The ‘Big 5’ is a useful group of mammals for conservation purposes in Africa because their cachet attracts disproportionate numbers of visitors to the continent and to those protected areas where they are still found. Members of the Big 5 are flagship species (Williams, Burgess & Rahbek, 2000) because ‘they increase public awareness of conservation issues and rally support for the protection of that species' habitat. Protection of other species is accomplished through the umbrella effect of the flagship species’ (Favreau et al., 2006). Furthermore, Big 5 members are management umbrella species in that ‘if the population of one such species can be kept viable through safeguards and judicious interventions then it is hoped that populations of many sympatric species will maintain positive growth rates’ (Caro, 2010). After teasing apart different sorts of visitors' perceptions of the Big 5 in South Africa, Di Minin et al. (2013) discuss some implications of the popularity of this elite group of mammals.

Di Minin et al. (2013) note that South Africans put disproportionate conservation effort into protecting the Big 5 and a few other charismatic species such as wild dogs Lycaon pictus. Sometimes small, non-viable populations of these target species are maintained for maximum economic return without regard for long-term conservation aims. Di Minin et al. (2013) consider this to be ‘conservation for ecotourism’ as opposed to ‘ecotourism for conservation’. Aside from simple economics, there are conservation reasons to focus on the Big 5: (1) lions Panthera leo and leopards Panthera pardus are top predators so their stable or increasing population sizes will likely signal healthy prey populations (Sergio et al., 2008); (2) elephants Loxodonta africana are a keystone species so their presence affects ecosystem structure and function (Owen-Smith, 1992); and (3) as elephants and both rhinoceros species (Diceros bicornis and Ceratotherium simum) are under tremendous poaching pressure (Douglas-Hamilton, 2009; Ferreira & Okita-Ouma, 2012), we have a moral responsibility to protect them and similarly to reduce the necessity of retaliatory lion killing.

On the other hand, if we want to inform the public more broadly about protected areas, we need to educate them about other aspects of biodiversity, not just mammals and birds, and about ecosystem functioning, ecosystem services and topography. Here large and dangerous mammals are just one of many components of the ecosystem.

That different segments of the wildlife-viewing population in South Africa value large mammals differently is interesting, but perhaps no great surprise. For example, first-time visitors want to see elephant, lion and rhinoceros species more than do those who have visited reserves before (Di Minin et al., 2013). Such information could allow us to fine-tune the tourist industry and tourist education better in South Africa, but should this be our key concern? Surely there are more important target audiences – those who visit African protected areas with no game viewing in mind. Rhino and elephant poachers, local pastoralists who bring cattle into reserves, bushmeat consumers living on the borders of reserves, firewood collectors and illegal loggers all need conservation education backed up by strong economic incentives to stop extracting resources from Africa's protected areas. Is there a role for the Big 5 here?

We are finding that educating local Wasukuma pastoralists about the importance of lions for tourism and their natural heritage is beginning to reduce commercially driven lion killing inside Katavi National Park in western Tanzania (Genda et al., 2012). Similar changes in perception of lions have been forged with the Maasai as part of the lion guardian program in Kenya where morans have turned from retaliatory killing to tracking and protecting lions (Hazzah, Borgerhoff Mulder & Frank, 2009). Elephants command respect in East and Southern Africa and protection authorities make extra effort to pursue and follow up on elephant poaching incidents (T. Caro, pers. obs.). Governments support fencing and individual rhinoceros protection in several parts of the continent (Lindsey et al., 2012). Leopard and buffalo Syncerus caffer, preferred targets of many big game hunters, are awarded special respect by local and foreign hunting companies (Lindsey, Roulet & Romanach, 2007).

How then can we capitalize on these biases more effectively in conservation? Taking local children into national parks, making films in local languages about these species, producing school books about the Big 5, and more effective wildlife clubs that teach children about Big 5 ecology and behaviour are steps in the right direction for the next generation. For adults, however, we need to ensure that economic benefits of photographic and hunting tourism of Big 5 species go directly to local people living on reserve borders rather than disappear into central government coffers. We are at the stage where some of these species are hanging on at such low population sizes that we must quickly bring local people into active stewardship in return for direct payments deriving from foreign visitors.

Across Africa, most of the Big 5 are in steep population decline (Craigie et al., 2010) because of land conversion (e.g. Riggio et al., 2012), illegal hunting for animal products and bushmeat (e.g. Brashares et al., 2011), and even overly generous legal hunting quotas (e.g. Packer et al., 2010). While some are advocating radical new measures for protection such as fencing (Packer et al., 2013) and lifting the rhino horn trade ban (Biggs et al., 2013), we do not yet know whether they will be implemented nor how effective they will be. How soon before the Big 5 becomes the Big 4 or the Big 3?


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