A tusk task

First of all I must admit my culpability. Being a bushsnob I have always preferred to find and watch carnivores -read cats and more specifically lions- to the detriment of herbivores or browsers. This was my mind’s status quo until October last year when, accompanied by a friend -who happens to be a pachyderm specialist but who had nothing to do with what happened- we visited Hwange National Park. Well, perhaps my friend had something to do with it as he suggested that we stayed at Main Camp, a place we had always avoided in the past as we thought it would be too popular and “touristy”.

The reason for that visit was that my friend needed to better understand what had happened with a reported elephant poisoning at the Park but this is besides the point as we were only his “escort”. Taking advantage of the outing we visited several waterholes where water is pumped in for the animals, as the Park is extremely dry in October. No wonders then that elephants were there in large numbers, particularly in the afternoons. To give you an idea, on one of the days, from 16:00 to 17:00 hours we counted about 750 new elephants coming to the waterhole and they had been coming in and out from about 15:00 hours and continued until we left at sunset.

The family groups of up to 25 animals would appear from the mopane tree forest moving gently at first and gradually accelerating towards the water until some would break into a fast walk and even what could be defined as a run, in “elephantine” terms. They would get into the water and drink their fill, then go in and start to bathe and frolic about. Lost babies were particularly entertaining, as they would run around crying until they found their mothers again. Babies, again, would get stuck in mud or would not be able to climb out of a hole until they were embarrassingly pushed or lifted out by a helpful soul or managed to extricate themselves. Teenager equivalents would mock charge anything, including the people at the platform!

The bulls would come either alone or in groups of three or four and they kept their gravity and walked to the watering hole with determination, showing mutual respect and deference to the females. The need for water was probably stronger than any sexual drive at that particular time.

tusker wange waterhole

A bull after drinking its fill.

It was not only the numbers we saw but also the amusement they provided. The waterhole was muddy and there was elephant dung floating all over. After some time, we detected that at the centre of the pool there were two adult hippos and a baby that seemed to be “tolerated” by the pachyderms, with the exception of the curious elephant teenagers that would -I tend to believe deliberately- annoy them by getting close and mock charge them as well. The hippos, clearly outnumbered, took to this philosophically, probably because they clearly had no other position to adopt!

elephants palying hwange waterhole

Some rough games took place!


elephants playing hwange waterhole

And matching the youngsters’ strength.

Confronted with this “elephant water kingdom” all other game just stood by and watched, as they had no chance of getting close to the waterhole. This “happy hour” rendered even the presence of two large male lions obsolete and they had to console themselves drinking from the small pools created by leaking pipes.

As the pair of lions were close to where the cars were parked, careful calculations between human walking speed vs. lion charge speed took place before returning to our vehicles as the lions refused to move away! In addition to this, believing that several primates walking together looked more threatening, we bunched up together to return to the car. It worked!

The male lions drinking in the periphery.

The male lions drinking in the periphery.

The clean water inlet at the hole was where most adult elephants congregated to take advantage of the best water. There were clearly more bodies than the space could accommodate! Despite this and although there was pushing and some grunting, no loud trumpeting or fights broke out showing that the pecking order was well maintained. Of course the larger males had the “elephant share”…

The most popular drinking place was where the fresh water entered the waterhole.

The most popular drinking place was where the fresh water entered the waterhole.

So, this “great show on earth” did somehow increased my interest in elephants and watching them, to the delight of both my wife and daughter who, as usual, saw the light long before I did! It was this “elephant loving” bushsnob who came to Kruger National Park at the end of July 2014. Here are the consequences of this new-found love!

On our way to Letaba Rest Camp from Shimwini Bush Camp, in the proximity of the Babalala picnic site, we met a male elephant with the largest tusks we have seen. It was -for the weight of ivory it carried- a comparatively small animal. Despite its slow but steady retreat we managed to take a few pictures.

The Babalala tusker.

The “Babalala” tusker.

We talked about it during the rest of the journey and remembered Ahmed, the Marsabit tusker of mythical fame in Kenya that died in the seventies. Apparently his descendants are still deep into the forest!

