Bushwise Field Guides


First and foremost, the labeling of animals as the “Big 5” has no scientific foundation and as such the writer, after much research realized that it is rather the symbolism of these animals that have led to the cliché! The term ‘Big Five’ today portrays the beauty and power of some of Africa’s most iconic animals, but it has a much darker history, and thus the reason to add a different perspective as to how and why this may have come about, hence the subtitle “the Symbolism of Animals in Africa”

Traditionally the grouping of ‘big 5’ animals were so-called by the “gentlemen” hunters, hunters who traveled to the African continent over the last two centuries for highly sought after trophies to display the exotic nature of the “individual gentlemen hunters” bravery…? These 5 mammals were considered the five most dangerous animals to hunt – primarily because they fought back! Africa’s big-five is characterized as lethal adversaries, all about horns, tusks, claws and teeth, hence their fearsome reputation and their reputations as crafty animals, with strong instincts for survival, which were difficult to track and very dangerous if wounded or cornered.

Selection was therefore due to the difficulty in hunting these dangerous animals which had entered Africa’s animal ‘Hall of Fame’ just because of the sheer danger (or thrills) when encountered and the degree of danger involved, rather than for their size, as in the case of the Leopard. Many a hunter lost his life to an injured buffalo which circled back and lay quietly in wait to wreak revenge on his aggressor, or to an elephant or rhino, whose enraged charge carried him on to crush his foe. Anybody with bush smarts should never underestimate the incredible speed and lethal jaws of a stalking lion or skulking leopard.

The Big 5 are not automatically aggressive, but will retaliate if harassed or if they feel threatened, (as would we as humans). They do have their place in history and hold numerous records and encounters with man in many animal attacks and other dangerous encounters which have been accounted for, while some have not been documented as the perpetrators have not survived!

All good and well you may be asking, yet how does this connect with the “Symbolism” mentioned earlier? Simply put, could it not be that the early pioneers and fortune seekers who met the various tribes scattered across the African continent centuries ago, tribes who held strong and firm beliefs regarding the spiritual world, their connections with Mother Earth, life after death and having the qualities bestowed upon them, as observed from the Creatures (such as the Big 5) that they hunted for food and clothing. Could they and did they not ‘rub off’ on these early settlers and explorers? It is well known that the Zulu Kingdom view the wearing of Leopard skins, for example, as a sign of courage and bravery since part of this belief is that to be considered a person bearing such qualities, you had to as an initiate into the adult world, hunt the animal with primitive weapons and use skills such as stealth, patience and cunning (all qualities of a leopard) to survive the test to prove your worthiness to the King (and to impress the ladies no doubt)! Yet they did not proceed to wipe out the entire population of leopards in Africa, as a balance was always maintained.

Thus, apart from the fact that avarice, greed, wealth, status and reputation amongst others were reasons why these creatures were persecuted by the “Gentlemen hunters” that has led to the expression “Big 5”, I have researched a few myths and beliefs surrounding these animals that explain the perceived qualities that would be bestowed upon the “hunter” to further make for some interesting reading,  and perhaps justify the origin of the expression “The Big 5”, and dare I say, spark some …debate!


King of Beasts

The Zulu word for lion means ‘the master of all flesh’.  This name consists of two words, ngo, meaning very high, and nyama (Ngonyama), which means ‘flesh’ or power. Another Zulu term for lion is ibubesi, meaning ‘to make the final decision’, supporting the belief that the lion is king of the beasts.

In Shangaan, ‘ku va nghala‘, or simply, Ngala, ‘to be a lion’ refers to being brave or translates ‘to fight like a lion’. Amongst the peoples of Europe, the Lion was believed to be the King of Beasts but in Africa this was not so as the people knew of animals that were more powerful and fearsome than the lion (such as hippo, elephant and rhinoceros) However, Africans revered the lion as the JUDGE of the animal Kingdom, a judge who weeded out the weak (antelopes) by eating them and mad hyena’s (free loaders) by killing them. When Africans use proverbs to say that justice will prevail they will use this: – “The mad hyena who causes other animals to weep will feel the heavy paw of the Heavenly lion fall upon him”.

Although most tribes in Africa revered and admired the lion there were a few who viewed this noble beast as the very personification of evil. These tribes, which generally kept large herds of cattle (the favourite food of lions), named the lion “the beast of a thousand omens” fueled by shamans and healers. Like all cats and other catlike animals, the living lion is believed by some African tribes to possess powers to protect the Earth from demonic entities!

