Sabi Sands Photographic Safari

Death of the kings – Tembe’s elephants in danger

Original source: yearinthewild.com

Within a few months, Africa has lost two of her finest sons.

In April this year, iSilo, the biggest tusker in Southern Africa, born in the mid 1950s, was found dead in Tembe Elephant Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Although he died reportedly of old age, his immense tusks – each weighing around 65 kgs and over 2 metres in length – had been hacked off by poachers, and still remain missing.

iSilo - whose name meant "King of Kings" - when I photographed him two years ago. He was Southern Africa's biggest tusker, and arguably its most iconic creature. He reportedly died of natural causes earlier this year and his tusks were hacked from his face by poachers before rangers could find his carcass in the thick sand forest.

iSilo – whose name meant “King of Kings” – when I photographed him two years ago. He was Southern Africa’s biggest tusker, and arguably its most iconic creature. He reportedly died of natural causes earlier this year and his tusks were hacked from his face by poachers before rangers could find his carcass in the thick sand forest.

Then more recently in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, Satao, the biggest tusker in East Africa– with ivory as big as iSilo’s – was murdered by poachers with poisoned spears.

In both cases, when rangers found the carcasses the elephants’ faces had been so badly mutilated that it took several days to confirm the identity of these two magnificent animals. No arrests have been made yet in either case.

Both Satao and iSilo weighed more than six tons each and were the biggest terrestrial animals alive on Earth. Their tusks scraped the ground as they walked, and both creatures were of critical conservation importance. They are gone, but certainly not forgotten.

iSilo, when I photographed him two years ago. Now he is dead, but he has perhaps sired several young bulls whose ivory already show impressive size.

iSilo, when I photographed him two years ago. Now he is dead, but he has perhaps sired several young bulls whose ivory already show impressive size.

They were the finest examples of the last great tuskers which roam Africa. A hundred years ago there were probably several thousand “tuskers”, but today on the continent there are probably no more than 40 of these huge animals, the largest of Earth’s biggest land animals.

“Hunters and poachers have killed off most of Africa’s biggest elephants, including the so-called ‘hundred pounders’, or elephants with tusks weighing more than 50kg each,” explained wildlife veterinarian and elephant researcher Dr. Johan Marais.

“Bulls reach their breeding prime at 35 to 40 years of age – the same time as each of their tusks reach over 50kgs in weight. From then on, their ivory grows exponentially, so that it becomes very large over only a short number of years. Hunting and poaching of these big bulls takes place exactly at this stage, so that few of them are able to pass on their genes to future generations. This is why the number of hundred pounders has dropped to less than 40 in the whole of Africa today.”

In the early 1900s great tuskers were common in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the south-western corner of Ethiopia, southern Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

Now they are confined to small pockets of Africa. In South Africa, the last of these giants live in Tembe Elephant Park in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal. This protected area – the land of which is owned by the Tembe king – contains some of the finest elephant genes on the continent, “second only to Tsavo and Amboseli in Kenya,” according to Dr. Marais.

Probably the best place in South Africa to see big bull elephants - Mahlasela waterhole at Tembe.

Probably the best place in South Africa to see big bull elephants – Mahlasela waterhole at Tembe.

Tembe’s elephants were one of the few populations in Africa that weren’t persecuted by colonial hunters, because of the thick sand forests and tsetse flies. Today, a new threat is imminent.

According to Dr. Marais’ estimates, an elephant is being killed every twenty minutes in Africa. Last year in 2013, about 35 000 elephants – ten percent of the total population- were killed for their ivory, mostly in East Africa. At current rates of poaching, the largest animal on Earth will be near extinction in the wild in fifteen years time.

While the poaching of rhinos is getting a lot of press, the current destruction of Africa’s elephants is arguably more worrying. The high prices of rhino horn and ivory is driving the killing, and crime syndicates and militias like the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabaab are at the centre of the destruction, selling the ivory and rhino horn on the black market to purchase weapons and drugs.

Ivory can reach prices of R25 000 per kilogram in China, where it is crafted into carvings. Rhino horn is even more valuable.

