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Big Five, Ugly Five, Fab Five, and … Cute Five

Ten minutes after we’re met by our driver, he pulls the jeep over to show us a mother and baby elephant feasting on an acacia tree. Already, Lucas is teaching us more than we came to learn. He tells us the acacia tree being devoured is transmitting warning signals through the air to other trees in the area. Those trees will change their flavor to something the elephants won’t like. Mom and baby may have gotten this tree, but others will be saved by the timely transmitting of telepathic information (or should I call it aeropathic information?). Even the vegetarian prey is savvy here in Kenya.

2. elephant mom and baby

“The elephant’s digestive system is very poor. Look at their dung, almost no nutrients are retained,” Lucas says.


I didn’t expect to be studying elephant poop when we boarded our first safari jumper plane at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Later, we’ll see a family of mongoose feeding on dung beetles and the partially digested elephant’s food as Lucas predicted.


Nearby, another type of acacia tree full of small globes that look like fruit rests untouched by the elephants who devour hundreds of pounds of food a day resulting in only a morsel of nutrient absorbed. We assume the long thorns keep them away. Lucas tells us differently.

“It’s the ants. The balls that look like fruit are ant’s nests” he says.

Not very big, but very bad, the ants sting hungry animals as they approach their tree of nests. These ants and some acacia trees have a symbiotic relationship with both parties getting something out of the pairing except, the elephants, whose side we normally take, but for some reason, we’re starting to root for the underdog and unsung hero. Without the acacia trees, the ecosystem would collapse and the elephants would die off. A delicate balance that requires small ants to help preserve it.

Lucas demonstrates how to take photos at ground level by leaning over the side of the jeep with our arms outstretched and snapping the picture below the area of focus. I finally realize why my new Sony camera has a flip-up LCD screen. I try it out on a family of Egyptian Geese.

Egyptian geese

For the next two weeks, I practice this technique and complain when we are given a closed vehicle that is ‘safer’ but doesn’t allow for this type of photography. They relent and exchange it for an open-air vehicle once they realize Lucas has spoiled us for all others. Before I get to those stories, Lucas has more to teach us. When driving through the village of Talek on the outskirts of the Maasai Mara, Lucas points to three large birds that look like sea posts.

“That’s the Marabou Stork. It’s one of the Ugly Five,” he says.

Whoa. We hadn’t heard of the Ugly Five. Tell us more. Unofficially, or somewhat officially, in certain tourist circles, the Ugly Five are comprised of five species: hyena, warthog, wildebeest, vulture, and marabou stork. I take some issue with the warthog and wildebeest being on this list. Warthogs remind me of our dog, Leo, the way they run with straight legs and their tail up in the air like they are about to tattle on someone. Wildebeest look like sad sacks at first, but after seeing them in various light, their coats offer complex shades of black, gray and cream. The strands of black fur running down the top of their sides serve as a stationary vertical pattern for their black mane to move across the top creating a striking visual of moving vs stationary lines. When the sun is on the horizon, their blonde goatee allows light to shine through it creating a luminescent effect. Most people disagree with me about the wildebeest.


Some animals transcend the terms “Big” and “Ugly” by simply being fabulous. We added this new category for our favorites selecting the cheetah for its playfulness, the ostrich for its pink neck and pink legs (the pinker the color, the more females will be attracted to the male), the lilac breasted roller for its colorful wings, the hippo because it’s a hippo and the crane for its precision mohawk. Here is our Fab Five in all their glory.

1. cheetah3
1. Ostrich
2. Hippo3

We may have gotten carried away with our lists of animals when we created a list for the “Cute Five”. Full of personality, our choices for this category are Gazelle, Dik-dik, Baboon, Klipspringer, and Jackal. Choosing an omnivore for the cute list took a bit of back and forth. The jackal made the list for its relationship to the dog and its face had more interest than the nearest contender, the superb starling (and it was easier to photograph than the flighty bird).