Once in Letaba, while shopping for dinner, I picked up a free copy of the SANParks Times of June 2014. Leafing through it a picture of a tusker called my attention. In my “tusker ignorance” it looked remarkably like the “Babalala” animal that we had seen earlier! Its name was Masthulele and the photo was part of an article on a tusker identification and naming initiative being carried out by the South African National Parks. The project is based in the Elephant Hall at Letaba. We visited the place on a previous trip and found it a great place to learn about elephants as it has amazing exhibits. I still remember that when time to leave came, a friend and my daughter hid in it to be able to spend more time looking at its beautiful display!

“Look at our elephant” I told my wife with some degree of puzzlement and enthusiasm at having found such an interesting animal. She agreed with me that they were very similar. I decided that a follow up was required and made a mental note to visit the Elephant Hall in the morning to seek more information. I went to sleep thinking about how privileged we were to have seen such a great animal…

Masthulele depicted in the SANParks Times article.

Masthulele depicted in the SANParks Times article (my photo of the newspaper).

After our early morning game drive I went to the Hall. Unfortunately the person in charge of the “tuskers project”, Kirsty Redman, was on leave but I was directed to a board where the main living tuskers of the Kruger are shown with brief details about each animal. Of course Masthulele was among them. The name means “the quiet one” in Tsonga. It was named in recognition of Dr. Ian “Masthulele” Whyte, a retired Kruger researcher. Its home range was described as very large. The board also said that the elephant was often seen near Letaba Rest Camp. Regarding its special markings, it has “spotless” ears but it has a scarred trunk, product of some earlier squabbles with other males.

And then the surprise came! There were two “Masthuleles”, the one in the newspaper had a curved right tusk and the one at the Hall had a curved the left one! So, which one was Masthulele then?

Masthulele as it appears in the Elephant Hall at Letaba (my picture).

Masthulele as it appears in the Elephant Hall at Letaba (my picture of the poster at the Elephant Hall).

Being confused and close to a nervous breakdown (well maybe I am being a bit too theatrical here and a bit too muh of the drama queen my daughter lovingly calls me…) and in the absence of advice I decided to go for the only practical solution at my disposal: buy a copy of the booklet “Kruger Legends-. Great Tuskers of the Kruger National Park” and check Masthulele’s information. The book indicated that Masthulele was probably the “largest known and named tusker in Kruger at present (2012)”. It reiterated the information about home range and scarred trunk. Then it got interesting: it said that the tusks are also distinctive, its left tusk curving above the right one and both are fairly symmetrical in length, as Kruger tuskers are. Furthermore, the picture in the newspaper was exactly the same as the one in the book (both credited to Dr. Whyte himself!) but the former was the mirror image!

I felt great relief when I managed to solve the “two Masthuleles mystery”. However, I still had the unidentified “Babalala” tusker that -this time truly- looked like a mirror image of the real Masthulele. It was alive and in my pictures! The “Babalala” tusker was -to us at least- a rather small animal with its right tusk curved and shorter and the left tusk long and somehow pointing down and outwards!

This was getting interesting and required careful examination of the living tuskers! However, as it was time for the afternoon game drive, the decision was postponed until the evening. The drive took us along the Letaba river and, after a few km we spotted a bull elephant feeding by the road. It had medium sized tusks of fairly equal size. It was clearly a younger animal and a “tusker in the making”.

As you can rightly guess, I was now very “tusk-aware”! When the bull decided to cross the road towards the river we spotted a hitherto unseen animal with large tusks. As it was feeding calmly I managed to take several pictures of it. While taking the pictures I realized that the elephant was in fact Masthulele itself! That, to me, settled the issue as the pictures I saw at the Hall and in the book and the live animal in front of us clearly matched and somehow confirmed the existence of its “mirror image”.

Masthulele seen at the Letaba river (my picture ).

Masthulele seen at the Letaba river two days later (my picture ).

In the evening I carefully checked all living tuskers depicted in the book against the pictures of the “Babalala” elephant and I could not find a match. I then gave the task to my wife and she could not either! So we had an unidentified tusker! However, I was sure that it was a known animal in view of its quiet disposition and very noticeable tusks!

Back in Harare I did an Internet search and found at least four bulls that at first sight look like the “Babalala” tusker according to http://www.tuskersofafrica.com/. These are: Manyeleti, Masasana, Mavalanga and Shabakhadzi. Not being an elephant identification expert, I am putting the case to the tuskers project to seek their views and an answer that I will communicate to you.

For the time being, the tusker mystery still stands!


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