Tag Archives: Big Tuskers

Celebrating our Tuskers

Elephants are a big drawcard for visitors to our parks and reserves, being charismatic animals and members of the famed “Big 5”. For us too, encountering elephants is always a special treat: witnessing the interactions between different herd members or the playful antics of the calves, and there’s few things in nature as beautiful as the gait of a confident elephant bull, his massive head swaying from side to side, intent on ensuring anything and everything in his way clears out before he gets there.

The 12th of August annually is celebrated as World Elephant Day. Elephants in Africa and Asia are faced with the threats of escalating poaching, habitat loss and various other conflicts with humans. With an estimated 100 African elephants killed daily for the illegal ivory trade in Asian markets, their population is in rapid decline. World Elephant Day was launched in 2012, to bring attention to the plight of these iconic animals, and has been observed annually since. South Africa has a growing population of almost 27,000 elephants (2015 estimate), but we have not been entirely isolated from the poaching happening on a larger scale in several other African countries.

One of our greatest joys when visiting South Africa’s wild places is being treated to an encounter with a real “Tusker”; a majestic elephant bull carrying massive ivory. There are only a handful of these enigmatic animals on the continent, and they are living monuments to those who protect our wild places for generations to come. Owing to their special status, they are given names by the Park authorities, often according to specific areas they roam or characteristic physical features or in remembrance of rangers or other members of staff that dedicated their lives to the Park.

Allow us to celebrate these magnificent creatures on World Elephant Day by sharing some of our encounters with Tuskers from four of our Parks with you.

Addo Elephant Park

With the proclamation of the Addo Elephant National Park in 1931, only 11 African Elephants remained in the Addo district. Addo’s elephants have responded wonderfully to the protection they’ve been afforded since the Park’s proclamation, and today number over 600! The population had an interesting trait however, due to hunting and the small founder population, in that the bulls had only small tusks and the cows had none at all. In order to address this, Park management translocated eight mature bulls from the Kruger National Park to introduce new genes into the pool in 2002 and 2003.

Valli was one of the bulls that moved to Addo from Kruger. He was named after then Minister of Environment and Tourism, Mohammed Valli Moosa. We saw Valli in bad light one afternoon in May 2010 while visiting Addo. Not a great photo, but a memorable experience! Sadly, Valli died in December 2017 following a fight with a younger bull.

Addo’s Valli seen in May 2010

We were most pleased to have this encounter with the beautiful Derek – certainly a contender for the vacant throne of Addo’s elephant king – during our December 2017 visit to Addo.

Unfortunately we weren’t around yet when Addo’s most famous elephant, Hapoor, ruled the Park for 24 years from 1944 to 1968. Today, a reconstruction of his head with the characteristic nicked ear that earned him his name has pride of place in the information centre at Addo’s Main Camp.

Pilanesberg National Park

There’s a population of approximately 240 elephants in the Pilanesberg National Park. Most of the fully grown adults in the Park today were babies when they were brought to the Pilanesberg from the Kruger National Park in the 1980’s , as the local population was eradicated by hunters before the Pilanesberg was proclaimed a reserve.

Pilane was one of six dominant bulls translocated to Pilanesberg from Kruger Park in March of 1998, when the absence of older bulls caused behavioural problems in the young bulls then transitioning to adulthood at Pilanesberg. At the time he was estimated to be about 34 years old and was named after Chief Pilane of the Bakgatla. We saw Pilane in March 2012. Unfortunately he has broken both his tusks in recent years and passed away in October 2020 from old age.

Mavuso is another of the Kruger Bulls transported to Pilanesberg in 1998. He is named after Mavuso Msimang, who was SANParks’ CEO at the time. We saw Mavuso on a visit to the Pilanesberg in November 2018 at which time he was estimated to be about 55 years old. Sadly, Mavuso was killed in a fight with a younger bull in August 2020.

Pilanesberg’s tusker Mavuso

Tembe Elephant Park

Tembe Elephant Park is home to over 250 elephants, the descendants of the last free roaming herds in this part of South Africa.

