The warts and sparse hair of a warthog, the creepy smile of a hyena, the bald head of a vulture. There’s a saying I learned while in South Africa, ‘Hy is mooi van leelikgyn. He’s pretty because he’s so ugly.’ At Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, my guide told me there’s a notorious ‘Ugly Five’ that consists of the warthog, hyena, vulture, wildebeest, and crocodile. But though these animals may not have the appeal of a cheetah or elephant, they are remarkable in their own ways and deserve the same respect.
When tourists go on game drives at Mount Camdeboo, they hope to see cheetahs and zebras, not the warthogs and wildebeest that are everywhere but just as unique. These animals are photographed half the time as the others, and they seem to be deemed not as worthy. When I first saw a warthog, Pumba, from the Lion King came to mind. And then I thought the word ‘ugly’. Their large heads, tusks, and wispy beards land them on the top five ugly animals of South Africa. However watching them closer gives a glimpse into an amazing animal.
Warthogs seem scary with their large tusks, but they are actually all bark and no bite. They are passive animals that when startled, tend to run away with their tails pointed straight up. They can run at speeds up to thirty miles per hour. They then hide into dens made by passing anteaters with their tusks facing out. Watching a warthog with three little babies graze and run about makes your heart soften. My friend on the game drive with me called them the ‘pugs of Africa’.
I saw wildebeest everywhere at Mount Camdeboo. They are social animals who travel in large herds led by a bull. They are fun to watch because of their tendency to run around for no reason. They’ll be grazing and then suddenly gallop off or spin until they’re ready to go back to nibbling. Wildebeest are also known for their long migrations when they travel between 500 and 1000 miles. Sometimes their migration herd can be millions of wildebeest strong. But for now, the single animal evolves from a gawky beast to a free spirited individual.
Some animals are also not as well loved because they seem scary and menacing like the crocodile. I’ve seen videos of Nile Crocodiles launching out of the water and grabbing a large prey with their huge jaws and lines of teeth before twisting and bringing it underwater. To put it mildly, terrifying. Crocodiles may be dangerous, but they are also very interesting. They can go through 8,000 teeth in their lifetime due to their ability to always grow a tooth back. They sweat through their mouths which explains why they are found lying on the banks with their mouths open. They also have very good hearing and strong jaws. Although it’s a frightening animal, it’s also a fascinating one that I could watch sunbathe for hours.
Some of these animals also have a bad rap not only because of their looks, but because of their behavior. Hyena and Vultures have always had an ‘evil’ association because of their scavenging ways. This means they eat the leftovers of dead animals. Even Charles Darwin wrote in his journal that vultures were ‘disgusting’. However, both are very important to a healthy ecosystem. Finishing off carcasses keeps Africa clean and helps with the decomposition process.
Despite their importance, our guide told us that vultures have been mostly run out of South Africa. Many farmers poisoned carcasses to get rid of jackals that would eat their sheep. This inadvertently poisoned the vultures who finished up the scraps. Some farmers have tried to bring the birds back by leaving out feeding areas for them, but pesticides and certain chemicals continue to cause trouble for them. The guides and I agree that the vulture is just as an important to the ecosystem as an apex predator.
While studying conservation biology, I learned the harsh truth that it’s harder to get the public to rally around an animal that is not as charismatic as popular animals. But these creatures are significant and needed in South Africa. They may be ugly, but they are still fascinating creatures that bring biodiversity and have an important role in the South African ecosystem.
(Photo by Harrison Gardiner)