When Justin Fox set off to find ‘not the big five’ for a book on tracking down southern Africa’s rarest creatures, he was motivated by his favourite childhood animal stories, family trips on safari in his native South Africa, and a long-standing determination to spot a pangolin.
After being bitten by the travel bug during his time at Oxford, Fox eventually turned travel and photography into a thriving a career on his return to South Arica, yet he was still haunted by that elusive pangolin. ‘Even when I was a child I would always be looking for the pangolin, it became something of a mythical creature for me,’ he says. ‘But then I read Douglas Adams’ book, Last Chance to See, in which and he and a scientist race around the world finding all sorts of animals that are about to go extinct. That idea gripped me.’
After drawing up a shortlist of rare and interesting ‘big five’ animals, including the pangolin, Cape mountain leopard, aardvark and naturally occurring white lion, Fox literally set off down the rabbit hole to find the most challenging creature on his list – Africa’s most endangered mammal, and the thirteenth rarest in the world, the riverine rabbit.
‘The riverine rabbit is the rarest of them all, and it was the one I was pretty convinced I wouldn’t find,’ he admits. ‘I did think there was a strong possibility I might find none of them, although I felt it would still be an interesting project, partly because of the characters I encountered along the way, and the animals and the landscapes were so fascinating.’
Giving himself a month to find each one – although the whole project ended up taking around three years – he was surprised to spot four and a half on his list. The half was the Cape mountain leopard, which slunk behind a rock before he could see it, but as his companion saw the leopard, he decided to count it as a half. ‘But the riverine rabbit was the most surprising and the luckiest, because that sighting was just so unlikely.’
After weeks of night hunts, the eventual sighting was so casual, it was almost a let-down when one these elusive bunnies simply popped up by the side of the road as they were thinking about heading home in their jeep. ‘The riverine rabbit is such an intriguing little creature with such an interesting history I was really keen to see it. But then when you do see it, it looks just like any old bunny, it was massively disappointing on first glance,’ he laughs. ‘But then when I started to look closely I saw it had very pretty eyes and a charming, almost smiling mouth and a fine auburn colour, so you gradually start to get seduced by its charms.’For many tourists, visiting South African game reserves is about ticking off the ‘Big Five’, but Fox wanted to find the animals that you have almost no chance of seeing
With the book now published (The Impossible Five, available as an ebook on Amazon), Fox has plans to reinvent the animal quest concept for a younger readership, and also says he’d love to embark on a search for another five creatures, which might include the rare king cheetah or the black-footed cat from the Kalahari desert. ‘The thing I took away from the three years I spent trying to chase these animals was that they are totem figures for the fragility of our ecosystem, they are part of something so much bigger, something so threatened, and something it’s so important to preserve.’