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The New Big 5

One of my photographic peers has recently launched an interesting initiative. to get folks to agree on a new “Big Five.”

Many people have heard of The Big Five in relation to wildlife, but not everybody knows which animals are part of this group… and even fewer know where the term comes from. It was initially coined in Africa, and refers to what big game enthusiasts deemed “the most dangerous animals to hunt.” To this day, the phrase is commonly used even on non-hunting safaris, as tourists often set a goal of seeing all of the Big 5 during their excursions in the African bush.

The Big 5 African game animals include the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard.

The Big 5

Honestly, I’ve never been too fond of this term, not just because of its trophy hunting origins, but because the animals involved didn’t all excite me much. There are a lot more species I’d prefer to see on safari than a buffalo, for example. And honestly, lions are often low on my wish list, despite the fact that I’m quite fond of big cats.

So the idea of introducing a new “Big 5” is intriguing. But how does this work? First and foremost, since the initiative was started by a photographer (Graeme Green), the goal is to choose “the Big 5 of wildlife photography” in order to promote and celebrate wildlife around the globe. Green has asked numerous nature photographers and wildlife advocates to chime in with their picks, and is encouraging the public to vote, though the list of candidates only shows what the organizers deemed to be the world’s “most popular” animals.

This got me thinking about what my own Big 5 would be. It’s not the first time this idea has come up for discussion. I recall brainstorming the concept with clients both in Africa and in Yellowstone (the latter about what a “Yellowstone Big 5” would entail). The problem is figuring out the criteria for such a list. I suppose it’s easier when the New Big 5 organizers limit the vote to their master list of popular animals, but if I came up with my own list of top five animals, how should I go about it?

It seems pointless to simply pick the five “most dangerous,” as the hunters used to. Is it simply a selection my five favorite animals to photograph? Or the five animals that I think should be at the top of the wish list for wildlife photographers in general? In that case, the list might include species I’ve never even seen or photographed in person.

Here’s what the New Big 5 organizers have to say about their project:

The New Big 5 is a celebration of wildlife and wildlife photography. We’re asking people around the world to VOTE for the 5 animals they want to be included in the New Big 5 of Wildlife Photography… what are your 5 favourite animals from around the world to photograph or see in wildlife photographs?

A couple of other important criteria are that this is a global project (no longer confined to African animals), and it’s limited to land mammals. No marine animals, birds, bugs, etc.

So, is it important to have global representation (i.e., include species from different continents)? Is it important to have species diversification (not just big cats)? Is it really as simple as coming up with a favorites list, like they ask? Wow, it’s a tough call… and yes, I’m realizing that I may be overthinking what is at its roots a popularity contest. It’s really hard for me to come up with my own list while feeling confident I’m using the most meaningful criteria.

So I’m going to cheat, and present a couple of lists.


The New Big 5… If I’m Picking Favorites

Going strictly by the project description (“favorite animals to photograph or see in wildlife photos”)… well, shoot. I’m struggling with this, which may have something to do with the fact that I love traveling to places with a high level of biodiversity.

I love seeing new things, and new animals. Usually I’ll take elusive, hard-to-find critters over the popular larger species. It’s very difficult for me to pick an animal I like going back to over and over and over again. In many cases, my fondness for an animal may actually be tied more to the experience than the animal itself. I absolutely love photographing wild pumas in Chile. Getting close to these big cats on foot in an incredibly photogenic setting is an experience that’s pretty unique compared to most of my other encounters with predators. Similarly, there are many denizens of the tropical rainforest that I love photographing because they’re in the rainforest. The experience of a wildlife encounter there is enhanced by the mystery and many challenges that come with exploring and photographing subjects in a wild jungle. Do any of the animals there qualify as a favorite though?

