Saving Kenya’s last Super Tuskers

Fewer than 20 of these incredible beasts walk the earth.
Written by Joe Wahome
17 February 2021

Picture this: you’re an 18-year-old aspiring photographer at a waterhole in Kenya’s iconic Tsavo East National Park. You’re waiting, with camera in hand, hoping to catch a glimpse of the park’s famous super tuskers – almost-mythical elephants with tusks weighing more than 50kg on each side. Experts believe there are fewer than 20 of these elephants left, and almost half of them are in Tsavo. You have your doubts they exist but your companion, Richard Moller, assures you they’re nearby. You hold your breath in anticipation.

Tsavo Kenya Map

Then she appears! Mudanda, as she was known, slowly makes her way to the water and starts drinking. You fumble with the camera, overcome by the moment and sighting of this magnificent animal. After a series of attempts at capturing its greatness, you just let it be and place the camera by your side. She is now submerged, her reflection shimmering across the water. “Welcome to Tsavo kid,” Richard winks at you as you stare in disbelief.

The Giants of Tsavo. A tree rub is a soothing relief to this tusker. Source | James Lewin

Why the Tsavo Trust was born

Tsavo was made famous by two mane-less, man-eating lions that disrupted the construction of the British Empire’s Kenya-Uganda Railway in 1898 and killed over 100 Indian and African workers. They were immortalised in the book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by John Henry Patterson and the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness.

Tsavo was a favorite destination for big game hunters due to the high number of wildlife. Poaching also played a huge role in the decline in wildlife numbers, especially the elephants, while a drought in the 1960s almost wiped out the elephant population, as captured by the acclaimed writer Peter Beard in his book End of the Game.

The Big Friendly Giant. Dubbed HA1 by the Tsavo Trust. Source |James Lewin

After Kenya banned big-game hunting in 1977, poaching became so rampant that nearly all rhinos were virtually wiped out and only a few hundred were left, elephants didn’t fare any better and the Government established the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989 to conserve and manage Kenya’s wildlife. The paramilitary outfit faced off with gangs of well armed and funded poachers who benefitted from instability in the neighboring countries and slowly the situation improved.

Things became even better around 2013 when the Tsavo Trust was founded by Richard Moller. This came about after Richard realized the Tsavo Conservation area was in need of a field-based conservation entity that could work with the surrounding communities to secure this unique biodiversity.

The CEO of Tsavo Trust Richard Moller with a skeleton of a super tusker. Source| Tsavo Trust.

Also read: Africa’s top 9 conservation-led safaris

“Working in a vast challenging environment like Tsavo, requires dedicated commitment 24/7, 365 days of the year,” says Richard Moller. “It has not been easy but there have been immense rewards and positives that have come out of our eight years of existence. To mention a few: an increasing big tusker population; a decrease in elephant poaching by over 90%; growing a culture of conservation within the Kamungi and Shirango Community Conservancies; and developing some very strong key partnerships with like-minded conservation organisations, charities and individuals.”

Super Tusker BA1 standing out from the rest of the elephants. Source | James Lewin.

Tsavo Trust currently has five anti-poaching teams and two monitoring teams that conduct daily patrols inside and outside the Parks. “With increased funding, we can increase aerial reconnaissance, ground surveillance units and equipment to maintain vigilant monitoring and security,” Richard says. “Another thing that would help would be political acknowledgement that these few tuskers are in fact jewels in the crown.”

A super tusker dubbed WS1 on the way to a water hole in Tsavo. Source| Tsavo Trust.

The elephant carrying the heaviest ivory on earth today is likely one of the 10 super tuskers living in Tsavo. “We’re hoping to build off that to showcase the good work Kenya has done with its conservation partners and encourage further high-end tourists and partners,” says Richard, who is an experienced bush pilot with over 3,300 flying hours to his belt.

The Final Stand with Super Tusker dubbed MO1. The last of their breed. Source | James Lewin

“The saddest moment for us was undoubtedly the untimely poaching of the well-known super tusker called Satao, who was found dead after being poached by a poison arrow, tusks hacked out and missing on the southern boundary of Tsavo East National Park during an aerial patrol on 30 May 2014. The first one and a half years of the Big Tusker Project was built around Satao. In those early years of our existence, if we had more funding and means at our disposal, who knows, the iconic Satao may still be walking today,” Richard says.

To see the amazing work done by Richard Moller and the Tsavo Trust please click on the video below.

Boots on the ground and eyes in the Tsavo sky

Tsavo Trust uses two platforms for the monitoring of big tuskers – aerial and ground. All monitoring activities are carried out jointly with Kenya Wildlife Service by flying over, or driving through, known tusker home ranges. Tsavo is massive, about the size of Switzerland, so this is no easy matter. Every elephant herd encountered is scrutinized for known individuals.

Joseph Kyalo Kimaile the Tsavo Trust head of monitoring. Source | Tsavo Trust

Joseph Kyalo Kimaile heads the Tsavo Trusts monitoring department. His passion for wildlife developed at an early age due to his numerous visits to Tsavo as a Wildlife Clubs of Kenya member. “Some of the super tuskers have home ranges extending to areas historically known as elephant poaching hot-spots,” Joseph says. “Tsavo being a vast area, some parts with rugged or no roads, we can go a long time without sighting certain super tuskers. This can be worrying so when they’re eventually spotted it is always a very joyous moment.”

Nick Haller is the resident pilot. Every day he has a 5.30 AM wakeup call, does the pre-flight checks and proceeds on patrol in one of the super cubs. The patrols last for two to five hours and he covers Tsavo West, East and Jipe. The flight is spent looking out for illegal wildlife activities, poacher camps, elephant carcasses, the tuskers and the monitoring of collared elephants that provide data on human-wildlife conflict and recorded on the SMART App.

