Yet, thanks to the foresight of conservationists past and present, South Africa remains blessed with abundant wildlife.
South Africa's bushveld and savannah regions are still home to large numbers of the mammals universally associated with Africa. The Kruger National Park alone has over 9 000 elephants and 20 000 buffaloes - in 1920 there were an estimated 120 elephants left in the whole of South Africa.
The white rhino has also been brought back from the brink of extinction and now flourishes with a Kruger population of nearly 3 000 and 1 600 in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Attention now is on protecting the black rhino.
Both these parks are home to all five of the big ones, as are other major reserves in South Africa - such as Pilanesberg in North West - and numerous smaller reserves and private game lodges.
The lion tops the food chain - and the glamour stakes. But it does have one formidable enemy in people, who have expelled it from most of the country so that it now remains almost exclusively in conservation areas.
The beautiful leopard survives in a larger area, including much of the southern Cape and far north of the country, although numbers are small in some places.
The third of the famous big cats is particularly fascinating. The cheetah is the speed champ, capable of dashes of almost 100 kilometres an hour. However, vulnerable to the loss of cubs to other predators, the cheetah's population is comparatively small and confined mostly to the far north (including the Kruger National Park), the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape, and reserves in KwaZulu-Natal and North West.
Lesser known wildlife
Heightened awareness, however, has created an increased appreciation of lesser known animals. A sighting of the rare tsessebe, a relative of the wildebeest, may cause as much excitement as the sight of a lion pride stretched out under a bushveld thorn tree. And while one can hardly miss a nearby elephant, spotting the shy little forest-dwelling suni (Livingstone's antelope) takes sharp eyes and is cause for self-congratulation.
On the really small scale, one could tackle the challenge of ticking off each of South Africa's seven species of elephant shrew - a task that would take one all over the country and, probably, a long time to accomplish.
Over 200 mammal species
In terms of appeal, primates rate highly. In South Africa they include the nocturnal bushbabies, vervet and samango monkeys, and chacma baboons.
Dassies - hyraxes, residents of rocky habitats - and meerkats - suricates, familiar from their alert upright stance - have tremendous charm.
The secretive nocturnal aardvark (which eats ants and is the only member of the order Tubulidentata) and the aardwolf (which eats termites and is related to the hyaena) are two more appealing creatures, and both are found over virtually the whole of the country.
One mammal whose charm is newly acquired is the wild dog or Cape hunting dog, one of the most endangered mammals in Africa. Once erroneously reviled as indiscriminate killers but now appreciated both for their ecological value and for the remarkably caring family behaviour in the pack, wild dogs require vast territories. A single pack needs on average several hundred square kilometres.
They are found in small numbers in the Kruger National Park and environs, northern KwaZulu-Natal (including the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park), the Kalahari, and the Madikwe reserve in North West province.
More common canine carnivores are the hyaena, jackal and bat-eared fox. Besides those already mentioned, felines include the caracal with its characteristic tufted ears, the African wild cat and the rare black-footed cat. Other flesh eaters include the civet, genet and several kinds of mongoose.
The plant eaters are particularly well represented by various antelope, from the little duiker to the large kudu and superbly handsome sable antelope, which is found only in the most northerly regions.
Mammals take to the air, too: South Africa is well endowed with bat species.
The crocodile ... and other reptiles
Less generously endowed with freshwater fish - 112 named species, a mere 1.3% of the world total - South Africa nonetheless has one river-dweller that is, as much as any of the Big Five, a symbol of Africa. The crocodile still rules some stretches of river and estuary, lakes and pools, exacting an occasional toll in human life.
Other aquatic reptiles of note are the sea-roaming loggerhead and leatherback turtles, the focus of a major community conservation effort at their nesting grounds on the northern KwaZulu-Natal shoreline.
South Africa's land reptiles include rare tortoises and the fascinating chameleon. There are well over 100 species of snake. While about half of them, including the python, are non-venomous, others - such as the puffadder, green and black mamba, boomslang and rinkhals - are decidedly so.
The country's comparative dryness accounts for its fairly low amphibian count - 84 species. To make up for that, however, South Africa boasts over 77 000 species of invertebrates.
Of the 850 or so species that have been recorded in South Africa, about 725 are resident or annual visitors, and about 50 of these are endemic or near-endemic.
Apart from the resident birds, South Africa hosts a number of intra-African migrants such as cuckoos and kingfishers, as well as birds from the Arctic, Europe, Central Asia, China and Antarctica during the year.
South Africa's birdlife ranges from the ostrich - farmed in the Oudtshoorn district of the Western Cape, but seen in the wild mostly in the north of the country - through such striking species as the hornbills to the ubiquitous LBJs (Little Brown Jobs).
A birder need not move out of a typical Gauteng garden to spot grey loeries, mousebirds, hoopoes, hadeda ibises, crested and black-collared barbets, Cape whiteyes, olive thrushes ... or a lone Burchell's coucal poking clumsily around a tree. And that would by no means complete the list.
Among the most spectacular birds of South Africa are the cranes, most easily spotted in wetlands - although the wattled crane is a lucky find as it is extremely uncommon. The beautiful blue crane is South Africa's national bird; the crowned crane is probably the flashiest of the three with its unmistakable prominent crest.
Among its larger bird species, South Africa also has several eagles and vultures. Among its most colourful are kingfishers, bee-eaters, sunbirds, the exquisite lilacbreasted roller, and the Knysna and purple-crested louries.