The Small Five of Africa

You may have heard of the Big Five – the leopard, rhino, elephant, lion, and Cape buffalo, originally named for being the hardest animals to hunt on foot. Today, with hunting largely prohibited, they’re five of most coveted safari sightings by wildlife spotters. But did you know there’s a complimentary Small Five?

They are the leopard tortoise, rhino beetle, elephant shrew, antlion, and buffalo weaver. Clearly, the clue is in the names! These five animals were not named for their difficulty in hunting, but grouped by conservationists as a tongue-in-cheek way to draw attention to Africa’s lesser-known wildlife. So, let’s get to know the members of the club.

African small five animals leopard tortoise buffalo weaver elephant shrew antlion rhinoceros beetle

Leopard tortoise

The leopard tortoise is named after its wonderfully patterned carapace, with black and yellow blotches or concentric shapes. The tortoise is widespread over eastern and southern Africa, from Cape town to the Sudan.

The leopard tortoise is the largest of the Small Five, with adults reaching around 40cm long (16 inches), and 13kg (29 lb).

Sketch of a leopard tortoise African reptile

Rhinoceros beetle

The rhinoceros beetle refers to a family of scarab beetles, with common names such as horn beetles, Hercules beetles, or unicorn beetles. Male rhinoceros beetles have a large horn on their head, and another protruding from the thorax to be used to challenge other males.

It’s estimated that rhinoceros beetles can lift up to 850 times their own weight (which would be like a human lifting nine male elephants), making them the strongest member of the Small Five.

Sketch of a rhino beetle from the African Small five

Elephant shrew

Elephant shrews, also known as sengi, and a group of mouse-sized mammals native to Africa. They are named for their long, tapered proboscis that is reminiscent of an elephant’s trunk.

Some species of elephant shrews are known for constructing and maintaining cleared pathways through grass and undergrowth. They use these pathways to patrol for insects, and to rapidly escape predators.

Sketch of elephant shrew small five African animal


The antlion is a group of over 2000 insect species that resemble a dragonfly or damselfly. While they typically only live for about 25 days in their adult form, it’s their larvae which are especially interesting. They look savage and ugly in this form, and are very dangerous to other insects.

The larvae are ambush predators, and create traps to ensnare other insects. They hide in leaves, wood, or even dig pits in soft sand to trap ants and other prey. Using poison and strong jaws, they are formidable hunters.

Small five insect antlion larvae pincers

Buffalo weaver

The buffalo weaver is an insect and fruit eating bird native to eastern and southern Africa. They are similar to finches, and are known for their amazing nest-building abilities. Their nests can become huge and elaborate, with spaces to house large social groups.

Sketch of African buffalo weaver native bird small five


There we have it! A very adorable small five to complement the famous big five African animals. There are other groups which have been put together too, like the Ugly Five (hyena, wildebeest, vulture, warthog and marabou stork), the Impossible Five (aardvark, Cape mountain leopard, pangolin, riverine rabbit and white lion), and the Shy Five (meerkat, aardvark, porcupine, aardwolf and bat-eared fox).

Have you been able to tick the Small Five off your sighting list? Or are they just too small and elusive? Let me know in the comments below!