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Some of the biggest elephants in Africa are found not in the Kruger National Park, but in a far smaller, less well-known reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Here, near the north-east coast on the border of Mozambique, several hundred elephants roam the sand forests and swamps of Tembe Elephant Park. Huge mahogany, tamboti, saddle-pod and Lebombo wattle trees grow in ancient ocean sand deposited several millennia ago by a retreating sea. Several hundred other tree species also grow in this nutrient-poor soil, their deep tap-roots sucking up ground water replenished by sub-tropical cyclones.
At one stage the elephants – which migrated up and down the Maputaland coast – used the thick sand forests of Tembe to escape harassment, poaching and the bullets of soldiers during the Mozambican civil war.
The local Tembe tribe own and co-manage the 30 000 hectare reserve, in conjunction with Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. The tribe willingly moved out of the area in 1983, so that the reserve could be created to protect the last sizeable population of free-roaming elephants in SA.
There are about 220 elephants at Tembe, and if there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to see, it’s elephants. But there’s another reason for the creation of a fenced reserve: the elephants have been prevented from raiding the communities’ crops.
Ultimately, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife aims to drop the northern fence, to link with Mozambique’s Maputo Special Reserve, creating a transfrontier park, so that the elephants can resume their migration. But this is one of the poorest areas in the country and poaching is prevalent. It will be some time before any fences are dropped.
Because the thick forests have provided sanctuary to the elephants for several decades, today the reserve hosts some of the biggest bulls in Africa, including some with tusks that are among the heaviest and longest.
According to wildlife surgeon and elephant expert Dr Johan Marais, hunters and poachers have systematically killed off most of Africa’s biggest elephants, including the so-called hundred-pounders – elephants with tusks weighing in excess of about 50kg each.
“During the early 1900s, great tuskers were the norm in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the south-western corner of Ethiopia, southern Sudan and the grassy plains of Tanzania and Kenya.”
Elephant bulls reach their breeding prime at about 35 to 40 years of age – but, “this is the same time when they also emerge as hundred-pounders. Their ivory grows exponentially at this stage so that it becomes very large over only a short number of years.”
“Hunting of these magnificent bulls takes place exactly at this stage so that few of these bulls are able to pass their genes on to future generations. This is… why the once numerous hundred-pounders have diminished to less than 40 bulls in the whole of Africa today.”
But today, visitors to Tembe have the chance to see some of these remaining bulls. “The best genes for ivory in Africa are currently in Kenya, in Tsavo National Park,” says Dr Marais. “The second best place in Africa, in my opinion, is Tembe Elephant Park.”
The biggest tusker currently in SA roams the forests and swamps of Tembe. On our first morning in the park, we are treated to a sighting of iSilo at the main waterhole.
iSilo means “king of kings” in isiZulu and he is the largest of all Tembe’s tuskers, and one of the biggest in Africa.
He is about 50 years old, weighing between 6 500 and 7 000kg, and standing about 3.2m tall. iSilo’s tusks are estimated to be about 2.5m long, and weigh between 60 and 65kg each.
At the privately-run Tembe Elephant Lodge in the reserve, guests are taken on game drives to see not only elephants but also lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino (both black and white), wild dog, as well as more than 340 bird species, including special ones like the rare Neergaard’s sunbird, pink-throated twinspot and African broadbill.
The reserve is also home to the country’s largest population of Africa’s second-smallest antelope after the blue duiker – the rarely-seen suni. Adult suni weigh just a few kilograms, and sometimes fall prey to swooping Crowned Eagles.
But you don’t have to leave the lodge to see wildlife. During dinner, watch out for bushbabies which scamper down the trunks of the mahogany trees to pinch snacks from the diners’ plates. And even though the camp is wired with a single electrical cable as a deterrent, iSilo regularly dismantles the barrier, and wanders among the tents and chalets at night.
“Don’t be surprised if you see a glint of ivory in the moonlight while walking back to your tent,” lodge manager Ernest Robbertse explains. “For some reason iSilo enjoys hanging around here. No doubt he feels comfortable, but most probably his teeth are wearing down and he enjoys the soft grass and leaves growing in camp.”
Because the reserve has only sandy tracks, a 4x4 vehicle is mandatory for exploring.
Overall, Tembe is one of the wildest reserves I’ve visited during my Year in the Wild. But it’s one of the most important too, because it conserves some of the biggest wild elephants left on earth. - Cape Times
l Photojournalist Ramsay is on a year-long journey to 31 of SA’s most special nature reserves, including all the national parks. For more, see www.yearinthewild.com For Tembe, call 031 267 0144 or see www.tembe.co.za