But this is not the first time that elephants have been slaughtered en masse. For decades up until the 1980s, poaching was rife. A total ban on ivory sales in 1989 eased the demand in Asia, and African elephant populations benefitted from a respite in poaching for about 15 years.

Then in 2008, CITES (Convention in Trade of Endangered Species), approved the once-off sale to China of 108 tons of stockpiled ivory from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. This was the first time that China had been allowed to buy ivory legally since the 1989 ban. The funds received from the sale supposedly would be ploughed back into conservation, ensuring even more protection of Africa’s elephants.

At that time, Zimbabwe’s environment minister Francis Nhema said: “This will allow human beings and elephants to co-exist.” And former CITES secretary general Willem Wijnstekers stated: “This African solution to an African problem marks a great step forward for wildlife conservation.”

How wrong they have been proven. Far from the predicted positive result, the once-off sale of ivory created a legal market that has stimulated immense demand for ivory in Asia, and this allowed criminal syndicates the ability to launder and “legalise” their poached ivory.

Soon poachers were once again slaughtering elephants in Africa. Tragically, but maybe predictably, the funds from the sale of ivory never reached the ground, where rangers today have all but lost the battle against poachers.

I photographed this big tusker - called Zero - in May this year. He is now dead of natural causes. Fortunately, his tusks were recovered by rangers, unlike iSilo's, whose tusks were hacked from his face by poachers.

I photographed this big tusker – called Zero – in May this year. He is now dead of natural causes. Fortunately, his tusks were recovered by rangers, unlike iSilo’s, whose tusks were hacked from his face by poachers.

While Southern Africa has largely escaped the current elephant slaughter seen in East Africa, the tidal wave of ivory poaching is moving southwards.

In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park last year, several hundred elephants – and other animals – were poisoned with cyanide at a water hole. This year in Kruger National Park in South Africa, the first elephant in many years was killed by poachers in the northern Pafuri section followed by a second very recently.

And at Tembe, five hours north of Durban, some of the biggest tuskers remaining on the continent are now in serious threat. The park lies adjacent to the Mozambican border, with only a fence to keep the poachers out. Most of the rhinos in Kruger National Park are being killed by Mozambicans, and the elephants at Tembe are in danger of falling to the guns of similar operators.

The thin, paltry fence-line that separates South Africa's Tembe Elephant Park (on the left) and Mozambique on the right. As has been proven in Kruger, Mozambique is the arch-enemy of wildlife and rangers in South Africa.

The thin, paltry fence-line that separates South Africa’s Tembe Elephant Park (on the left) and Mozambique on the right. As has been proven in Kruger, Mozambique is the arch-enemy of wildlife and rangers in South Africa.

A small team of dedicated rangers at Tembe’s northern section is led by Len Gunter, one of the most committed section rangers I have met in Southern Africa’s protected areas. Len and his team are required to patrol the entire northern part of the 300 square kilometer park, often with inadequate equipment, technology and back-up support. When I was there a few months ago, the park had run out of diesel for the some of the patrol vehicles.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is responsible for the protection of Tembe and its elephants, but this provincial government organization is currently in financial distress, and there are signs of serious mismanagement at head office. Despite the undoubted dedication and commitment of rangers on the ground, the organisation as a whole doesn’t seem prepared for the threat of elephant poaching, having lost many of their rhino at Tembe and other parks to poachers.

On patrol with rangers in Tembe. Despite their commitment and dedication, there is a serious lack of back-up support and assistance from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife's head office.

On patrol with rangers in Tembe. Despite their commitment and dedication, there is a serious lack of back-up support and assistance from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s head office.

Yet Tembe still contains some of the finest elephants on the continent. According to the park’s bio-technician and elephant monitor Leonard Muller, several young bulls already boast impressive ivory, and are showing signs that they could continue the legacy of iSilo and Satao.

It is now up to KZN Wildlife and South Africa’s government to ensure that our country’s tuskers are protected at all costs. We have a duty to ourselves, to Africa, and to the world to make sure that these elephants remain safe and secure forever.



Scott Ramsay

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to www.LoveWildAfrica.com or www.facebook.com/LoveWildAfrica. Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.

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