Tantalising Tembe Tuskers

When we booked for a two night stay in Tembe Elephant Reserve it was with the intention of pursuing a checklist of Zululand birds for my ‘Big Year’ bird count and possibly seeing one or two of the renowned large tusker’s for which the reserve is named. Little did we know that within 48 hours we would become enchanted by this mystical landscape of Zululand wilderness.

The Reserve was established at the request of the Tonga leader, Chief Tembe, when thirty thousand hectares were entrusted to KZN Wildlife as a means of protecting the elephant herds from decimation on the Mozambiquian leg of their migration route during the civil war.

There are three ways of exploring Tembe. The least accessible is as a researcher camping in the wilderness area, approximately 20,000 hectares which is closed to public access and is used for game breeding and wildlife research. Secondly you can enter as a day visitor and traverse a series of sandy Jeep tracks in a private 4×4 vehicle. Lastly, you can book into Tembe Lodge, a community managed and staffed tented camp and be treated to two daily game drives and viewing time at the hide overlooking the main waterhole.

Arriving at the lodge, we were welcomed by the staff with a choral greeting, offered refreshing towels and shown the facilities before being guided to our tented accommodation. Accessed along a sandy path flanked by deciduous Marula Trees, the structure of our tent was integrated into the perimeter fence. Electrified, the fence offered psychological protection against the wildlife of the reserve. That night some guests would discover just how ineffective the fencing was against a pair of determined elephant bulls seeking out the last of the Marula fruit growing inside the perimeter.

All very civil, after settling in we had lunch after a siesta and set off on an afternoon game drive at 15h00. Patrick, a guide from the Tembe clan of the Tonga tribe greeted us and described what we could expect at this time of the year. He then asked us what we would like to see.

From the onset it was apparent that Amanda and I were clearly in the minority requesting Variable and Neergard’s Sunbird’s and Gorgeous Bushskrike amongst other birds that frequented the reserve.

It was when Hans, in a booming Germanic accent, declared that “Ve vant to see Elefant’s, especially Isilo” that we realised that this was not to be a birding stage of our trip.

Rounding each bend of the meandering jeep track, emerging from every overhanging branch Hans would loudly share, in German and English, the entire ancestry of the remaining herd of elephants.

For the first hour, as we traversed woodland, sand forest and approached a marsh the incessant dialogue had us hoping that we could change our game drive for the remaining two days of our visit.

Emerging from open thicket onto the perimeter fence skirting the marsh Patrick informed us that we would stop for a sundowner before heading back to camp. Slowing down to cross a narrow drainage line, we spotted a Brown Hooded Kingfisher perched on the boundary fence waiting to hawk any insect disturbed from the grass by the wheels as we passed.

Brown Hooded KingfisherAnd then, as the last photo of the posing kingfisher was framed, a trio of elephants were seen sauntering out of the tall reeds approximately 700 metres away, the sight of which galvanised Patrick into action. Transformed from a sedate game drive, we clung on as he raced to reach a distant location that would have us meet the elephants as they crossed the management road on the eastern side of the marsh. Drawing closer, we saw even more elephants emerging from the reeds and making for the palms where they would spend the evening feeding on the fruit. This transpired to be a breeding herd comprising 19 elephants ranging from a few months old to a domineering matriarch.

Tembe elephantThe timing could not have been better orchestrated, the setting sun casting a rosy pink glow on the hard hue of the elephants, an ethereal mist rising from the marsh and younger elephants revelling in the last moments of sunshine jousting and wrestling while the babies bounced along trying to stay as close to their mothers.

Birds or no birds, sitting watching the herd of elephants drift past the vehicle and get absorbed into the palm veld was one of those satisfying moments that can only be experienced in Africa. As the last swishing tail disappeared from view, Patrick started up and set out for a sundowner location 1km further north. We had all bundled out of the vehicle, opened a preferred beverage and were admiringly discussing the antics of the herd when a second elephant herd emerged from the reeds, this time moving in our direction.

Another rough day in Africa!

Baffalo BullAs the second herd got swallowed up in the palm veld and the sun dipped below the horizon, we reluctantly boarded the game vehicle and prepared for the return drive to the camp. Make no mistake, on an open vehicle between sunset and sunrise, temperature can be cool to cold, especially in autumn and winter. Patrick distributed fleece blankets and was in the process of turning the vehicle around when we spotted three old bull Cape Buffalo tranquilly chewing their cud. One had the largest pair of horns I have ever seen.