Isilo, meaning “The King”, was the biggest Tusker at Tembe Elephant Park and for a time also the biggest living Tusker in South Africa (after Duke of Kruger broke his tusks). It is believed that the gentle giant succumbed to natural causes, a dignified end befitting his royal stature, in January 2014. Sadly it was also made known that his enormous tusks have been stolen, presumably by rhino poachers who happened upon the carcass before rangers found it. We were fortunate to spend some time in Isilo’s majestic presence during our visit to Tembe in May 2013. You’re welcome to have a look at our special blogpost recounting our audience with Isilo.

When we visited Tembe Elephant Park in 2013 we were lucky to see several other impressive tuskers – Tembe is renowned for them! Even though Ucici, Lebo and Zero is no longer roaming Tembe’s sandy forests and marshland, there’s still a number of up-and-coming Tuskers flying the Park’s flag high as a hotspot for majestic elephants.

Kruger National Park

Our flagship National Park, the Kruger, and the surrounding reserves has a combined population of around 21,000 elephants, but only a handful of these can be considered true “Tuskers”. Kruger’s renown as a home of elephant bulls carrying impressive ivory started with the naming of the Magnificent Seven in 1980 – Shawu, Mafunyane, Ndlulamithi, Kambaku, Dzombo, Shingwedzi and Joao. These seven big bulls immediately captured the imagination of the public, both in South Africa and overseas. Today, the tusks of six of them (Joao’s tusks broke before his death), along with the tusks of a few other big bulls that came after them (notably Nhlangulene, Mandleve and Phelwana) may be marveled at in the Elephant Hall in Letaba Rest Camp.

Over the years we were blessed to see several impressive Tuskers in the Kruger Park. Here’s a few of them.


We’ve had two encounters with the big bull known as “Hahlwa“, which is Tsonga for “twin” because he looks so similar to Masasana, another big Tusker roaming the Kruger Park (see further below). When we saw him the first time in June 2016, Hahlwa didn’t have a name yet, but this was corrected in May 2017 when the Kruger’s Emerging Tuskers Project announced him as one of the new crop of magnificent Tuskers to be seen in the Park. When we therefore saw him again in April 2018 we could put a name to the face.


Hlanganini was named after a small stream that has its confluence with the Letaba River in his relatively small home range around Letaba Rest Camp. We were fortunate to see Hlanganini just a stone’s throw from Letaba one afternoon in September 2007. Hlanganini’s carcass was found in August 2009, with rangers speculating that he died as a result of a fight with another bull about two months earlier. Just a couple of months before his death Hlanganini broke his left tusk. The stump of his left tusk measured 2.04m and weighed 45kg, his right tusk was 2.7m long and weighed 55.8kg.


Machachule means “the lead dancer” and was the nickname of late ranger Joe Manganye who served for 33 years in the Kruger National Park. Machachule originally had a large home range that stretched between the Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers, but was later regularly seen only around Shingwedzi Rest Camp. With Shingwedzi being one of our favourite places in the Kruger National Park, we were treated to two sightings of Machachule; the first being in October 2008 and the next almost three years later in June 2011. Sadly there doesn’t seem to have been any sightings of Machachule in the last few years and it is possible that he has died somewhere in the wilderness.


To date we’ve had two encounters with Masasana, one of the biggest Tuskers currently roaming the Kruger National Park. Our path crossed with his in June 2011 and then again in May 2018. Masasana shares his name, which means “one who makes a plan”, with retired Kruger staff member Johan Sithole who worked in the Park for 35 years.


Marilize and I saw Masbambela, at the time thought to be the second biggest Tusker in the Kruger Park, on the 15th of January 2006 along the S56 Mphongolo Road between Shingwedzi and Punda Maria Rest Camps. His usual home range was in the wilderness area west of Shingwedzi and he was seldom seen near the tourist roads. Masbambela was named after late ranger Ben Pretorius, who’s nickname means “one who can stand his man”. Some months after we saw Masbambela he broke the tip off his left tusk. Masbambela died of natural causes in November 2006. His tusks were recovered and the right measured 2.31m long with a weight of 49.05kg, while the remainder of his left tusk was 2.07m in length and weighed 42.75kg.



