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Original Source: yearinthewild.com

Tembe Elephant Park in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal is one of my favourite protected areas. In 300 square kilometres of sandforest, woodland and swamps, you’ll find some of the biggest tuskers in Africa, one of the most successful lion populations, some of the biggest Cape buffalo, thousands of nyala antelope, as well as one of the smallest antelope in Africa – the suni. Plus, there are some unique bird species to be found.

A bull elephant wandering at dusk in among the sandforest near Muzi Swamps
A bull elephant wandering at dusk in among the sandforest near Muzi Swamps
There are thousands of nyala in Tembe, and depsite an annual cull by the rangers, as well as regular predation by lions, they are as numerous as ever. They just love this sandforest habitat! Although park ecologists are worried that the abundant nyala are now clearing out the forest undergrowth, which may jeopardise the habitat of the tiny suni antelope, for which the park was originally proclaimed!
There are thousands of nyala in Tembe, they just love this sandforest habitat! Although park ecologists are worried that the abundant nyala are now clearing out the forest undergrowth, which may jeopardise the habitat of the tiny suni antelope, for which the park was originally proclaimed!
Crowned hornbill
Crowned hornbill
Tembe may have some of the biggest elephants in Africa, but there are also some monster buffalo!
Tembe may have some of the biggest elephants in Africa, but there are also some monster buffalo!

As usual, I stayed at Tembe Elephant Park Lodge, located just inside the southern boundary. It’s the only place for visitors to stay, and it’s probably one of the best value-for-money wildlife lodges in Africa. What I enjoy is the laid-back atmosphere… there’s a “luxurious camping” zeitgeist that prevails, and it’s not over-serviced, so you won’t have someone bugging you every five minutes asking if everything is alright. Suits me just fine! At the same time, visitors mustn’t expect a five-star experience.

The laid-back Tembe Lodge is great for families or couples who don't want to pay the earth for an authentic wildlife experience.
The laid-back Tembe Lodge is great for families or couples who don’t want to pay the earth for an authentic wildlife experience.

There are guided game drives every morning and afternoon, but guests are also allowed to drive their own vehicles from the lodge around the park (remember, the thick sandy tracks mean that only 4x4s are allowed – and remember to deflate tyres to around 1 bar!).

Tembe has a very special feel about it. The sandforest habitat only grows here and a bit further south in KwaZulu-Natal. Impressive pod mahogany trees are just one of several species that grow in deep beach sand, left by a retreating ocean several million years ago. The Muzi Swamps in the east of the park is an extremely productive place to watch the huge elephants and buffalo, but undoubtedly, the best place in the whole park is Mahlasela hide, which looks out over a huge waterhole.

In the north-eastern Muzi Swamps of Tembe, there is a big pod of hippo that is relatively unphased by humans.
In the north-eastern Muzi Swamps of Tembe, there is a big pod of hippo that is relatively unphased by humans.
I photographed this hamerkop catching and swallowing a frog whole in the Muzi Swamps in the north-east of Tembe.
I photographed this hamerkop catching and swallowing a frog whole in the Muzi Swamps in the north-east of Tembe.

If you spend a day here, you’re almost guaranteed to see at least a few of the famed Tembe elephant bulls, which carry some of the most impressive ivory in Africa (these elephants’ genes survived the hunting onslaught of the colonial era, because the thick sandforest and incessant menace of tsetse flies kept the hunters out.)

The bull elephants of Tembe are among the finest specimens on the African continent. I have written about them before, but it's worth mentioning again: the Tembe elephants carry some of the biggest ivory in Africa, and according to elephant expert and wildlife veterinary surgeon Johan Marais, they are only second in size to those found in Tsavo.
The bull elephants of Tembe are among the finest specimens on the African continent. The Tembe elephants carry some of the biggest ivory in Africa, and according to elephant expert and wildlife veterinary surgeon Johan Marais, they are only second in size to those found in Tsavo.
This male giraffe was bombarded by red-billed oxpeckers. These birds - which feed on ticks on the wild herbivores - were reintroduced into Tembe in the past few years after being absent for several decades. In the 1950s the whole of northern KZN was sprayed with pesticide to rid the area of tsetse flies. The pesticide wiped out the tseste flies, but it also wiped out the ticks and oxpeckers.
This male giraffe was bombarded by red-billed oxpeckers. These birds – which feed on ticks on the wild herbivores – were reintroduced into Tembe in the past few years after being absent for several decades. In the 1950s the whole of northern KZN was sprayed with pesticide to rid the area of tsetse flies. The pesticide wiped out the tseste flies, but it also wiped out the ticks and oxpeckers.
With all that elephant and buffalo poo around, there are millions of dung beetles too! This macro photograph shows off the incredibly anatomy of these hard-working creatures.
With all that elephant and buffalo poo around, there are millions of dung beetles too! This macro photograph shows off the incredibly anatomy of these hard-working creatures.

Sadly, Tembe has lost most of its white and black rhino to poachers in the past few years. Situated alongside the southern Mozambican border, Tembe is a prime target for poachers. Although the reserve is fenced, the poachers are clearly able to breach the boundary and wander around the reserve relatively easily, especially because the thick sandforest makes it easy to hide. I’m very worried that Tembe will also be targeted by elephant poachers in the next few years… the ivory poaching epidemic that has already started in East Africa is slowly making its way down into Southern Africa, and Tembe’s big tuskers are at serious risk. If Tembe can’t even secure their rhino population… what of the elephants? Time for the park to start making serious plans, I think.

One of the many impressive bull elephants that roam Tembe.
One of the many impressive bull elephants that roam Tembe.

Many thanks to elephant monitor and biotechnician Leonard Muller, rhino monitor Eric Schram and park manager Richard Schutte for accommodating me and showing me around the park.

Ndumu River Lodge
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.