The new Big Five for future travel bucket lists: Tiger, elephant, polar bear, gorilla and lion

A New Big Five global project takes a revitalised perspective on wildlife with photography.
A New Big Five global project takes a revitalised perspective on wildlife with photography.PHOTOS: RAMAKRISHNAN AIYASWAMY, DAVID LLOYD, DAVE SANDFORD, USHA HARISH, CAROLE DESCHUYMERE

SINGAPORE - Travellers who love wildlife can create new bucket lists when borders reopen. They can look for a new Big Five group of animals in wild places, from the open savannahs of Africa to sub-zero coastlines in the Arctic.

The original Big Five included the toughest game animals to hunt in Africa that soon became beloved animals on safaris: the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo.

To pivot from the origins in hunting, a New Big Five global project takes a revitalised perspective on wildlife with photography - shooting animals with cameras, not guns.

More than 250 photographers, conservationists and wildlife charities are heightening awareness of the wildlife crisis in this New Big Five international initiative. They include renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Conservation International, WildAid and even celebrities like actor Djimon Hounsou and singer Ella Eyre.

After a year-long worldwide poll on the New Big Five website that garnered more than 50,000 votes, the project unveiled the animals inaugurated as the New Big Five on May 17. They are the elephant, polar bear, gorilla, lion and tiger.

These five are "keystone species", which means there will be irreversible changes to the planet's biodiversity if they become extinct. And their existence hangs in a delicate balance.

Founder of the project and British photographer Graeme Green says: "The New Big Five are the tip of the iceberg. They stand for all the creatures on the planet, so many of which are in danger."

Much of the globe's conservation efforts are funded by tourism, which has largely ceased due to the pandemic.

When it is time to travel, these five charismatic animals can be viewed in their safely distanced domains - including nearby Laos where elephant treks can be done ethically to the distant Arctic Circle where polar bear-watching and chasing the Northern Lights can be combined as a double bucket-list.

1. Elephant

The African elephant population has been decimated by 90 per cent in the last century, owing largely to the ivory trade.

Today, there are an estimated 415,000 African elephants left - a stark contrast to the roughly 26 million that once roamed the African continent alone in the 1800s.

The Asian elephant, found in countries spanning South and South-east Asia, also faces dwindling numbers, with between 30,000 and 35,000 left in the world.

Conservation efforts include fighting ivory trafficking and illegal poaching, and protecting the natural habitats of the elephants.

Bucket list: Ethical experiences with elephants can be found in countries like Laos and Thailand. On these tours, travellers trek across lush jungles alongside adult elephants and help to prepare their food and bathe them.


Ethical experiences with elephants can be found in countries like Laos and Thailand. PHOTO: ST FILE

2. Polar bear

Listed as a vulnerable species, there are an estimated 23,310 polar bears left worldwide.

One major threat to the survival of these marine mammals, which rely on the ocean for food and habitat, is sea-ice loss. Climate change has caused the Arctic to warm about twice as quickly as the global average, chipping away at their habitats and threatening to wipe out most of their population by the end of the century.

Organisations like the World Wildlife Fund support research on climate change and alternative energy, and promote sustainable tourism in areas inhabited by polar bears.

Bucket list: As polar bears are mainly found in colder regions, travellers can consider crafting itineraries to countries like Greenland and Norway where the celestial Northern Lights can also be seen - ticking two items off the bucket list in one go.


Polar bears are mainly found in colder regions. PHOTO: REUTERS

3. Gorilla

Gorillas - the largest primates in the world - are being threatened by habitat destruction as a result of human encroachment, climate change and mining.

Grauer's gorillas, a subspecies found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have seen an 80 per cent decline in their population over the past two decades, primarily due to poaching.

But with effective conservation, the mountain gorilla populations are recovering and have been moved to the endangered list from its previous critically endangered status.

The animals can be found in the Virunga Mountains, a chain of extinct volcanoes in East Africa bordering Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. National parks in these countries cover protected areas to mitigate the threats that mountain gorillas face.

Bucket list: The Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda offers guided trekking experiences to watch gorillas in the wild.


The Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda offers guided trekking experiences to watch gorillas in the wild. PHOTO: AFP/DIAN FOSSEY GORILLA FUND

4. Lion

Crowned the king of the jungle, the lion - occupying a spot in both new and old lists - displays brute power when hunting prey. But more than that, they are also apex predators that control the herbivore population and maintain balance among other animals.

Today, the population of lions is only at 8 per cent of its historical range, with an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 left in the wild.

Factors contributing to the decline include human-wildlife conflict and poaching for body parts used in traditional medicine in some African and Asian countries.

Bucket list: Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya is among the many parks in Africa that offer safari packages with accommodation from tents to lodges overlooking the savannah, and opportunities to photograph and observe lions during tours.


Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya is among the many parks in Africa that offer safari packages with accommodation from tents to lodges overlooking the savannah, and opportunities to photograph and observe lions during tours. PHOTO: MASAI MARA SAFARI

5. Tiger

Habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching for illegal wildlife trade and human-wildlife conflict are three of the major causes driving the rapid decline of the tiger population.

There are roughly 3,900 of them left in the wild, with nearly five times as many in captivity worldwide.

Just like lions, tigers are apex predators, maintaining the balance of the ecosystems they exist in.

Conservationist and author Valmik Thapar says: "The beauty of a tiger in every photo promotes conservation, so if you want to save the world's most charismatic species, get your camera and go and find the tiger."

Bucket list: Capturing the beauty of the tiger is possible in many national parks in India, where guided tours through the jungles are conducted in canter vehicles, jeeps and even boats.


Capturing the beauty of the tiger is possible in many national parks in India. PHOTO: ST FILE

The New Big Five and beyond

The New Big Five

Since April last year, wildlife lovers worldwide have cast votes for the five animals they would like to see in a New Big Five list.

A short video announcing the results of the vote was released on May 17 and it featured conservationists offering their two cents' worth on the beauty and plight of the top five animals.

English primatologist Jane Goodall, founder of conservation organisation The Jane Goodall Institute, said: "These five animals - elephants, polar bears, gorillas, tigers and lions - are such beautiful and remarkable species, and are wonderful ambassadors for the world's wildlife.

"A million species are at risk of extinction. If we work together, we can stop this from happening. There is always hope."

Other species in danger

Beyond the New Big Five animals, many others are fighting for their survival as well.

Sumatran and Tapanuli orang utans, as well as rhinos, are listed as critically endangered, as a result of tropical rainforest degradation and poaching respectively.

Pangolins - the most trafficked mammal in the world - are on the decline as nearly 200,000 are killed each year for traditional medicine and bushmeat.

The number of cheetahs remaining in the wild has dropped to 7,500 from the 100,000 that roamed the earth just a century ago.

Photographer Ami Vitale said: "We're at a critical point. But we have to recognise that nature is incredibly resilient. So we all need to use our voices and get actively involved. We all have a role - every single one of us."

Info: New Big Five website