Mashangaan was named after ranger Mike “Ma Xangane” English, who was fluent in the Shangaan language and worked in the Kruger Park for 33 years. This old Tusker, who had a limited home range around Letaba Rest Camp, was estimated to have been around 58 years old when he died in August 2011. His left tusk measured 2.48m in length and weighed 42.9kg, the right weighed 37.3kg and was 2.07m long. We had just one encounter with Mashangaan, in September 2007.


Masthulele, “the quiet one”, was named in honour of renowned scientist and elephant expert Dr. Ian Whyte, who served in the Kruger National Park for 37 years. Masthulele roamed a vast area between Giriyondo Gate (north of Letaba Rest Camp) and the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve west of Kruger, and we were lucky to have had six different encounters with him (September 2007, June 2011, April 2012, June 2013, September 2013 and April 2014), all close to Letaba, making him a familiar favourite for the Wild de Wets. At the time of his death of natural causes late in 2016, Masthulele was considered the biggest Tusker in the Kruger Park and South Africa. His left tusk weighed 51kg and the right 54kg, and they were 2.34m and 2.45m long respectively.


This big Tusker was named after ranger Harry Kirkman who spent 36 years working in both the Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Wildtuin (game reserve) until his retirement in 1969. Like Mr. Kirkman, Muliliuane’s home range included both these conservation areas. We saw Muliliuane only once, in June 2005, and unfortunately he didn’t want to give us a good view of his enormous ivory. Muliluane died at the end of 2007, in Sabi Sand.


Our first sighting of Ndlovane was way back in September 2005, when he was much less an imposing animal than later in life. We then saw him in July 2016 and again in May 2018. Although very impressive already, Ndlovane was still considered a young bull (Ndlovane means “small elephant”) and with age on his side Ndlovane could have grown to be one of Kruger’s biggest Tuskers. Ndlovane died of natural causes in December 2020, having been in poor condition for some months prior. The measurements of his tusks have not been made public.


Ngonyama is a much larger Tusker today than when we saw him in February 2009 while enjoying a guided walk through the mopaneveld of northern Kruger. He was named after the late Dr. Uys de Villiers Pienaar, who started working in the Kruger National Park in 1955 and ended his career in 1991 as Chief Director of National Parks. “Ngonyama” is the isiZulu word for lion.


Ngunyupezi, meaning “one who likes to dance”, was named after late ranger James Maluleke (33 years service). In April 2007, the de Wets were among the first people to lay eyes on this irritable bull with his uniquely shaped left tusk. He roamed a vast area from Pafuri to south of the Shingwedzi River, but was later seen mostly near Shingwedzi Rest Camp. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to have been any recent sightings of Ngunyupezi and it is doubtful whether he is still alive.


Ngwenya is becoming an ever more familiar sight for tourists and his tusks have grown impressively recently. We had a few encounters with Ngwenya during September 2019.


Nkombo was named by research NGO Elephants Alive, who kept track of this emerging tusker with a satellite collar, which he lost in 2014. We were lucky to see him twice during a visit in September 2014, and as he is still seen regularly we hope for a few more sightings of him to see how his tusks have grown since.



We’ve had four encounters with the often irritable bull known as N’wendlamuhari, who’s name means “the river that is fierce when in flood”. Our first encounter with him was in 2009, and his tusks weren’t all that big then. It was therefore amazing to see him again in August 2011 and September 2012 and see how much his tusks have grown in stature. Today he is a very impressive specimen and we were fortunate to see N’wendlamuhari again on the 2nd of January 2020.


