What is BushCam Adventures?

BushCam Adventures attempts to share some of the amazing images, stories and insights that I've collected during my camera-trapping adventures.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Secret Seventeen

The term “Big Five” is synonymous with hunting and safaris in Africa. Many wildlife reserves will use the term ‘Big Five Reserve’ to proclaim the fact that they have Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhino on the property. 

Black Rhino
Sadly, many visitors to this region are only interested in seeing those five species. They tick them off and return home happy – oblivious to the remarkable diversity of wildlife that they didn’t see. 

 Now I have nothing against the Big Five - they are wonderful creatures and are not called the Big Five for nothing – but they are just five examples of the remarkable diversity of mammals present in Africa.


                                                                           However I would love this all to change, which is the purpose of this post. I’d like to encourage all wildlife enthusiasts to get excited about seeing our SECRET SEVENTEEN mammals. Why seventeen? Well, there is no compelling reason why it has to be seventeen. It could just have easily been the Secret Sixteen or perhaps the Elusive Eighteen. The Furtive Fifteen came to mind as did the Nocturnal Nineteen – but the adjectives ‘elusive’, ‘furtive’ and ‘nocturnal’ weren’t universally appropriate.

  The point is the number needs to be reasonably high – so that it’s not just another small exclusive club of mammals. This is about celebrating biodiversity rather than getting picky.

I’ve compiled the list that follows from mammals occurring in South Africa but there is no reason why the concept should just be a South African one. All countries should have their own version of the SECRET SEVENTEEN. Each country has its own wonderful endemic species that should be included in its national list.


My guidelines for selecting a proposed list of seventeen secretive species were as follows:
1. They shouldn’t be easily seen, but should nevertheless be capable of being seen with some effort.

2. They should have a reasonably wide distribution within the country. Species that only occur at the margins of South Africa might be rare but are not appropriate for this list. So something like the Suni (Neotragus moschatus) might be rare enough in South Africa but is widespread in Mozambique – so is excluded. 

Riverine Rabbit

Similarly, the Riverine Rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) now only exists in such isolated pockets that the likelihood of most people seeing one is very slim.
 I have also favoured those rare species that occur in the traditional ‘game viewing’ regions of this country because that is where most visitors go to view wildlife.

Small-Spotted Genet

3. Where there are closely related species of a particular family, that are all worthy of inclusion, then I have simply included the generic family. 
For example, any one of the three species of genet occurring here could have been chosen so I’ve decided to include just ‘Genets’ on the list. 
The same goes for our two Otters and two Galagos (Bushbabies).

4. However, in contrast to the above, there are some families with both rare and abundant representatives e.g. Mongoose, where we have ten - I think. Here I’ve made a decision to include just one species which I think best fits my other criteria.
5. I’ve excluded those Orders/Families that are particularly difficult to identify (and possibly of lesser interest to the general wildlife-viewing public). These would include the small rodents, moles, bats and marine mammals. I appreciate that I’m now on dangerous ground! I know that there are many extraordinary examples of the above but most wildlife enthusiasts, and even guides, wouldn’t be capable of identifying them without catching them.

Brown Hyena
6. I’ve also excluded large mammals which might be fairly rare but, if they occur in the area/reserve, are usually easy to see during the day. Examples would be Roan (Hippotragus equinus) and Sable (H. niger) Antelopes.

So here goes. This is my suggested list – in alphabetic order:

Orycteropus afer

Proteles cristatus

African Civet
Civettictis civetta

African Weasel
Poecilogale albinucha

African Wild Cat
Felis silvestris lybica

Brown Hyena
Parahyaena brunnea

Potamochoerus larvatus

Caracal caracal

Galagos (Bushbabies)
Galago moholi; Otolemur crassicaudatus

Genetta genetta, G maculata, G tigria

Honey Badger
Mellivora capensis

Lutra maculicollis, Aonyx capensis

Manis temminckii

Hystrix africaeaustralis

Leptailurus serval

Southern African Hedgehog
Atelerix frontalis

White-Tailed Mongoose
Ichneumia albicauda

This is a very personal selection and I’m very aware that some worthy species have been excluded. So I would really welcome your suggestions as to what would be other appropriate inclusions to this list, or simply your preferences. As mentioned above, this is my South African selection. So if you’re not from South Africa I’d also love to hear what your SECRET SEVENTEEN would be in other countries. Please do respond – I’d love to hear what you think.

