While Africa’s ‘Big Five’ is arguably the most popular group of animals on the continent, the term shining light on their path to extinction, other species that are just as vulnerable do not receive the same attention, and therefore do not benefit from the same level of conservation efforts. Who are Africa’s ‘Forgotten Five’?

The ‘Big Five’- a term coined by big-game hunters- refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot, and is now a more widely-used term. The lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and African buffalo have come to exemplify Africa’s exotic wilderness.

While all of these animals are experiencing declining populations due to poaching and are all classified as ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, being part of the ‘Big Five’ ensemble has accorded them a significant amount of conservation effort aimed towards protecting them against poaching, habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict. 

Remembering Africa’s “Forgotten Five”
Also known as the ‘Barometer of Life’, the Red List allows conservationists to identify which species need the most help (Source: Birdlife.org).

The ‘Forgotten Five’ is a term coined by Namibia’s Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST), founded in 2000 by Maria Diekmann. The trust aims to raise public consciousness on some of Africa’s neglected species. They are the Cape vulture, Temminck’s pangolin, Damara dik-dik, Anchieta’s dwarf python and spotted rubber frog.

Cape Griffon Vulture

The Cape Vulture is threatened mainly by electrocution from flying into electric lines, and poisoning. Farmers used to poison the bodies of dead vultures and set them out as bait to kill the predators threatening their livestock, such as jackals. While Cape Vultures are practically harmless to livestock as they are scavengers, they inadvertently die of poisoning when they unknowingly feed on poisoned carcasses. Since these highly social birds tend to feast together in large flocks, a great many can be killed simultaneously. According to Diekmann, a single poisoned carcass ‘can kill 50 to 100 birds at once’. 

Although REST succeeded in halting the farmers’ indiscriminate baiting practices, the threat remains, now in the form of poisoning by hunters who wish to profit from the traditional medicine market. Some customs believe that eating the brains of vultures can endow one with the ability of a seer. 

The Cape Vulture was declared ‘extinct as a breeding species’ in Namibia, Eswatini and central Zimbabwe in 1994, 1997 and 2015 respectively. The latest population assessment in 2016 estimated a remaining population of 9 400 individuals in South Africa, with numbers dwindling fast.

The plight of Cape Vultures is not unique to them. Its Asian counterparts suffered mass poisoning from the drug Diclofenac, used to treat cattle. So severe was the decline in the populations of the Asian vultures that some researchers called it the ‘Asian Vulture Crisis’. Illustrating the extent of the crisis, the White-rumped Vulture population experienced a staggering drop from several millions in the 1990s to less than 10 000 in 2017. Despite numerous governments prohibiting the usage of Diclofenac, the vultures are still reeling from the effects- four out of the five species of vultures native to Asia are still critically endangered today. Fortunately, breeding schemes have been in place for some time, bringing hope to these vultures.

Vultures are often viewed as greedy and malicious, however they are nature’s best cleaners due to their role in preventing the spread of diseases by eating carcasses. Conservation groups are endeavouring to raise awareness about these animals and their role in the ecosystem, and public opinion will hopefully sway in their favour. 

Temminck’s Pangolin

All eight species of pangolin are characterised as the world’s most trafficked mammal. Distributed between Asia and Africa, the four species from Asia are at greater risk of extinction, being listed from ‘endangered’ to ‘critically endangered’. Rising demand for pangolin parts has led poachers to turn their attention from Asian pangolins to their African counterparts– the Temminck’s pangolin residing in southern Africa, and its three African cousins spread around central Africa. In the past ten years, the total number of pangolins trafficked is potentially up to a million. This is compounded by their slow reproduction rate of one offspring a year.

China and Vietnam have been identified as the main drivers of demand for the poaching of the pangolin’s body parts, particularly their scales. It is believed in some Asian countries that the scales have healing properties capable of curing a range of ailments, from asthma to cancer. And like the Cape vulture, pangolin meat is revered in some cultures for having mystical properties. Some African cultures respectfully refer to the pangolin as the “ghost animal”, but some communities in East Africa burn pangolins to ward off lions. To curb the practice, REST proposes a solution whereby village heads are invited to meet with the organisation to observe rescued pangolins and to take pictures with them, as the villagers see more power in the photograph than the meat. Much more needs to be done for pangolins, and numerous organisations are working tirelessly to achieve that, one of them being the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG). Dedicated to rescuing the four African pangolin species, one aspect of their work involves training canines to recognise the scent of pangolins to aid their rescues.

Damara Dik-Dik

Dik-diks are essentially mini-antelopes and they get their name from the ‘zik-zik’ cry they make when faced with danger. There are four species of dik-diks in the world, each residing throughout Africa. The Damara dik-dik, also known as Kirk’s dik-dik, is the largest, but still only growing to be 40 centimetres tall. Their size means that they have plenty of predators to watch out for; hiding is their primary survival tactic. Threats they face include poaching, and their bones and hide are made into accessories and gloves. They are also affected by the expansion of human development into their habitats. However, Like Salt’s dik-dik and Gunther’s dik-dik, the population of Damara dik-diks remains stable.

Anchieta’s Dwarf Python

While not much is known about this snake, it can be found in southern Angola and Namibia and is threatened mainly by the traditional medicine trade as well as the illegal wildlife trade. Experts believe that it could end up being heavily hunted, but greater awareness on this species could prevent that. 

Spotted Rubber Frog

Frogs all over the world are dying from the fungal disease Chytridiomycosis. Research has shown that since 1965, 90 species of amphibians have gone extinct due to the deadly pathogen. Those most affected are in Central and South America and Australia, although those in other regions such as Africa will not be much better off should the disease continue to spread unbridled, which can be exacerbated by the wildlife trade. The extensive flows of movement involved provide a plethora of opportunities for the spread of disease vectors not only between species but also between far-flung geographical regions, making the eradication of the disease much more difficult. REST’s focus on spotted rubber frogs will give them a fighting chance, however small, against the insidious disease.

While improved public awareness of these ‘Forgotten Five’ species and their declining populations will no doubt help in efforts to ensure their conservation, it is imperative that man-made actions, such as poaching, are regulated on a government level. 

Featured image by: Yathin S Krishnappa