The Impossible Five

If you’ve been on a trip to a Game Reserve, you’re probably aware of the African Big 5 of lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Guides will help visitors tick these iconic animals off their wish list, in some cases in a single day.  But what about those animals you’ve got almost zero chance of seeing? There are more than these five species, and for those looking for a real task there’s the African Impossible 5.

These are very rare and difficult to see. They are aardvark, Cape Mountain leopard, pangolin, riverine rabbit and white lion (in the wild). Despite being a member of the Impossible 5, the aardvark is also a member of the Shy 5, so consider yourself lucky if you get to see this wonderful animal in the world.

Who are they?


The aardvark is up first. Seeing one is made difficult as they are unsocial, nightly and live in burrows. Their main foodstuffs are ants and termites which are naturally active after dark. Aardvarks come out at night to sniff out their food when many visitors are back at their lodge enjoying dinner or a good night’s sleep. One of the best times to see aardvarks is the during the winter months – May to August – when termites and aardvarks both come out during the day. This very unique looking animal is nearly impossible to see in the wild: The name comes from the Afrikaans language and means ‘earth pig’ or ‘ground pig’.

Cape Mountain Leopard

The Cape Mountain leopard is the next member of the Impossible 5. As its name suggests it is found (or not) in rocky mountains close to Cape Town and it is the development of this region which is the major threat to numbers. Significantly smaller than leopards found elsewhere in Africa, the Cape Mountain leopard feeds on porcupines, rock hyrax and klipspringers across a bigger home range than its larger cousins.


Pangolins are one of the most threatened animals in the world, and they are so rare that many tour guides will retire without ever having seen one. So, if you spot one, be sure to tick it off your bucket list. Like aardvarks they eat insects and are nocturnal.  Unlike aardvarks they’re been driven almost to extinction by illegal hunting and trade among other things. In both Africa and Asia their scales are thought to have medicinal abilities and in Asia their meat is considered a delicacy.

Next member of the Impossible 5 is the riverine rabbit, one of the world’s most endangered species. With a low breeding rate (unlike most rabbits) and a limited distribution in mostly defenseless areas, it is thought there are only around 250 living adults. It’s another nocturnal animal, resting in shallow scrapes in the ground during the day. South Africa’s Karoo National Park is one of the few places riverine rabbits enjoy a protected status.

White Lion

Image: Stano Novak - Own work, CC BY 2.5

White lions occur naturally due to a inherited mutation. A population exists in the wild in the private Timbavati area within the Kruger National Park ecosystem, while a single male was seen in the Umfolozi National Park in KwaZulu Natal. The colour doesn’t seem to disadvantage them, with white lions hunting equally successfully as those with normal coloured fur.

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