Back to the Big Five. I described how the Big Five list came about and which animals are on it in one of my first blogs. In our second sighting of a Big Five member, we ogled over lions mating. Videos of that voyeur experience are posted in this blog. We spent hours observing a pride of lions and their cubs practicing a chase against wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles. As depicted in the Lion King by Simba’s early years, cubs don’t take any of this seriously, they play before during, and after the hunt. I captured their play in a video posted to this blog.

Even though we checked off all five of the big game hunter’s list in the Serengeti, we took better photos of the rhino in the Ngorongoro Crater and of the lions and elephants in Naboisho Mara Conservancey. Here’s our line-up for the big list: elephants in Naboisho, a lion in Naboisho, a male leopard in the Serengeti, a lone buffalo in the Serengeti, and a black rhino and calf in Ngorongoro Crater.

2a. elephant walking
4. Lion2
3. Male Leopard
1. Buffalo
5. magnifed rhino and baby

As mentioned, the rhino pictures were taken in Ngorongoro Crater at a great distance. That’s not where the most interesting sighting occurred for which I didn’t get pictures. The tale of “The Great Rhino Jeep Chase” is worth sharing in hopes of something being learned or at least having a good laugh. Here’s that story.

Photographers, in search of the perfect rhino photo, are as competitive as big game hunters from yesteryear. At least that’s what it felt like in the heat of the pursuit. It’s about 7am on an October morning.  For the past hour, we’ve been in search of one of the forty horned beasts that live in the park bundled in our Maasai warrior blankets, buffs, and layers of jackets. The yellow jeep next to us has experienced hunters, I mean photographers, who carry huge telephoto lenses signaling how seriously they take this sport. These experts see him first. Their guide says something in Swahili to our guide. Guides speak in Swahili to one another so that tourists don’t get their hopes up from something one guide said to another. On this morning, we know what the guides are saying from the look of blood in the hunters’ eyes. Peering through the binoculars, Dave and our guide see the black rhino on the hillside between the palm trees by the zebras, next to the group of wildebeests, near the third gazelle from the right.  I’m slow when it comes to things like this. “Where is it?” I ask at least three times. Dave tries to tell me, but his directions are confusing to me. Did I mention it’s 7am in the morning? Our guide (it’s not Lucas) loses himself in the moment, uncovers his camera with the long telephoto lens from under the bags on the seat next to him and snaps a picture. I notice this, of course, since I am the only one not seeing the animal, and I didn’t know he was packing equipment. Dave points between two bushes. “There, THERE!,” he says. I finally see the phantom creature for about 3, or maybe 5, seconds before it goes behind another bush. The hunt is on. Reminiscent of the great OJ car chase in southern California, every jeep within a mile descends on the location of the last rhino sighting. The frenzied procession gets stalled in front of a narrow, steep, and extremely rutted crossing (requires 4-wheel drive) which leads to an area of the park that is off limits. No one cares about boundaries when chasing after a rhino. We make our way to the illegal crossing. We’re third in line to enter forbidden territory. Then, an irritating thing happens. Several of the other vehicles cut in front of us. We end up sixth in line to cross. I say something like “What the fuck?”  The other tourists hear me, but say nothing about the rightness or wrongness of the situation (I’m pretty sure “fuck” is understood by most non-English speakers). Up to this point, our guide has been argumentative and arrogant with me  – ever since I asked for an open-air vehicle to take photos the way Lucas showed me. Now, in front of his peers, our antagonistic guide decides to be “nice” and let the others go first. We never see the rhino again. We go back to the lodge, only one of us took a photo, the guide. I decide to make him squirm. I tell him the title of my next blog will be, “When it comes to spotting a rhino, it’s every man for himself.” He’s smart and understands my sarcasm. I take photos of the vehicles who cut in front of us with the intention of sending them to Asilia, the company these aggressive guides work for. I never do. Later, we will get photos of a rhino in the Ngorongoro Crater. We’ll only care about this chaotic scene for its absurdity value. I tell you, for the 3 or 5 seconds I saw it, that rhino was hauling ass. All the other animals were moving out of its way. Jeeps from all around tried to close in on it. I should have filmed the surrounding mayhem and forgotten about trying to snap pictures of the rhino.

