Kruger Park in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province is stocked with all manner of fauna and flora, including more than 140 mammals and 500 species of birds, some of which are migratory. Most visitors come to Kruger to see the ‘big five’ — lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros — but often overlook the smaller creatures that inhabit the park. An unofficial list of the ‘little five’ — the antlion, eastern rock elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, red-billed buffalo-weaver and rhino beetle — has been compiled by conservationists in order to alert visitors to the other sightseeing possibilities in Kruger.
Antlion (Myrmeleontidae sp)
Much like the big cat after which it’s named, the antlion (also ant-lion or ant lion) waits for its prey in ambush. Unlike lions, however, antlions are solitary and cannot rely on the help of other members of their species to catch and kill their victims. The antlion is the larval form of a flying insect that resembles dragonflies and damselflies.
Antlions are usually found in sandy areas such as campsites where they create cone-shaped holes (this tendency to leave circular marks in the ground has led to their North American name – doodlebugs). The antlion waits for an unsuspecting ant to fall into its trap; there is usually no escape for the insect – the more it tries to scramble out of its predicament, the deeper it is drawn into the vortex-like hole.
The easiest way to observe an antlion closely is to gently swirl around a small twig in the creature’s hole. This will usually bring it to the surface without harming it, at which point you’ll be faced with a small bug, similar to a glow-worm, armed with outsized, vicious-looking mandibles that it uses to kill ants and suck out their juices.
Elephant Shrew (Elephantulus myurus)
Correctly known as the eastern rock elephant shrew, this small grey mammal has a body length of about 12 centimetres (4.7 inches), slightly shorter than its tail which is 14cm (5.5in) long. The shrew, which weighs about 60 grams, can be distinguished from other shrews by the black undersides to its feet and a white band around each eye.
Although it is undoubtedly more difficult to spot than any of the ‘big five’ (particularly its pachyderm namesake), the elephant shrew is fairly common, and is also active during the day and on nights with a full moon. It often falls prey to hawks, owls and snakes, and is itself partial to insects. The elephant shrew is thought to be monogamous, and inhabits hilly terrain where the best opportunity you’ll have to spot it is by watching out for its constantly twitching ears.
Leopard Tortoise (Geochelone pardalis)
As one of the largest tortoises in the world, the leopard tortoise is an impressive example of its species. Named for the black and yellow rosette-like patterns on its shell, which resemble those on a leopard’s skin, these tortoises are the most long-lived of the ‘little five’ and weigh more than 23 kilograms (51 pounds).
Found in grasslands and savannah, the leopard tortoise feasts on plants such as grasses and succulents, but is also known to eat hyena faeces and gnaw on bones in order to extract nutrients. Along with the red-billed buffalo-weaver, it’s probably one of the easiest members of the ‘little five’ to spot.
Red-Billed Buffalo-Weaver (Bubalornis niger)
This striking bird, which inhabits the far northern parts of South Africa, such as Kruger Park, is instantly recognisable owing to its black colouring, chunky, scarlet-red bill and white shoulder patches. The only confusion with other species (notably the pale-winged starling) may occur in flight, but the weaver’s heavy beak is usually an accurate giveaway.
At 24cm (9.4in) in length, the buffalo-weaver is the largest of its kind in the Kruger (the adult weighs between 65-80g), and builds large, untidy nests in tall trees. It frequents dry thornveld and woodland, and is a mainstay of Kruger’s Satara camp, where it is often seen foraging on the front lawn. In fact, the buffalo-weaver is one of the few species that has benefited from the disturbance caused by humans settling in the savannah.
Rhinoceros Beetle (Scarabaeinae dynastinae)
The rhino beetle, which is a subfamily of the scarab beetle, bears an uncanny resemblance to the massive land mammal after which it is named. Just as the white rhino looks like a prehistoric beast with its outsized, protruding horn and suit of natural armour, so the rhino beetle is covered in a tough, armour-plated shell with a large horn for fighting off rivals and digging holes in the ground.
Fortunately, the rhino beetle isn’t subject to the poaching that its larger namesake has had to endure, and is fairly widespread and common. But spotting these shiny, dark brown creatures isn’t always easy, with their diminutive size obviously being one of the limiting factors. The rhino beetle larva eats decomposing and rotting plant matter, unlike the adult which never feeds.