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Why Africa's BIG 5 is a FALLACY


It always strikes me as quite bizarre that Africa is known best for its Big 5 when it has so much to offer. Who came up with that after all? Who exactly stood at the end of the gangplank watching all the animals marching past two-by-two: from the scurrying sun-striped long-nosed tencent, to the grinning chimpanzee, lumbering gorilla, and ponderous hippopotamus and thought... yes those 5 will do nicely. We can market Africa on those...

The story goes that it was 'gentlemen hunters' who coined the term because these 5 animals were the most difficult and dangerous of all to bring back as trophies to hang on their colonial walls.


Don't get me wrong, I am not debating the magnificence of these animals at all.

There is nothing quite like that heart-thumping awe you feel when an elephant sways across your path, or the light catches the mane of a yawning lion. An awe that a yapping impala just doesn't quite manage to evoke in the same way. That is of course until a true bush-lover fills you in on the story of what makes that seemingly common animal so unique and entrancing.


The issue I have, is that of all the incredible species on our continent (let alone the incredible cultures, landscapes, heritage, nature, experiences etc) we have confined our sales proposition to just those 5. With a gorilla, and maybe at a real push a chimp, thrown in on the side once in a while if you are lucky.


How does it come to be that we have so diminished the inordinate wonders our continent holds, based purely on a colonial definition invented by khaki-clad, rifle-carrying men, followed by a troop of servants in waiting? How does it come to be that this colonial notion is what defines tourism and wildlife tourism on the continent?


Is it not time that we move on from this fallacy?

That being said, what the Big 5 has taught us is that charismatic species can be powerful marketing magnets. So instead of throwing the baby-out-with-the-bath-water, as we have the penchant of doing anytime we smell a whiff of a de-colonisation rhetoric to latch onto. Let us take this concept and re-Africanise it so that we can unlock its full potential.

How you ask? I have a clear picture of how we could do this powerfully at a continental, regional, country and destination level. Utilising a number of layered charismatic themes that illustrate the true depth, diversity and wonder of our continent in its multi-dimensional compelling richness. Of that I am certain since I have mapped and profiled Africa's tourism assets and products in detail across the entire continent for the African Union.


Okay I hear you say but what would that look like?

Come with me on an adventure to Kenya, the home of our traditional Big 5 and let me show you what it would look like if we swopped our colonial Big 5 for another charismatic Big 5 of Landscape | Culture | Heritage | Nature | Wildlife.


Follow me as we travel across the vast plains of the Masai Mara. Past the picture postcard shot of the single acacia tree just catching the breath of the fire of the African sunset. Past the inordinate long necks of the giraffes with their extraordinary black tongues that are able to pick the choicest of leaves and handle thorns that would rip our hands to shreds. Past even the plains' most intelligent species, the cackling spotted hyena, scoping for rudimentary tools to solve its latest puzzle.


Let us travel to the coast... no no you are going the wrong way... We are going west not east, to Kisumu County, in search of Kenya's other coastline which runs along the shores of the charismatic “Landscape” of Lake Victoria. Glinting cerulean and ultramarine in the sunlight, this largest Lake in Africa (and second largest in the world) feels far more like a tropical inland sea, so I hope you came prepared.


We are going to cross over the Lake at Mbita to Rusinga Island. Where the white sandy beaches meet dense tropical forest and grassland in a heavenly “Nature” paradise where hippos bath along the shore; fish eagles swoop down to catch the colourful cichlids fish so prized by aquarists; and giant monitor lizards catch rays on the rocks, and hundreds of birds serenade you as dusk falls.


You would be gravely mistaken in thinking this is the only “Nature” and “Wildlife” riches on offer. Poke just beneath the surface and you will find that this paradise gives way to reveal a rich natural heritage of fossilised forests and mammals dating back 18 million years. It is here, on this island, that the famous anthropologist Mary Leakey found the 3 million year old skull of 'Proconsul Africanus,' the anthropoid ape who brought Darwin’s theory of evolution to life for us. Talk about Big-5 wildlife!


But its natural and cultural “Heritage” does not end there… the Rusinga and its sister island Mfangano positively swirl with mysticism and legends. Brought to life in a myriad of ancient rock art sites thought to have been created by the forgotten Twa people, who once lived in the Great Lakes region of Africa. As well as dozens of sacred sites of rainmaking, healing, and protection, woven together with the supernatural power of storytelling.


But that is not all that makes Rusingo and Mfangano so special. These islands are also where you can experience the “Culture” of the great but endangered AbaSuba people. Although many mistakenly consider the island inhabitants to be Luo, these Bantu people have a marvellous distinct and colourful culture that must be experienced.


If you are really wise you will plan your trip to coincide with the annual Rusingo Festival that the visionary Anne Eboso established to help promote and preserve Abasuba culture. This 2-day bucketlist festival is an absolute feast for your senses. It is a colourful cultural celebration of music, dance, storytelling, fashion, food, art, wrestling and boat competitions designed to immerse you in the beating heart of Suba Culture.


As we stand together on Kolunga beach, witnessing the ethereal floating Ghost City that appears blinking over Lake Victoria at night, as the fishermen embark on their age-old fishing practices. I cannot help but marvel at the facets of this one small Big-5 gem that Kenya has to offer within its kaleidoscope of splendours. Just imagine what would happen if we stitched all the country’s, region’s and continent’s Big-5 gems together to reveal the true wealth of Africa.


Want to know more about the fantastical experiences our continent has to offer?

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And take a read of these:

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  • If Africa's regions were travellers this is who they would be