This bull’s Tsonga name means “walking around in circles” and is in reference to his very small home range centred around one of the Kruger National Park’s camps, where he is regularly seen. We were lucky to have seen Xindzulundzulu twice already – in September 2012 and December 2015 – and hope to see him at least a few more times still!

We’ve seen many more aspirant and impressive emerging Tuskers in Kruger over the years, many of which have not been named yet. These are a few of them.

Not wanting to attract the unwanted attention of poachers to these beautiful animals I’ve purposefully omitted the exact locations where we saw those Tuskers that are still alive. And if we are fortunate enough to see some of these big guys and others like them in future, we’ll come update this post with those pictures.



Easter Encounters with Tuskers

One of our greatest joys when visiting the Kruger National Park is being treated to an encounter with a real “Tusker”; a majestic elephant bull carrying massive ivory. There are only a handful of these enigmatic animals on the continent, and they are living monuments to those who protect our wild places for generations to come. Owing to their special status, they are given names by the Park authorities, often according to specific areas they roam or in remembrance of rangers or other members of staff that dedicated their lives to the Park.

During our Easter visit to Kruger, we were lucky to have seen no less than three of these awesome animals. Each one of them has some unique features – scars on the ears, marks on the trunk, characteristic tusk shape, etc. that aids in the identification. We’ve submitted our photographs to the Kruger’s Emerging Tuskers Project and will update this post once we hear the names of these tuskers.

“Bull 1”

This big bull is known as “Hahlwa“, which is Tsonga for “twin” because he looks so similar to Masasana, another big tusker roaming the Kruger Park.

This last bull has not been named yet, but the project team will be keeping a close watch on him until he too receives his well-deserved moniker.

For some more pictures of tuskers we’ve seen in Kruger in years past have a look at this post.

Them Big Old Bulls

What better way to wrap up the report back on our winter visit to the Kruger National Park‘s Satara and Mopani Rest Camps, than to appreciate those majestic elephant bulls that roam the Lowveld!

African Elephant

Loxodonta africana

The African elephant is one of our favourite animals, and every encounter we have with them is special and memorable. There’s just something so majestic in the confident swagger of the big bulls, so tender in the loving care of the cows and so playful in the antics of the calves.

Mature bulls weigh up to 6000kg and stand as high as 4m at the shoulder, while cows measure up to 3.4m high and weigh up to 4000kg. The forest elephant of Central Africa, a different race to those occuring here in South Africa, are much smaller.

The herd is the core of elephant society, and comprises an older, experienced, dominant female or matriarch, her sisters and daughters, and their calves of varying ages. Sometimes these smaller family units join up with others to create massive congregations of 200 or more animals. Elephants are active throughout the day and night, resting in the shade only during the hottest hours of the day, usually near water. Their intelligence is legendary and the close bonds between herd members, who look after their sick and dying kin as much as they can, has always been an inspiration to humans.

Mature bulls are mostly solitary, or accompanied by younger bulls known as “askaris”, and maintain a dominance hierarchy through threat displays and fights that would sometimes lead to the death of one of the combatants. After being forced from their maternal herds at the onset of puberty, around 15 years of age, bulls will only join up with the breeding herds again temporarily to mate.

Elephants are able to inhabit any habitat that has sufficient food, water and shade – they occur from the Namib Desert to Africa’s equatorial forests. They are big ecological drivers and a crucial component of the ecosystems in which they occur, having an immense impact on their environment. Their seemingly destructive feeding habits serves to prevent bush encroachment and provides niche habitats for a wide variety of smaller fauna. Consuming up to 300kg of plant material per day, the copious amounts of dung (about 100kg of dung per animal per day!) they produce provide an important source of food for a myriad of small animals, birds and insects. Elephants are not particularly fussy about what they eat and include herbs, grass, reeds, leaves, seeds, pods, bark, roots and branches in their diet, but they are rather fond of mopane trees and mlala palms.