On another day, also in the Serengeti, we watched a pair of leopards at various times of the day who may decide to mate. At the time of our meeting, theirs was a relationship still in the courting phase, sharing a meal, an occasional sleepover from afar, and a fight or two that left her with a gash on her backside. If she decides that he’s the one, they’ll have the same mating pattern as the lion, i.e., 3 days, 24 hours a day, every 10 to 15 minutes. The female is featured below hiding in the grass from the jeep squad that has just infiltrated the area. It’s safari protocol for the guides to radio each other when they spot an animal of interest. Hence the mob scene in the middle of her lair.

3a. female leopard

On that same day in the Serengeti, we learn that lone, male buffaloes are cantankerous and dangerous. Perhaps they’re bitter from being kicked out of their group, or maybe they spend too much time on their own and no longer care for the sight of others. When encountered in the wrong moment, a lone male buffalo will flash from awareness to fight in a second without advance warning. Unlike lions and elephants who play by gentlemen’s rules, the lone male buffalo believes all is fair in love and war. The one on the right gave us a run for the money. First, he gave us a stare that looked like contempt.  “He” is the one on the right looking like he wants to see our Driver’s License.


Then, Mr. Mean turned and started to amble away as you’ll see in the video. In a moment he changed his mind – or, he was faking us out all along. He turned back towards us and charged the vehicle. Up until then, I had my doubts that the prehistoric-looking soldier is one of the most dangerous beasts. Rest assured, you can believe the hype.

Did you notice anyone missing? Giraffe didn’t make any of our lists! Like family, they have a special place in our hearts as the silent observers of the savannah. This curious baby with its mother is only about a week old.

Baby and mom2

And, a couple more just because we can’t stop ourselves and giraffes can’t take a bad picture.


As the sunsets around safari lodges, they have a practice called “Having a Sundowner” which is the equivalent of Happy Hour. To close out this article, here are a few choice spots to have a Sundowner. While I’m thinking of it, a few other phrases that will help you after the Sundowner:

  1. “I need to pick some flowers” is the female version of “I have to pee”

  2. “Time to check the tires” is the male version of the same

Small things change the world. This phrase was repeated throughout “The Wider Earth”, a play we saw two days ago at London’s Natural History Museum. Staged in a purpose-built theater, the play showcases some of Darwin’s lesser known discoveries near Tierra del Fuego, South America. The small, seemingly insignificant observations Darwin made formed the basis for his theories on the evolution of species and the geological events that created mountains and other massive formations. Each time I heard the actors say “small things change the world”, I thought about the termites of the Maasai Mara and Serengeti whose work it is to churn and enrich the soil for vegetation making it possible for large herbivores to feast on the bounty, and aardvarks to feed and create homes for the many small creatures needing shelter. I remembered the stories Lucas told us about stinging ants saving acacia trees on our first safari drive. He taught us how to see the signs of small things happening beneath the surface creating an entire ecosystem of life. On this trip that we took to see the Big Five, we saw much more than the majesties of the kingdom. We saw the fabulous, the cute, and even the ugly – appreciating them for their beauty and for the important role they play in the circle of life (borrowing a line from the Lion King which we also saw while in London). We left Eastern Africa with it seeming more familiar than it should, having made friends along the way that we’re sure to see again. We arrive home knowing how small things make a difference. This fills us with the hope that maybe our small projects too can make a difference in the kids lives we touch with our songs, dance, and arts. We hope they remember us for our smiles and our hearts, the way we will remember them.

Speaking of small projects, next up: The Maasai – their way of life and our kids day camp for Maasai children in Lemugur Village, Tanzania.

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