African Wild Cat
 p.s. So when you do go out and find these secretive species please do take a photo and send it to the University of Cape Towns's MammalMAP programme ( http://mammalmap.adu.org.za ). The distribution of the Big Five is fairly well known but data on the SECRET SEVENTEEN would be invaluable to them.


  1. Jeremy- this is an awesome entry. Over the summer I lived in Alaska, and had the opportunity to visit Denali National Park, which boasts their Big 5: Dall sheep, Grizzly bears, Moose, Caribou, and Gray wolves. I was fortunate to see all 5, BUT I was really excited to see the lesser knowns: ground squirrels, lynx, ptarmigan birds, golden eagles, etc. I would love to visit Africa and see the Secret Seventeen ++

  2. Thanks Alyssa. Denali sounds awesome. I'd love to get there some day.

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  4. (Re-adding the comment with, hopefully, better spacing…)
    Great idea. Really enjoyed the post and trying to think what I would select as the Secret Seventeen!

    Some of my thoughts:
    * I would consider removing the following animals from the list:
    - Civet (Distribution is to limited to the North of the country)
    - Pangolin (Although iconic the distribution is to limited to the North of the country)
    - Weasel (To small and difficult to see on game drives, etc.)
    - Hedgehog (To small and difficult to see on a game drives, etc.)
    - Caracal (In my opinion to common and easy to see)
    * I would consider adding the following animals to the list:
    - Water Mongoose (Maybe replacing the White-tailed Mongoose if you are strict about only having one mongoose)
    - Bat Eared Fox (To replace the Pangolin)
    - Maybe replace the Hedgehog with Hares (Scrub and Cape), they are fairly secretive, but still easy enough to see to help you get started on the list ;)
    - Striped Polecat (Skunk) (As a good replacement for the African Weasel)
    *I think the antelope always lose out on these lists, I’ve found some of the following to be fairly secretive and tricky to find:
    - Reedbucks (Common and Mountain), even the Rhebok can be tricky to find although they are reasonably wide spread even outside protected areas.
    - The Common Duiker, well maybe too common to be relevant, can be pretty secretive.

    1. Seems like all spaces and tabs get removed once I press Publish :(

  5. Thanks Henry. I appreciate your thoughts and can't fault your preferences.

    I tried in my list to have a mix of 'near-impossible' mammals as well as some that were fairly easy to see with a bit of effort. I figured that anyone setting out to see the seventeen would want a few early 'hits' but would take a significant amount of time to see them all. So I accept that some are way easier than others.

    There are unfortunately always going to be mammals that don't make the list - whether its the Big Five or Secret Seventeen. Personally I'd far prefer that the Big Five included the Giraffe rather than the Buffalo. However I accept that, from a hunting perspective, the Buff is a far more serious adversary.

    So, no list is going to please everyone. But what I'm keen to do is get as many replies as possible and see if any consensus emerges. I'll keep you posted.
    Thanks again.

  6. Great concept. Highlighting diversity is much more interesting than big game animals. Unfortunately, I've only seen 1 of your 17 - the African wildcat. And that was in the Okavango. For California and western North America, my 17 would include: pronghorn, coyote, bobcat, kit fox, badger, sea otter, fisher, marten, ringtail, spotted skunk, beaver, jackrabbit, pika, chipmunk, flying squirrel, woodrat, and kangaroo rat.

  7. Randomtruth: thanks for the effort of compiling you own 17. That's really interesting.
    I have to confess that I'd never heard of a Spotted Skunk - clearly us Africans need to travel more! I also wasn't familiar with a Ringtail but a Wiki search suggested it could be a Lemur, Mongoose, Possum, Cat or Squirrel. The first three don't seem to occur in North America so was it the cat or squirrel that you are referring to?
    I'm glad you got to see the Okavango. It is possibly my favorite place on earth! I'm desperate to get back and do some camera-trapping there.

    1. In NA we do have the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). I believe the ringtail is related to our Raccoon though.

    2. As Alyssa mentions, we do have an oppossum in North America, although it isn't native to the western states. And as she also reported, ringtails are related to our raccoons. Here's a couple of posts for ya: spotted skunk, and ringtail.

    3. Thanks Randomtruth. Those are very cool images.