Okay, here goes. This is subject to change, of course…

African leopard with cub

Leopard: The one current Big 5 member that would make my own list is the leopard. It’s my favorite African animal to photograph. For the most part, I love photographing big cats, and I definitely prefer leopards over lions or cheetahs when I’m on an African safari. It helps that they’re gorgeous. That spotted coat combined with a sleek-but-not-too-skinny athletic build is easy on the eyes. But to me it also fits the bill as a supreme predator, a creature that can utilize camouflage, and remarkable athleticism and agility to survive in a dangerous landscape. It’s the closest thing to a ninja in the big cat world. And on a related note, seeing a “black panther”—there have been more photos of them coming from India and Africa in recent years—is one of the top goals on my wildlife wish list!

River Otter: The river otter has long been one of my favorite animals to photograph, in large part due to its charming personality. I think mustelids are awesome creatures, and to be honest, there are several of the otter’s weasel cousins that would excite me more to see, given their elusive nature and how challenging they are to photograph. But otters are reliable. They are generally a bit more social than other mustelids. I’ve seen up to nine otters traveling together before. They’re wriggly, and cute (giant otters excepted), lithe and agile. They crawl all over each other, and perform a funny poop dance. They slide in the snow, they romp (heck, a group of otters is sometimes called a “Romp”!)… this is an animal species that, more than just about any other, seems to enjoy life!

Spirit Bear

Spirit Bear: I fully admit I’m not a bear person. But the spirit bear is, hands-down, one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen. The fact that it’s a true rarity (only found in one small region of coastal British Columbia) also helps… that “hard to find” status always boosts my interest in seeing an animal. This subspecies of American black bear—one in every ten Kermode/Spirit bears is born with white fur—is also a symbol for one of my favorite places on earth, the Great Bear Rainforest. Many people travel there just to see this bear. I imagine that seeing a spirit bear is similar to encountering a black leopard or jaguar in the wild: the experience of seeing a white “ghost” emerging from the forest is usually sudden, yet brief. It seems so out of place in its environment that it’s awe-inspiring and befuddling at the same time… in other words, special.

Wolf: This animal made the list in part because of my familiarity with it in Yellowstone National Park. I’ve shared a lot of recent wolf content (here, here and here), in part thanks to a wildly successful winter visit to the park. That trip simply emphasized how special wolf encounters can be. Yes, it’s the apex predator in the ecosystem. But it’s smart, and will usually avoid people rather than stick around waiting to get its picture taken. It’s a challenging subject to photograph in Yellowstone, even more so in recent years. So it maintains a certain… aloofness that keeps me wondering, guessing, and hoping for future meetings. And this isn’t just a Yellowstone thing. Coastal wolves (like the one pictured above) are even more challenging to find, and remain one of my top wildlife goals on my British Columbia coastal trips. Sightings out there are even more rare and extra special.

Wild mountain lion

Mountain Lion: As a Washington Husky it pains me to say that cougars made my list. But as I mentioned above, the experience of seeing these cats at close range has been a real privilege. It’s a feline that’s just as athletic as (but probably even more intimidating than) a leopard, even if it’s not as pretty. I should also note that Puma concolor makes my list not just because of my Patagonia experiences. It’s special in part because of its highly elusive nature in North America. Unlike southern Chile, the northern puma is incredibly difficult to see, and encounters are relative rare. It roams wide ranges of what is often rocky and forested (or snowy) terrain… areas that are more difficult to access, making tracking quite challenging. I’ve only ever seen one wild cougar in the United States (above), and to this day I think it remains my favorite wildlife encounter ever. But I’ve also encountered pumas in a different environment: the jungles of Latin America. There too, it’s a rarely-seen predator, so finding it in the daunting and alien environment of the tropical rainforest (I’ve seen seven pumas in Costa Rica to date) is also extra special. This species is the western hemisphere’s most widespread big predator, and seeing it in any one of these environments is a memorable experience.


The New Big 5… If I’m Picking the Best Global Wildlife Ambassadors

If I’m choosing the animals that I feel are the best “wildlife ambassadors,” those photography subjects that would interest viewers, heighten enthusiasm and interest in the general public, and be the best symbols of conservation and wildlife education, I’d have to go with the species below. This is the list I’d submit for my official New Big 5 vote, even though they’re not my favorites. Believe it or not, this was actually easier for me to choose than the more personal list above.

