South Africa: Redemption of the Big Five

The tribulation and redemption of the Big Five – from origin to hunting, to tourist impact and conservation programmes. The notorious term for the animals once described a hit list rather than a safari checklist; coined in the late 1800s during Africa’s colonial period. The ‘Big Five’ refers to what trophy hunters thought to be the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt.

The iconic Big Five game animals consist of the African Lion, Leopard, Rhinoceros (both south-central black and southern white species), Elephant, and Cape Buffalo. South Africa boasts being one of the most reliable and renowned African countries to spot all the Big Five.

Kruger National Park is home to all Big Five animals; this very well managed environment is one of the largest game reserves in Africa. Imbued in legend and history, the iconic Kruger National Park in Northern South Africa is home to vast landscapes and spectacular African wildlife – covering nearly 2 million hectares of unrivalled diversity. From megafauna and indigenous vegetation to archaeological sites, the world-renowned park offers a wildlife experience that ranks with the best in Africa. 

Trophy Hunting

Many Trophy Hunters will argue that they generate fees in order for game reserves to stay open, or that hunting protects the ecology and aids conservation. However, many of the animals being targeted are now endangered, and the claims made that trophy hunting somehow benefits conservation have been debunked.

“The argument was put forward in the 30s when the South African government wanted to put an end to hunting. The hunters won the argument on the basis that hunters provided a service by culling animals. Today, with most of these animals nearing extinction levels, the argument is not so much about saving the animals and their habitat, as it is about the billions it makes for the hunting industry.” Slaughter of the Innocents — Hunting the Big Five | by Tessa Schlesinger | Humans being Humane | Medium

The countries that provide the means to hunt for trophies are primarily South Africa, Canada, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Though, the majority of people in these countries do not support the practice. In South Africa, 65% of the population are opposed to hunting, yet the government has taken no actions against it.

Moral issues aside, the crux of the matter is that these absurd trophy hunts amount to a one-off payment, whereas any of the Big Five can earn a substantial amount of money from traditional ecotourism for many years to come – more sustainable and plausible. Game hunting may help conservation in the short term when managed appropriately; however, there are far superior and ethical ways to help the Big Five that are more appealing to animal lovers.

“As a civilization that has the ingenuity to put people and machines into space, split the atom, and routinely send unimaginable amounts of information through the ether, surely we can think of a better way to save the wild animals we love besides killing them.”

Andrew Loveridge: Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil and the Future of Africa's Iconic Cats

Big Five Conservation

The Black Rhinoceros is now listed as critically endangered; African Elephants are vulnerable, as are the African Lion and Leopards. The Cape Buffalo are the only species from the Big Five listed as least concern. Rhino poaching in Africa, and particularly in South Africa, has now reached epidemic proportions and continues to escalate daily. Inevitably, one subspecies of Rhino was declared extinct in 2011, largely caused by the poaching of their horns.

In March of 2016, rhinos at the Sibuya Game Reserve Sibuya Game Reserve – River Camp, Forest Camp or Bush Lodge suffered a horrific poaching attack, resulting in three of their rhinos being slaughtered and their horns removed.

Anti-poaching rangers continue to put their lives on the line daily, often hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, in a determined effort to fight back.

Thus, Sibuya proudly hosts the Rhino Foundation Sibuya Rhino Foundation, and manages a dedicated Rhino conservation team – allowing the passionate members to protect these herbivorous mammals throughout Africa, especially South Africa. Without rhinos, there’s no such thing as a Big Five experience.

It is essential that there is a dramatic increase in protective capabilities to defend these magnificent animals. All bookings made to Sibuya Game Reserve include an optional Rhino Levy, with proceeds going into a separate fund exclusively for rhino anti-poaching. The conservation team at Sibuya kindly ask and invite tourists to partner with them in the effort to protect the native Rhino and the species as a whole.