Starting to see where I am going with this from a European perspective? Inheriting the “powers” to justify hunting! (Not to mention a few Cults, Regimes etc.)


The Noble Leopard

All African tribes regard the leopard as an animal that symbolizes all that is noble, courageous and honorable.  It is called ingwe by the Zulus. This word originally meant ‘pure sovereignty’ or ‘pure kingship’. In very ancient times, a king who supposedly ruled over other kings was called nkwetona or the Leopard – Embodying ferocity, aggression, being the Great Watcher, and courage. Traditional cultures which use the leopard skin as ceremonial attire revere leopards, and consider it a totem animal with special powers. In European cultures, often referred to as the “Prince of darkness”, whilst in Africa the natives believe that they are animal guides for the spirits of the dead, and help them to find their final resting place. Their eyesight is among the keenest of all animals on land, enabling them to hunt at dusk and dawn when the light is not its brightest. This characteristic greatly contributes to the idea that they are indeed imbued with the ability to see what others cannot. A Leopards colouring helps it to camouflage itself from predators and prey, this characteristic lends itself to their virtue of ‘shape shifting’ and their ability to fool those who seek to harm them. The Leopard possesses many animal virtues that are powerful and valuable and which any person would be wise to emulate or divine. One who has the power of the Leopard will see enhanced personal power and self-confidence, gracefulness and stealth!

All qualities, I imagine, we would all love to be imbued with from a spiritual point of view!


The Unstoppable One

African people regard the elephant with a very deep reverence. The Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga names for the elephant all mean ‘the forceful one’, ‘the unstoppable one’.  In Zulu, the name for an elephant means to ‘crash through’ or ‘to pierce savagely’. People believe that elephants were not merely animals but were rather supernatural beings or gods and that ivory as well as the bones of the elephant were the purest substances known. Out of ivory African people used to carve their holiest images. (Busts of gods and goddesses as well as those of god-kings and queens), and it is still believed even now that ornaments made of ivory possess great magical powers and they enable the possessor of them to enjoy heavenly protection always.

Little wonder the pandemic we face!


Black rhino

Umkhombe in most African tribes, has the meaning of: ‘a fierce, savage person; a person who is furious or in a towering rage’, which is a metaphorical allusion to the black rhino’s characteristically fierce behavior towards humans. Rhinos are full of contradictions and surprising elements. For example, they are known to display aggressive behavior in the wild – most notably when threatened. But they are also quite passive and gentle beasts and are thought of as a symbol of judgement, freedom, solitude, agility and movement, inner peace, and unconventionality.

Human traits we all share and aspire towards!



Africans call the Cape Buffalo by an extremely interesting name, a name, which shows the depth of knowledge that, they possessed regarding this animal. The word refers to FERTILITY and NUTRITION. Once upon a time buffaloes in their millions and their cousins the wildebeests in their tens of millions, criss-crossed the Southern African landscape in endless migration exactly as they still do in the Masai, albeit in somewhat reduced numbers. Africans observed in those long-gone years how the dung of these huge animals brought fertility to the land, and they named the Buffalo by the name it still carries to this day; – “THE ONE WHO FERTILIZES THE LAND AND GIVES US GOOD EATING”. (Emphasis on fertility and good eating from a European point of view, nothing derogatory, simply, a lifestyle of excess symbolism!)

Interestingly dreams about buffaloes translate that if you are in trouble and you dream of a buffalo standing and facing you and chewing grass, it means that you will meet a powerful friend who will help you out of trouble. The worst dream that one can dream about a buffalo is that of being chased by one … which means that you will be attacked and defeated by a very powerful enemy. Zulus have a saying; – “He who has dreamt of an angry buffalo that has lost (a battle), wake up and run away”. This rings true for many a Europeans’ hunter experience having witnessed a buffalo run away and hide behind a bush for hours with the hunters .458 magnum round having gone through its heart, still alive and ready to fight!

For the reader, views and statements are the writers’ thoughts and are not intended to offend or condone nor justify actions from Africa’s past, nor is it the viewpoint of Bushwise Field Guides, it is merely an attempt to conceptualize what took place centuries ago when survival of the fittest was the order of the day, and to acknowledge that we as individuals need to be the change we would like to see in the world!

Hamba Gahle! uMghani (Go in Peace, friends)