Dinner was a community affair with the staff courteous, attentive and proud of their participation in the reserve. But, things were not of necessity tranquil in the camp. Two guests seated adjacent to our table were understandably excited. Walking from their tent, they had had a close encounter with an elephant bull who had broken through the electric fence and was serenely feeding on the Marula fruit near their tent. Meeting a towering elephant in the dark while on foot is intimidating at the best of times, but if you are accustomed the security of an urban environment and think that you are secure from wildlife in a camp, it can be exciting to say the least. With little else that could be done, Tom, the camp manager announced that when we all returned to our tents, a member of staff would accompany us for safety. After dinner, as we departed for our tent we declined the staff member, after all, what protection could an unarmed person offer against a bull elephant in the dark?

At dawn we awoke to discover that the elephant had pushed over a tree near the kitchen and broken an exit hole through the fence. Splashing down a cup of coffee and eating some fruit we again boarded the 4×4 in search of Isilo. In the name of fairness, Patrick had shuttled our seating arrangement so that we would all have a different perspective for the drive. This placed us next to Hans who continued his ‘lectures; on the reserve, management strategies, but mostly about Isilo. Approximately 60 years old, Isilo had a life expectancy of little more than another 18 months.

Elephant molarElephants, once they have worn down their sixth set of molars by the age of 60, have no more teeth to masticate their food and literally die a slow death of starvation. Though after 5 visits to Tembe Elephant Reserve and having never seen Isilo, Hans, an avid watcher of the Tembe webcam, had noticed that Isilo’s condition was deteriorating. His flanks were shrinking and the depressions on his head were getting deeper indicating that his ability to digest food was deteriorating as a result of poor nutrition. Apparently during the 2012 winter, management had thought that Isilo may die as the winter vegetation lacked sufficient nutrients to sustain him till the flush of succulent spring growth. But he pulled through, though again concerns where that 2013 may well be his last winter which made Hans’ quest to see Isilo even more urgent.

Hans is not merely an avid “Big Tusker” follower, he is obsessive. For twenty years he has spent every free moment in pursuit of being able to photograph the true tuskers, those rare elephants that carry the largest tusks. He was one of the last people to see Duke, a tusker from Kruger National Park and related how for 5 year he never saw him. Then in Dukes final year prior to dying of starvation, he saw and photographed him on no less than five occasions. With plans to visit Tembe every two months over the next year, time was running out for Hans to realize his quest of seeing Africa’s current largest living tusker before he died.

Buffalo HerdAs we headed to the marsh we had a fleeting break in the ‘elephant lectures’ and saw a normally elusive Southern Banded Snake Eagle, sunning itself in the morning sun. Out on the marsh we were fortunate enough to see a herd of 150 Buffalo marching in singe file towards the water. The social structure of herds is always refreshing and educational to watch. The young, as with all species, spend time playing and jousting, the females seemingly burdened with responsibility, while immature males clash in a prelude that will determine who will be the dominant bull in the future. Surrounding this activity, the breeding bulls remain alert for predators and chase any challengers to the pecking order.

Refreshment breakIn addition to our quest to find Isilo, Patrick was also in pursuit of finding some lion. Radio communications with the other game vehicles guided us towards the wilderness section of the reserve. Fresh tracks on the jeep track added to the excitement and garnered a sense of expectation. At a fork in the road we turned right and crossed a drainage line. Nothing! Still, it was a perfect place to stop for a coffee break before heading to camp.

Returning to camp we met another game vehicle with a report of a glimpse of a male lion, but after searching where the spoor left the road, it was not meant to be and we started the slow journey back to camp passing the inevitable Nyala behind every bush.

Tembe waterholeAt camp we arranged to be taken to the hide at which the webcam was located, but being a weekend and a public holiday, the hide was teaming with photographers with little space to sit, so Amanda and I decided to return to the camp.

There is something very civil about a siesta before continuing with an afternoon drive. Setting out, Hans defined a tusker. In essence a bull elephant which has a huge pair of tusks. Elephants stop growing when they are 40 years old and all the calcium is shunted into tusk growth. It is at this stage that the diameter and the length of the tusks increase dramatically. By now, sitting in the game vehicle had become a competition to sit near Hans in an endeavour to learn more. Tembe is unique because, like everything in nature, genetics play a role in tusk size, and the gene pool of Tembe is undiluted and carries the best potential of large tuskers. The gene pool of Kruger National Park had been diluted with the relocation of some of the larger bulls to other locations. The true impact of genetic influence can be seen in Addo Elephant Park where, due to selective hunting, only elephants with small or no tusks remained resulting in a population of elephants either lacking or possessing very small tusks. It is only the recent addition of Kruger bulls to Addo that has resulted in an increase in tusk size amongst the herd.

