest turtle in Africa. It weighs as much as a Labrador retriever (50 to 100 lbs). Its name comes from the colour of its shell which has black and yellow spots, like a leopard. The young have dark brown or black leopard patterns on their shells while adults have smaller spots. Their head, legs, and tail are brownish-yellow and their shell is hard, and bumpy. Leopard tortoises have thick club-like back legs that have scales with claws on their toes. 

Leopard tortoises live from Eastern Africa to Southern Africa. Their habitat is a Savannah, which is a grassland, with rivers. We have them at Mwabvi, they are easily found, usually by tripping over them in the longer grass!


Rhino Beetle Rhino Beetle - Photo by David Baker

The Rhino Beetle is among the largest beetles. It is the largest beetle in its habitat in Africa, but not in the world.

Rhinoceros beetles grow to be between 1 and 2 1/2 inches long. Both sexes have horns, making it difficult to distinguish between them. Male beetles use these horns for fighting rival males over feeding sites or females. Rhinoceros beetles also use their horns for digging, climbing and mating.





Ant Lion Ant Lion - Photo by Rob & Stephanie Levy

The antlion is not actually a big ant but it looks more like dragonflies or damselflies although they are a different class of flying insects. The larva digs its pits in dry, sunny spots sheltered from wind and rain. Pushing itself backward, the larva first draws a circle on the ground. Then, digging deeper and deeper, it spirals in toward the centre, which is why it’s known as the “doodlebug”. After only about 15 minutes, the antlion has made a funnel-shaped crater in the earth with slippery sides so ants that fall in can't climb out, and land in the jaws of the "doodlebug" waiting at the bottom. It buries itself at the bottom so that only the head, with opened jaws, can be seen, and there it waits for its prey.



Photo Credits

Each photo has the name of the photographer included. We have their permission to use them but you should ask them yourself as many are copyright. If you want to use any, contact us and we'll let you have the photographer's details. 

Project African Wilderness (PAW) is a charity that helps to look out for some of these animals. We protect Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve and all the animals that inhabit it by making sure nobody hunts them nor destroys their homes. You can also help us help them! There are different ways to do this:

1.- Subscribing to our newsletter

2.- Becoming a Mbwenzi a Mwabvi (Friend of Mwabvi)

3.- Taking part in Challenges

4.- Buying gifts with a difference for mum, dad or whoever’s birthday it is!

Look in the Getting Involved and the Gifts with a Difference pages for more details. 


PAW: Promoting environmental conservation and development in Malawi.