Hail the High & Mighty – Kruger’s Magnificent Seven elephants were so named for their giant tusks. Since the last of them died 30 years ago, 15 new princes to the throne have been chosen. They are the Emerging Tuskers…
Words: Keri Harvey
Pictures: Keri Harvey and Supplied
We’re up early, ready to leave when the gate opens at Letaba Rest Camp in northern Kruger. The first light of day offers excellent game viewing and sightings of interesting animal behaviour, and we’re not missing the action for anything. In the picnic basket, a flask of hot coffee and a week’s supply of rusks is backup, should we encounter something extraordinary and stay out longer than usual.
We spot the usual suspects – impala, baboons sunning themselves, and a large herd of buffalo in the distance, as we head in the direction of the Giriyondo Border Gate, which connects Kruger with Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. This effectively creates the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park that also includes Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou.
The day is warm and still, hardly a leaf moves. Then a tree next to the road shakes and we stop and wait. The Mopani tree continues to shiver. A grey trunk appears, so close we can see the scars in its wrinkled skin. And then the tusks, the huge tusks. One drapes long and low to the ground, the other curves upwards. There’s no mistaking that they belong to a giant elephant, and we know this is our lucky sighting for the day.
Slowly the massive bull emerges. He looks back at us but shows no aggression. Still, his size is intimidating as we sit transfixed in what feels like a Lilliputian double cab. We watch and he watches and for a moment I wonder who is really watching whom, since we are the intruders today.
The bull forces his way out of the Mopani thicket and we get to photograph him from all angles, and notice his perfectly shaped ears as he slowly eases out onto the roadside, before he ambles off ahead of us.
Back at camp, we head for the the Elephant Hall museum, where the Magnificent Seven – the seven biggest tuskers in Kruger – are honoured, and enquire about the identity of our big tusker that morning. A photo ID display of current big tuskers there makes this easy, and Kirsty Redman, interpretive officer for the Nxanatseni Region of Kruger, is around to confirm our excitement.
We had in fact seen Masthulele, currently the biggest known and named elephant in Kruger. He’s one of the current crop called the Emerging Tuskers and is named after Dr Ian Whyte, Kruger’s retired large-mammal scientist, who formalised an Emerging Tuskers project in about 2001.
Kirsty explains that Masthulele means ‘the quiet one’, which was Dr Whyte’s local name, one he earned from his colleagues for his quiet temperament on research trips, a temperament he shares with Masthulele.
Back in the early 1980s, when elephant poaching in Kruger was a big problem, Dr Uys deVillers Pienaar (known as U de V), chief warden at the time, had the idea of calling the seven elephants with the biggest tusks in Kruger the Magnificent Seven, to raise awareness of the poaching problem as well as honour any conservation success.
Each of these elephants was named or where it lived or what it looked like – Dzombo, Kambaku, João, Mafunyane, Ndlulamithi, Shawu and Shingwedzi. Public response was overwhelming, awareness went global, and the Magnificent Seven – which were regularly spotted – became arguably the most renowned elephants on Earth.
But by the mid-eighties, all The Magnificents were dead – two at the hands of poachers. Their glory days were short – only around five years – but most of their lives were long, many living into their fifties. Dzombo died in a hail of AK47 bullets fired by poachers from Mozambique, and Kambaku had to be euthanised after a bullet wound turned septic. The rest of the Magnificents died of natural causes.
“These elephants were the biggest of that era,” Kirsty tells us. “And they roamed throughout the park. So the chances of the public seeing these big tuskers was high. Even now, decades after the last of The Magnificents died, people remain fascinated by them. It may be their sheer size – each had tusks weighing in at a combined minimum of 100kg – or maybe simply because they are elephants and embody grace and intelligence.”
Now, with the new generation of big tuskers in Kruger, the legend continues. Elephants are constantly being monitored as contenders for the title Emerging Tusker – their tusks need to protrude at least a metre from the lip line – and at the moment there are 15. All the present tuskers are named in honour of rangers or SANParks staff members, both living and deceased, who made a notable contribution to conservation. The 15 are Bidzane, Machachule, Masasana, Masthulele, Madolo, Mavalanga, Mbazo, Mculu, Ngunyupezi, Ngonyama, Ntombazana, Nwashinangana, Thandamamba, Timaka and Tsotsi.
Kruger currently has about 17 000 elephants and a limited elephant-poaching concern, having lost just two to poachers in 2014. So for now the 15 Emerging Tuskers are safe in their various territories across the park.
Masthulele ‘The Quiet One’ heads the list and continues to fascinate all who see him. He symbolises this new generation of greats, and has claimed his place as a living legend among elephants so impressive they simply have to be seen.
The Magnificent Seven
- Dzombo (1935-1985) Named after the Dzombo stream near the Shingwedzi valley. His tusks were a classic shape and almost identical at just over 56kg each.
- João (dates unknown) He was named after the windmill where he was first found, along the Shingwedzi River. João was a massive bull with combined tusk weight of 130kg. His ivory is the only set missing from Elephant Hall, as they were broken and never recovered.
- Kambaku (1930-1985) His name is Tsonga for ‘Great Tusker’ or ‘Old Elephant Bull’ and he ranged from Satara/Orpen to the Timbavati and Crocodile Bridge. Kambaku had a perfect round hole through his left ear and a combined tusk weight of more than 127kg. He had to be euthanised when a bullet wound went septic.
- Mafunyane (birth date unknown, died 1983) Named for a former warden of Kruger with a quick temper – Lou Steyn – Mafunyane means ‘irritable one’ and aptly refers to this tusker’s disdain for humans. His tusks were symmetrical and identical in size and weight at 55.1kg each. One of the toes on his back left foot was splayed, giving him a unique footprint. He also had a 10cm hole from his skull to nasal cavity through which he could breathe.
- Ndlulamithi (1927-1985) His name in Tsonga means ‘taller than the trees’, which referred to his height of about 345cm at the shoulder. Ndlulamithi was aggressive, secretive and seldom seen. He died of natural causes, with a combined tusk weight of 121.8kg.
- Shawu (1982) He spent his life around the Shawu Valley and was named accordingly. His range was around Letaba and he was noted as having the longest tusks of a Kruger elephant and the sixth-longest in the world at 317cm on the left and 305.5cm on the right. Shawu lived to nearly 60 years of age and died of natural causes.
- Shingwedzi (1934-1981) Named for the area he traversed, Shingwedzi’s tusks were a classic master-servant set – with a large right servant tusk of 264cm and a short left master tusk of 207cm. Their combined weight was 105.3kg. He died of natural causes, close to Shingwedzi camp.
Letaba Elephant Hall
- At Letaba Rest Camp in Kruger National Park, this museum and exhibition centre honours all things elephant, especially the Magnificent Seven and the Emerging Tuskers.
- It was custom built to house the giant tusks of The Magnificents, which are all there bar those of João’s that were never recovered after they were broken, probably in a territorial battle.
- Another three big tuskers honoured are Mandleve, Nhlangulene and Phelwana.
- All ivory housed in the museum is numbered and recorded by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and is kept under heavy security.