Have you seen the African Impossible 5?

You’ve seen the Big 5, here’s a new challenge. If you’ve been on a safari holiday you’re probably aware of the African Big 5 of lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Many guides will help guests tick these iconic animals off their wish list, in some cases in a single afternoon. However, there’s more to safari wildlife than these five species, and for those looking for a real challenge there’s the African Impossible 5.

The aardvark

The aardvark is up first. Seeing one is made difficult as they are solitary, nocturnal and live in burrows. Their main foodstuffs are ants and termites which are typically active after dark. Aardvarks come out at night to sniff out their food when many safari goers are back at their lodge enjoying dinner or a good night’s sleep. One of the best places to see aardvarks is the Kwandwe Reserve during their winter months – May to August – when termites and aardvarks both come out during the day.


The riverine rabbit

Next member of the Impossible 5 is the riverine rabbit, one of the world’s most endangered species. With a low breeding rate (unlike most rabbits) and a limited distribution in mostly unprotected areas, it is thought there are only around 250 living adults. It’s another nocturnal animal, resting in shallow scrapes in the ground during the day. South Africa’s Karoo National Park is one of the few places riverine rabbits enjoy a protected status.


The white lion

White lions occur naturally due to a genetic mutation. A population exists in the wild in the private Timbavati area within the Kruger National Park ecosystem, while a single male was seen in the Umfolozi National Park in KwaZulu Natal. The colour doesn’t seem to disadvantage them, with white lions hunting equally successfully as those with normal coloured fur.


The pangolin

Number four, the pangolin, is the only one of the Impossible 5 that I’ve actually seen. In my case it was in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, but they have a large range across much of the continent with other species living across Asia. Like aardvarks they eat insects and are nocturnal.  Unlike aardvarks they’re been driven almost to extinction by illegal hunting and trade among other things. In both Africa and Asia their scales are thought to have medicinal qualities and in Asia their meat is considered a delicacy.

pangolin tswalu south africa

The Cape mountain leopard

The Cape mountain leopard is the final member of the Impossible 5. As its name suggests it is found (or not) in rugged mountains close to Cape Town and it is the urbanisation of this region which is the major threat to numbers. Significantly smaller than leopards found elsewhere in Africa, the Cape mountain leopard feeds on porcupines, rock hyrax and klipspringers across a bigger home range than its larger cousins.

cape leopard 'Hugo' Cape Leopartd Trust

Good luck in your search. If you do find these five, you’ll be among a very few who ever have.

Richard Smith is Operations Director at Aardvark Safaris.

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Comments (4)

  1. Sara Essop says:

    I was lucky enough to see the aardvark in the wild but not the others. Everytime I go on safari, I look forward to seeing them though.

  2. Mike says:

    Ha, ha! An interesting quest. The pangolin is so bizzare. I was in South Luangwa Nat Pk years ago but, alas, never saw one.
    Is there a prize if you see all five?

  3. Richard Smith says:

    Interestingly Mike the South Luangwa is where I saw my one and only pangolin.

    If you see all five, you then get to start working on seeing all of the ‘shy five’.

  4. John says:

    What about the caracal and leopard tortoise? Most of the small cats are elusive and nocturnal. All my time in the wild I never came across the Aardvark.

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