Sibuya are not alone in their efforts to fight back and safeguard the spectacular South African wildlife. The majority of the Safari Lodges on these awe-inspiring private reserves boast rehabilitation centres, sanctuaries and pride themselves on conservation projects. Many safaris allow guests the chance to visit these centres and to get on board with the ongoing conservation efforts. Shamwari Private Game Reserve – South Africa has both a Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and is home to the Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries

5-star Safari Lodges are exquisitely dotted all around Africa, these experiences provide an unrivalled encounter with some of Africa’s most famed flora and fauna.  Pure Breaks – Sustainable Holidays & Unique Escapes offer a wealth of Safari Trips for those wanting to experience an unforgettable, unique adventure.

Tourist Impact

Whilst sadly the Big Five are still hunted today, a shift towards sustainable tourism has made seeing and protecting these magnificent animals a once-in-a-lifetime goal for any safari-goer and nature enthusiast. To prevent pushing Africa’s animals towards the brink of extinction, ecotourism has been stealing the spotlight over the past years. Threatened species depend on conservation safaris as they provide both the necessary income to help protect the wildlife, as well as keeping them out of the reach of poachers.

Now, many of Africa’s top tourist operators work with new initiatives and conservation. Africa’s tourism industry is inherently reliant on its renowned wildlife populations and their captivating landscapes. Lions are frequently rated as the number one species that tourists most want to see on safari. The Lionscape Coalition raises funds for lion conservation, as well as helps to educate numbers of people on the plight of lions – empowering the travel industry to play an even bigger role in conservation. The coalition also benefits parts of Africa that are off the beaten tourist track. 

“The Lionscape Coalition allows Africa’s top tourism operators to take a leadership position to support on-the-ground conservation work and encourage clients to support the future of lions.” Lionscape Coalition | Lion Recovery Fund


Wildlife enthusiasts can assist in conservation efforts, either as tourists or volunteers. Volunteering with animals in South Africa is a direct way for you to help in their protection. The safari industry generates income to protect parks and reserves, additionally, it provides jobs for locals, and encourages wildlife conservation. 

The wildlife conservation centres and safari reserves act as vital hubs for education. They provide refuge for orphaned and injured creatures and facilitate breeding programs to ensure the future of the Big Five. Volunteer program fees at these centres contribute toward running costs, and volunteers themselves return home as ambassadors for animal conservation.

Those who shoot the Big Five with a camera lens rather than a weapon play an important role in conservation.

Cecil the Lion

2015 saw the killing of the beloved, regal, big cat – Cecil. Cecil was an adult male lion who lived in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The killing of Cecil prompted the biggest global response to a wildlife story ever. A subsequent photo of the gloating dentist over Cecil’s body triggered outrage around the world. Though, this saddening action did result in one silver lining – the deeper examination of big game hunting in Africa.

“The killing of Cecil was a watershed moment as it opened the world’s eyes to the continuing slaughter of animals by trophy hunters. Cecil represented the thousands of unnamed animals who are killed every year for ‘sport’, and strengthened the call for trophy hunters to stop hunting.” – Trophy Hunting | League Against Cruel Sports

According to National Geographic, Lions have declined precipitously in the wild, down from an estimated 200,000 continent-wide, (a century ago) to roughly 20,000 today. Since Cecil was bow-hunted and shot, a shift in trophy hunting became evident. A large majority no longer see it as a status of masculinity or wealth, rather as an inhumane and cowardly sport. 

Trophy Hunting is still legal in South Africa whereas poaching is not, if hunting was to be banned then illegal activities like poaching would rise. This would cause further unlawful damage and greater irreversible impacts than we are currently taking action against today. Hunting is an integral part of Africa’s conservation history and its approach regarding wildlife management.

It would be no easy feat to separate hunting from modern Africa. It has been ingrained since colonial times, not to mention embraced and supported by African elites and political interests. To liberate the Big Five from a regretful fate would mean the realignment of conservation policy. Nevertheless, although many things, the Big Five are not invincible and are worth far more alive than deceased.

“Investigating the origin of the Big Five, in relation to trophy hunting, has truly opened my eyes to the devastation and tribulation that hunting and poaching causes on a daily basis. The incredible megafauna are still being targeted today, though through tourism we can help to change that. Visiting safaris and volunteering in conservation projects means we can become one step closer to redeeming these iconic animals from extinction. ”

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