During times of drought, elephants will dig wells in apparently dry river beds, thus providing water not only for themselves but also for all other wildlife in the vicinity. An adult elephant requires between 150 and 300 liters of drinking water daily. After years of continuous use, elephant mudbaths are enlarged and transformed into pans and waterholes that hold water for extended periods into the dry season. Several of South Africa’s passes were built along tracks used by countless generations of elephants to cross our mountains.

Elephant cows give birth to single calves (twins are extremely rare) at any time of year, after a 22-month gestation period. The calves weigh about 120kg at birth an can stand within an hour of being born. They are weaned at the age of two years, by which time they’ve become quite adept at using their trunks to feed and drink water.

South Africa’s wild places is home to several “Big Tuskers“; elephant bulls carrying exceptionally long and heavy ivory. Many of them are named, and become tourist attractions in their own right; living monuments to South Africa’s proud conservation history. The longest tusks recorded in South Africa, 3.05m and 3.17m, belonged to Shawu, a tusker from the Kruger National Park that became famous as one of the “Magnificent Seven” in the 1970’s and ’80’s. The heaviest belonged to Mandleve, who died in 1993 and was also from Kruger, with a combined weight of over 142kg.

Being one of Africa’s famed “Big 5“, elephants are a sought-after species for anyone visiting wildlife reserves where they occur. However, elephants are extremely dangerous and should be treated with the utmost respect. They can charge at speeds of between 40 and 50km/h, much faster than any human can run. Bulls in musth, a heightened state of aggressiveness fueled by elevated testosterone levels that drives their urge to mate and fight for dominance, are very irritable and will charge without much provocation. Mothers are extremely protective of their calves and you should never find yourself between a cow and her offspring. It is always best when viewing elephants to give them plenty of space and pay attention to any warning signs they may give: a head held high, ears held wide open, trunk tucked under the body, shaking the head and ears are all signs that you are too close and need to move away fast.

Adult elephants have little to fear from other animals, and lions and spotted hyenas are the only predators that realistically pose a threat to calves and juveniles. Most elephants succumb to fights, sickness, drought or old age. Old elephants spend most of their time feeding on green, soft vegetation along watercourses, due to them having worn our their last set of molars at about the age of 55 years, finding it increasingly difficult to feed on harder plant material. They then eventually die in these areas, possibly giving rise to the myth of an elephant graveyard.

Trio of pied kingfishers sharing an elephant bone

Trio of pied kingfishers sharing an elephant bone

The Kruger National Park protects South Africa’s biggest elephant population, and they are also a familiar sight in the Addo Elephant National Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Mapungubwe National Park, Pilanesberg National Park and Tembe Elephant Park. Smaller populations have also been established on several other state and private reserves. The tiny population in the Knysna Forests in the Garden Route National Park has fascinated South Africans for decades, with lots of speculation and theories about just how many continue to roam there.

Today, elephants in Africa and Asia are faced with the threats of escalating poaching, habitat loss and various other conflicts with humans. With an estimated 100 African elephants killed daily for the illegal ivory trade in Asian markets, their population is in rapid decline. World Elephant Day was launched on August 12th, 2012, to bring attention to the plight of these iconic animals, and has been observed annually since.


Remembering Isilo

Isilo was, towards the end of his life, the biggest tusker in South Africa, and our encounter with him at Tembe Elephant Park in May 2013 will forever be one of our most memorable wildlife experiences.


This is our third installment for the 5 Day Black-and-White Photo Challenge. Today we’d like to invite Dina of Perdebytjie se Nes, to join the challenge. She blogs in Afrikaans, our mother tongue, but you’ll need no translation to enjoy the fantastic photographs she shares on her blog! Dina, ons hoop jy sien jou weg oop om deel te neem maar dis geen probleem as jy nie kan nie, solank jy weet hoe baie ons jou blog geniet!

There are only two rules for this challenge:

1. On 5 consecutive days, create a post using either a past or recent photo in B&W.

2. Each day invite another blog friend to join in the fun.



Gone, but not forgotten

Dedicating this post to three of the most magnificent tuskers that roamed the Parks of South Africa and that we had the pleasure of seeing before they departed for heavenly pastures.