Tembe Elephant BullWe had a selection of bull elephants cross the track on our drive, each time we divided our attention between Hans and Patrick as they debated the name of the elephant and discussed their identifying features. A nick in the ear, a shorter right tusk, a broken off tip, hairs absent from the tail. Through Hans’ enthusiasm each elephant developed an identity. One young bull enjoyed mock charging the vehicle, dusting off his head and ears with a vigorous head shake a mere 5m from the vehicle, enough to get adrenalin coursing through anyone’s veins. Others, indifferent to the vehicle, sauntered into the thicket like shadows.

Without a doubt, the highlight for the afternoon drive had nothing to do with elephant’s. As we rounded a thicket, I heard a Gorgeous Bushshrike, seemingly 5m from the road. Imploring Patrick to reverse, we were treated to no less than three male Gorgeous Bushshrike’s in a vocal showdown as one female hopped through the surrounding branches. With their vivid red throat’s blazing out of the thicket, it was a once in a lifetime sighting as we watched spellbound for 5 minutes before the four birds flew off.

As we returned to camp, we could sense disappointment in Hans. In essence we only had the morning drive to find Isilo before we left and without any reports of his proximity to the camp, chances seemed slim that his quest would be realized on this visit.

In the morning at the pre drive coffee, there was a buzz in camp, some guests had had Isilo and his askari eating right outside their tents at 4am. He had walked past a third tent with the moonlight gleaming on his monsterous tusks. From all their accounts, this had been a defining moment, something that articles and webcams could not convey about this majestic elephant.

Isilo on roadWe all jumped in the game vehicle, and with the musical chairs, Hans was in the front row. Exiting the camp, we were the second vehicle and in the headlights a pair of ginormous spoor headed down the jeep track. They were close, but would they be close enough? Adrenalin levels dropped to 80%. And then, as we rounded a corner, ambling down the track was Isilo. He towered above the ground, almost dwarfing his askari, a large bull in his own rights. He had a slow lumbering pace, stopping frequently to rest. We followed, stopping when Isilo did, inching forward when he moved off. He was incredible, larger than the limits of our imagination, a true rarity in modern Africa and without a doubt the rightful possessor of the title of ‘largest Tusker’ in Africa.

IsiloFor twenty minutes we slowly followed as the two bulls headed to the waterhole, most likely for a drink at the water hole. And Hans? Amanda turned to him, her eyes moist with emotion and asked what he thought. For the first time, Hans remained silent and just shook his head in amazement.

In a stately manner, Isilo turned off the road and lumbered into the bush. Hans dabbed his eyes. It was apparent that Isilo was weak, that his time is close and that the coming winter would be a challenge for him. Would Isilo survive to the winter of 2014? Who knows. For Hans, this was not a culmination of a quest, but the start of a new journey till Isilo relinquished his reign.

The rest of the game drive was a surreal whorl of landscape, tracking rhino and fleeting glimpses of birds and giraffe.

Packed up and ready to depart, Amanda and I reflected on how, while we had not seen all the birds we had wanted to, the stay at Tembe had become more than we could ever have hoped for. Thanks to Patricks gentle explanations of the wildlife fed by a love of nature and the passion and knowledge of Hans, we will always cherish our visit and value everything we learnt.

Most of all, I hope that conservation efforts in Africa are successful so that future generations can get to appreciate the wonders of nature as we were able to.

We would have loved to stay in this magical reserve for longer, but adventure was calling and we had to move onto the next stage of our travels in Kosi Bay where we planned to visit the historical fish traps.

2 thoughts on “Tantalising Tembe Tuskers

  1. Hi there!

    Absolutely spellbounding recollection of your time at Tembe! Wow!

    We are heading to Tembe this Thursday for our first visit, and I must admit Isilo is top of our wishlist as well. Thanks to your vivid portrayal I’m finding it very difficult to concentrate on work at the moment…

    Warm regards

  2. Hi there – do you have Han’s contact details, or could you put me in touch with him?

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