The ‘Big 5’ is an old term used by colonial-era hunters in Africa for the most prized and dangerous animals to kill: elephant, rhino, leopard, Cape buffalo and lion. The idea of killing animals for fun has always seemed outdated and cruel to me. Wildlife photography, on the other hand, is a brilliant way to celebrate the natural world and to highlight the threats currently facing many wild animals.
That’s why I launched The New Big 5 Project, inviting people around the world to vote for the five animals they most like to photograph and see in photos – shooting with a camera, not a gun.
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More than 50,000 voted. The New Big 5 of Wildlife & Wildlife Photography was announced in May 2021: elephant, polar bear, lion, gorilla and tiger. These five all face threats to their existence. As the project ran, it was interesting to receive messages from people who had heard and used the original Big 5 term without knowing where it came from. Many had assumed it meant Africa’s biggest animals. Others thought it meant the most dangerous or lethal. Still others believed the list was based on the most popular or charismatic animals, which is an odd thought – there are many animals (cheetahs, gorillas, giraffes, zebras, chimps) that have a more powerful hold on people’s emotions than the humble Cape buffalo.
Conservationists I heard from felt it was insulting to their work stopping animals from going extinct for a term to be used that’s connected to the hunting that wiped out vast numbers of wild animals across Africa. Other word usage is jarring, like ‘sport’ hunting, when animals often don’t have any kind of ‘sporting’ chance, or the heroic-sounding ‘trophy’ for an activity that is in no way heroic.
Today there are many threats to wild animals, including habitat loss and the killing of animals for body parts (skins, scales, teeth, bones) as well as climate change. Looking at the photos is a powerful reminder of the beauty and diversity of the natural world, and what we stand to lose if we don’t take action to protect wildlife and the planet.