Ten (10) to Inspire / Wildlife Encounters

The Secret Life of South Africa’s Little Five

Updated Wednesday, 28 December 2016

What do the leopard tortoise, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, ant lion and rhinoceros beetle have in common with their large counterparts?  Very little other than the names they share. What they are is a sharp reminder of the neglected small creatures – the “forgotten inhabitants of the African savannah”.

It’s human nature to support the little guy. In psychology terms this is known as the appeal of the underdog; the Davids (as opposed to Goliaths) of this world… Which is one explanation for Rael Loon’s concept of South Africa’s Little Five. As opposed to the Big Five – one of the major reasons tourists visit the country.

The massive Big Five push (just about every tourism document in the country promises sightings on safari) needed a nudge to return to the heart of the issue  – that of conservation.

The focus should lie in the vulnerability of these large animals (the elephant, lion, leopard and rhino are all at least near threatened if not critically endangered, as in the case of the black rhino – according to the IUCN Red List), as opposed to heading home with five major ticks on the must see list.

South Africa’s little five serve to bring our awareness sharply back into focus…

Leopard Tortoise
Photograph: Leopard Tortoise, Karoo, Western Cape


The only link between the leopard tortoise and its velvet-pawed namesake is the markings on the former’s shell, which are very similar to those of a leopard’s hide. Its markings certainly distinguish it from other tortoises. That and its size. They get pretty big. Up to 23 kilograms. And when it rains they tend to stay in abandoned fox, jackal or anteater burrows. You’ll find them in the savannah and grasslands, and they typically live between 80 to 100 years.

Their secret life: they enjoy the fruit and pads of the prickly pear cactus, and when fighting for supremacy the males turn one another over (something they hate).

Buffalo Weaver
Photograph: Buffalo Weaver on Cape Buffalo


This bird gets its name from trailing herds of buffalo – they eat the insects the buffalo kick up. The buffalo weaver is black with either a red or white bill (the white headed variety is found in other parts of Africa). They’re rather messy nest makers with large, communal nests made up of a series of sticks and thorns. As their nests suggest, they like to hang out in large, noisy groups and forage for food on the ground.

Their secret life: the male red-billed buffalo weaver is polygamous, controlling up to three females at a time and between one to eight nests.

Elephant Shrew
Photograph: The very seldom seen Elephant Shrew


This little mammal is also known as a jumping shrew – they have the tail of a rodent, the elongated snout of an elephant and relatively long legs causing them to hop like rabbits. They eat insects, are native to Africa, extremely active, and very seldom seen despite being diurnal. They like rooting around in dry forests, scrub, savannas and open country where there are shrubs of grass.

Their secret life: they live in monogamous pairs for life, but are not at all sociable, driving off any intrusion; and female elephant shrews have a menstrual cycle very similar to that of human females.

Ant Lion holes
Photograph: Ant Lion (or Doodlebug) holes


Also known as doodlebugs, the ant lion is actually the larval form of the lacewing or antgriffin. They feed on ants and manage to dig rather rapidly into soil, creating an ant pit, after which they seize the ant in their jaws and then suck the lifeblood out of them. They are rather ferocious looking bugs with plump abdomens and three pairs of legs on their thorax, a flattened head and an enormous pair of pincer-like jaws.

Their secret life: antlions have no anus; all their waste is finally discharged as meconium near the end of its pupal stage.

Rhinoceros Beetle
Photograph: Easy to see how the Rhinoceros Beetle gets its name!


Pound for pound, the rhinoceros beetle makes its namesake look tame. Prone to weight lifting up to 850 times their bodyweight the rhino beetle is way more aggressive than the rhino. It too has a rather impressive horn on its forehead in amongst the shining armour, which it uses to ward off other males. Despite their size and strength they are harmless to humans as they can neither sting nor bite.

Their secret life: their bark is worse than their bite – they are nocturnal, avoiding their predators during the day when they hide under logs or in amongst vegetation; when confronted they will hiss and squeak by rubbing their abdomens against the wing covers.


On safari. Anywhere where you’re in the ‘bush’ in South Africa you should find the Little five.

They are distributed around the country: the buffalo weaver mainly in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the elephant shrew in the bushveld (at sunset), the leopard tortoise in the arid Karoo, the rhino beetle in forested areas, and the ant lion anywhere there are ants.