Gone, but not forgotten“is the theme for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge



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Back in Kruger: 20 September 2013

We bid you good evening from Letaba Rest Camp, in the Kruger National Park!

We arrived through Phalaborwa Gate early this morning and will spend one night here at Letaba before moving on to Punda Maria in the morning.

We had a fleeting late-morning sighting of a leopard on the prowl, but the highlight of the day unquestionably has to be the time we spent with the magnificent old elephant bull Masthulele, currently the biggest of Kruger’s tuskers, where he was feeding in the Letaba River not far from camp.

Edit: SANParks announced in September 2017 that Masthulele died during 2016.


World Elephant Day 2013

World Elephant Day 2013 logo

Today, elephants in Africa and Asia are faced with the threats of escalating poaching, habitat loss and various other conflicts with humans. World Elephant Day was launched on August 12th, 2012, to bring attention to the plight of these iconic animals and will be observed for the second time this year.

World Elephant Day 2013

The African Elephant is one of our favourite species and every encounter with them is a moment to treasure. Shown here is a young bull crossing a road in the Kruger National Park, just south of Skukuza Rest Camp.

If you’d like to see some more of very special South African elephants, have a look here:

Isilo of Tembe

Kruger’s Big Tuskers


Isilo of Tembe

In the presence of majesty

It’s mid-afternoon at Tembe Elephant Park, and we’re watching a number of elephant bulls milling around Mahlasela Pan. Occasionally the peaceful scene is disturbed by two or more of the younger bulls mock-fighting and testing one another’s strength with heads held high and tusks and trunks interlocked, sending nervous nyalas and impalas running for cover…


Slowly, royally, a magnificent tusker moves out from behind a clump of bushes to drink from the pan. The day before, when our guide Patrick asked us what we’d most like to see at Tembe I was very quick in replying “Isilo please!”. And now, perched in the game-viewing vehicle, we’re speechlessly admiring South Africa’s biggest living tusker – a wish granted, a prayer answered. We’re looking upon one of the most awesome animals in all creation and nothing could wipe the smile from our faces.


Isilo. “The King”. What an apt name.


We watch enthralled as Isilo moves around the pan, stopping often to quench what must be a massive thirst. The old gentleman is looking frail; at an estimated sixty years of age, he’d be having trouble eating the woody vegetation that has sustained him all his life. His tusks must weigh about 60 kilograms each, and in excess of 2.5 meters in length – what a strain it must be on the neck to keep those massive ivory pillars from scraping on the ground as he moves. Yet there’s no feeling of pity. This is the King!





Taking his leave now of the pan and the younger company around it, Isilo ambles westwards into the woodland. We follow alongside, hoping to spend as much time in his audience as he will allow. Occasionally he stops to enjoy a tender creeper or succulent young shoot.




My heart skips a beat as Isilo turns towards us, moving ever closer, gently and peacefully passing within touching distance of the admiring humans in the game-viewing vehicle. No one says a word. There’s no need to; the expressions on our faces tell the full story.


As we follow a while, Isilo slowly walking along the sandy track into the sunset, there’s no denying that we’ve spent a tiny fraction of our lives in the presence of majesty. Sala kahle Isilo. Stay well.


We went to Tembe Elephant Park in search of Isilo, and it was every bit the exhilarating experience we had hoped it would be. But Tembe turned out to be so much more: have a read here for more of our impressions of this South African treasure.

If you’re interested in South Africa’s big tuskers, you can see more pictures of these magnificent animals, from the Kruger National Park this time, here and here.

In the Background

We’ve just returned from a long weekend at the beautiful Tembe Elephant Park in the north of Kwazulu-Natal Province. In this photograph  South Africa’s biggest living tusker Isilo is seen next to a waterhole he was sharing with a number of other, smaller, elephant bulls. We’ll share more on Tembe and the magnificent Isilo with you in later posts.

In the Background (Isilo)

“In the background” is this week’s photo challenge from WordPress