I’ve been working on the following text for an upcoming post on my blog, and since most of them are mammals I thought I’d run it through here first. Any comments or corrections would be appreciated!
Thanks in advance!
The New Big 5: The most difficult animals to spot in the wild
The Big 5 is a term trophy hunters in Africa coined to list the five most difficult and dangerous animals to add to their walls: the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Today tourists to Africa still use it as a metric of how successful their safari was. “Oh it was amazing, we saw four of the Big 5!” In cases like this, you can usually assume it was the leopard that got away.
Since safaris and wildlife tourism have taken on a more bloodless nature, that has made it physically easier for the human and infinitely more pleasant for the animal. So with that in mind, it’s time for an update, for there are animals that don’t even afford a sighting in the wild without a significant amount of effort.
#5: Snow leopard
Quite possibly the most beautiful big cat, this animal is to wildlife photographers what Moby Dick is to whalers. Distributed across the Himalayas, no small area, it is a master of disguise and rock climbing alike. Finding one requires a telescope and a strong will, for hours will be spent scanning the rock face – and carefully too, for its camouflage is such that one can be looking right at it and be none the wiser. The only thing that keeps it from being further up the list is the existence of a bit of a tourism industry built up around this big cat in Hemis National Park in Ladakh, where sightings have become regular enough that now there are tours on can go on and guides that can be hired to help with the hunt for them. Rumbak Valley is considered a hotspot for them, and it’s mercifully close to the regional capital of Leh. On a less merciful note, winter is the best time to go looking as they are more active in the hunt for their prey at that time.
#4: Javan Rhino
One of the world’s rarest animals, there are fewer than sixty in the wild and they all inhabit one not-quite-an-island piece of land on the tip of Java – Ujung Kulon National Park. They used to live across most of southeast Asia, and the only reason they’re not extinct is the eruption of Krakatoa, one of the deadliest in human history, and a subsequent tsunami that rendered the peninsula uninhabitable. Ironically another one could be disastrous for the rhino’s existence…
Visiting the park itself is actually rather easy thanks to the presence of accommodation on Peucang Island, near to “Rhino Central”, but expensive thanks to needing a boat to get anywhere. Getting to the island involves a ride from the village of Taman Jaya, which itself can be reached from Jakarta in a day by bus if you set off early enough. From either point you can arrange for rangers to take you on the lengthy boat ride and trek through RC. You would need at least a week to realistically stand a chance of seeing a rhino.
#3: Giant Panda
There are hundreds of panda centres around Sichuan province that make seeing one in captivity, feeding and even cuddling one easy as pie. Finding one in the wild is a completely different matter. Hiring a guide or going on a tour is paramount, for two main reasons. First, China’s national parks and nature reserves can be fairly fickle when it comes to allowing foreigners or even people in general access, sometimes opening up a small section or not at all for years at a time before reopening and reclosing. Who knows what this depends on, but I’ve heard tell that it can be the director’s mood at the time. Don’t expect them to have announced this publicly. Your guide will likely be able to make arrangements with the powers that be, or at the very least know if it’s scuppered so that the trip is not wasted. Wolong, Qinling and Foping Nature Reserves are the main spots to go looking, assuming you’re able to get in. Once you’re in you’ll almost doubtlessly have to trek for an age and a day to stand a chance of spotting Po. Pandas are solitary with huge territories, and they’re far more inconspicuous than you may suppose. As a result some of the trekking could involve going off the trail altogether.
Oh, and one other thing: panda watching tours were illegal for a brief period in 2013 to… I can’t tell when it ended. Heck, I can’t even tell if it ended in an official capacity. The story goes, concerns over the possibility that the tours were “ecoterrorising” pandas (I haven’t a clue what that means) led to the Chinese government banning them altogether. And indeed, on mammalwatching.com’s China section there is a gap in giant panda sightings from that period onwards, which seems to have ended in 2018. So it would appear they’re back on, but it’s a seriously opaque situation.
Probably the strangest animal on this list, the okapi looks like a giraffe-tapir-zebra mish-mash, and inhabits a small portion of the Congolese rainforest. Calling it the “deepest, darkest” part would not be entirely inaccurate. This part is exclusively located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country racked with instability and more wars than one can keep track of. To say tourist infrastructure is lacking would be an understatement. To make things even better the national parks in which the okapi lives are blighted by poaching and even the rangers’ headquarters themselves, kept functional by significant donations from abroad and the presence of international NGOs, are not immune to full-scale attacks from rebel groups. Poaching has made the few surviving okapi incredibly wary of humans and there are plenty of hiding places in the thick jungle.
#1: Sumatran Rhino
If you thought the Javan rhino would be tough, you may wish to immediately abandon all hope of seeing this rhino in the wild. This rhino is actually more common than its Javan cousin numbers-wise, but that’s an incredibly low bar. The crew of the recent BBC wildlife documentary Seven Worlds One Planet had to settle on filming one in captivity, and if you’ve watched enough of David Attenborough’s documentaries you’ll already know how mammoth are the efforts the film crews typically put into finding their quarries.
For another illustration of how this animal may as well be mythological: Royle Safaris, a tour outfit, has published trip reports in which they’ve managed to show their guests some pretty rare stuff, including three of the animals on this list. There’s really no way to say that without sounding like I’m being sponsored by them, but it’s the truth. The Sumatran rhino finally fed them humble pie in 2019. After fighting a slew of bureaucracy and security to make sure they were not poachers or would sell that info to folks with less than honourable intentions, they were taken by a team of rangers to a secret location said to be the best area for them. Two weeks they spent in this area of forest. They came up with signs of the rhino, but alas, no rhino itself.
The most endangered bird in the world and a conservation success story, the kakapo is a large, flightless, nocturnal parrot that lives on two tiny islands off New Zealand. The only hope of getting to these islands is to find yourself in the employ of the country’s national parks service, a zoology society or the BBC wildlife division. Casual visitors are not permitted. The only thing keeping the kakapo off this list is the fact that it may not actually be that difficult to find once you set foot on the islands. Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry certainly had little difficulty while filming Last Chance to See II in finding one. It then proceeded to climb Carwardine’s back and shag the back of his head. So realistically, it’s only the human barriers that keep one from seeing this rare bird. They exist with good reason though: this species hangs on by a thread, its populations having been decimated by introduced pests. These islands are clear from such threats but the accidental introduction of a stowaway bug on your luggage or, god forbid, rats in your boat, could spell disaster.