Thirsty Elephants

Elephant: It’s okay to have crossover with the antiquated Big 5. In this case, when you pick a Big 5 it is somewhat important to actually go big. The world’s largest land animal fits the bill, but elephants are important symbolically not just because of their size. They’ve sadly become one of many notable victims of rampant poaching in recent decades. We’ve lost most of our “big tuskers” as a result, something we’re not likely to see again any time soon due to the fact that tusk length is passed down genetically among elephants. Elephants are among a few of my choices here that exhibit social behavior not unlike our own. That type of connection to a wider human audience is important when considering this animal as a Big 5 ambassador.

African Lions

Lion: Another member of the old Big 5 carried over. Sorry, I’m not really a fan of lions. Of all of the big cats, it’s probably the one I’m least interested in photographing for a few different reasons (fewer cat naps might help, for starters). But the “King of Beasts” is a special animal. Like elephants, they display notable social characteristics and behaviors, a trait that’s less apparent in their feline cousins. They rule the African plains, and I find the stare of a male lion to be one of the most intimidating traits of any species in the animal kingdom. Sadly, they too are a significant symbol for conservationists, given the massive drop in the world’s lion population in the last century. So many of these animals could simply be included on these lists because of the awful way we’ve treated them.

Polar Bear: I had to pick a bear for the Big 5, and it was a very difficult decision. The grizzly/brown bear is more widespread, a significant part of ecosystems stretching from the western United States, up through Canada and into Alaska… and brown bears are found across Eurasia. It’s a species that is incredibly well adapted for different environments and can subsist on different diets depending on its home region or the time of year. But because symbolism is more important for this list, I went with its paler cousin to the north. It’s a familiar refrain, but polar bears are symbols of the one of the issues (in this case, climate change) that are plaguing the world’s habitats and environments. And, well, it’s the biggest (not always heaviest, but tallest and longest) land predator we have on this planet. This, by the way, is one of the species I haven’t seen in person, and even though I have no particular connection to or fondness of polar bears, I think it’s too significant to ignore.

Mountain Gorilla

Gorilla: I really didn’t want to just stick with African species—luckily, lions and elephants are also found in Asia—but gorillas are notable for many reasons. I felt a great ape belonged in the group. They’re so different from most of the other animals that are considered for these lists. The toothy beasts and large, hoofed critters get a lot of attention, but we’ll never share a greater kinship with anything but the apes. Gorillas are not our closest relative (that would be the chimpanzee), but they’re pretty remarkable. Yes, their populations are under severe threat as well (the mountain gorilla population, which has no animals in captivity, is estimated at 1000 or so), but there’s something special about seeing these massive primates living freely in a tropical forest. Since a Big 5 list is, in some ways, a wish list… a wild gorilla is a photographic goal worthy of being on that list.

Wolf: Finally, a personal favorite makes this list! My decision to include the wolf has a little less to do with its status as a conservation icon (the importance of its role as an apex predator in complete ecosystems cannot be understated), as much as the fact that it’s widely misunderstood in many cultures and deserves more love and respect. Because wolves are found throughout the northern hemisphere and play such an important role in various ecosystems, it’s a worthy entry.

Next Big 5: Rhino, Tiger, Leopard, Grizzly Bear, Orangutan


Since I mentioned it, here would be my top five Yellowstone animals to photograph (not counting the ultra-elusive wish list animals I haven’t seen there yet): Otter, Wolf, Great Gray Owl, Red Fox, Pine Marten. If I’m simply choosing the best (mammalian) wildlife ambassadors for the park—those animals that would generate the most excitement and enthusiasm—the list differs slightly: Bison, Elk, Grizzly Bear, Wolf, Moose.

This is a fun idea and could be meaningful moving forward as a more modern and enlightened way of presenting wildlife and discussing wildlife photography with the public. Be sure to learn more about the New Big 5 project, and vote for your picks.

And, if you know what your own “New Big 5” would be, chime in with a comment below!


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