Nick Haller the Tsavo Trust pilot takes to the skies and clocks 75 flying hours a month on patrol. Source | Tsavo Trust

“A detailed report is shared with the Kenya Wildlife Service after each flight with GPS coordinates of all findings. I coordinate with the mobile ground teams to follow up on any unusual findings such as an elephant carcass. Ground teams will then visit the site to collect tusks and determine the cause of death,” Nick says. “All collared elephant sightings are reported on to Save the Elephants including group dynamics, nearest water source and an estimate on vegetation in the area.”

Tsavo has some challenging flying conditions throughout the year. June to September are very windy, hot and dry months and can be harsh conditions for flying in. The super cub aircraft is flying low – usually at 300 feet above ground level – where turbulence is great.

Tsavo Trust’s super cub plane just before a patrol with Mt Kilimanjaro in the background. Source| Tsavo Trust.

“Our Super Cub aircrafts are instrumental in the battle against poaching in the Tsavo. They give us a unique view of the parks, a vantage that allows us to survey large areas. This is essential when monitoring energetic, migratory animals such as elephants. Despite the costs, aerial reconnaissance remains a key element in elephant conservation and is currently the best way we can monitor the super tuskers,” says Nick, a native of Tsavo who clocks an impressive 75 hours of flight each month.

Up-close with an emerging Super Tusker of Tsavo. Source | James Lewin

“My most memorable experience with a tusker was with one of the Tsavo iconic cow tuskers, of which there are only five. This female is coded F_DI1 and was found from the air in May 2020, after not being seen for many months. I immediately contacted the ground monitoring team in Tsavo East to go to the location and stay with her until I arrived.

Super Cub planes are versatile and well suited for patrols in Tsavo’s rugged landscape. Source| Tsavo Trust.

“She was very placid and approachable,” Nick says. “This female had started to forage alone and away from her usual herds, which is a sign that her days are numbered. I feel privileged to have been able to share such an encounter before she passes. It’s a real positive for the Tsavo Trust to know that this individual has been able to live a full life.”

Tsavo Trust’s partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service has decreased poaching by 90%. Source | James Lewin

Photographing Tsavo’s icons

James Lewin was the 18-year-old sitting in the hide with Richard Moller. Now 23, he’s a self-taught British fine art wildlife photographer who seeks to present African wildlife in an immersive and striking manner. James prefers working with wide-angle lenses to create a detachment from reality while making the viewer feel as if they’re right beside the animals within the frame.

James Lewin in action in the Tsavo. A talented, self-taught British fine-art photographer. Source | James Lewin

“After a couple of visits to Kenya and getting involved in conservation with The Tsavo Trust, Lewa Conservancy and Big Life Foundation, I very quickly became obsessed and it formed the start of a new path that would change my life forever,” James says. “Moving into photography seemed like a natural transition when I was spending so much time with wildlife in Kenya and it very quickly became an equally obsessive passion. It also didn’t take me long to realise that I could use photography as a tool for raising funds and this has now become the forefront of what I do.

After the unfortunate death of Super Tusker Tim in the Amboseli area LU1 could be the biggest Tusker. Source | James Lewin

“I met Will Burrard Lucas while I was staying with the Tsavo Trust and while he was in the process of making his incredible book Land of Giants. The most valuable lesson he taught me was to spend as much time with your subject as possible. He would spend days and weeks with individual elephants such as Mudanda who features on the cover of his book. I have really adopted this advice into the way I work today,” quips James.

“To turn up to a National Park the size of Switzerland with the expectation of finding and photographing one of the last super tuskers of Africa would be crazy. Even with 5 ground teams and two aircrafts, it is still no easy task tracking the movements of these elephants that roam this truly vast and largely inaccessible wilderness. I would not have achieved a single photograph without the help of the Tsavo Trust and the weeks I have spent with one of the mobile monitoring teams,” James says.

Super Tuskers have the respect of other elephants and given a chance they can spread their genes. Source | James Lewin

“Tsavo is often not easy to work in, it’s an extremely hot place with thick bush in a lot of areas and of course you never get to choose where to photograph one of the very last giants of our planet. I photographed HA1 a lot in 2018 and he was frequenting an area with long grass and lots of bush. I wanted to photograph HA1 from a ground-level perspective to frame him against the sky to remove the distractions within the landscape so that the viewer can focus on the towers of ivory reaching right down to the ground.

“The long grass made this approach almost impossible, so I opted for a remote-controlled camera positioned on top of my empty camera bag to raise the camera high enough above the grass. I captured two of my favourite photographs using this technique,” James says.

LU1 probably the biggest Super Tusker in the world having a scratch after a mud bath. Source | James Lewin

“My first meeting with Mudanda in 2017 with Richard Moller was a moment that inspired my love of photography and tuskers. Mudanda was drinking at a waterhole when we spotted her, her tusks were so long they were touching the water leaving a most remarkable reflection. Mudanda was in her late 50’s and possibly the most friendly and relaxed elephant I have ever met, and Richard knew her extremely well.

LU1, probably the biggest Super Tusker having a break from the scorching Tsavo Heat. Source | James Lewin

“Sadly, just a few months after this, she died naturally of old age, but I see this as a huge success story that in this day and age, an elephant with mammoth ivory can live out a full life. I also see it as proof of the importance of the work that the Tsavo Trust do in ensuring these genes can live on, well into the future.”

Tsavo Trust’s work to protect the last remaining elephant Super-Tuskers is entirely donor-related and you can support and make a difference here. The best way to support such projects is to also visit these wild spaces. A visit to Tsavo. National ark blends beautifully with a visit to Kenya’s culturally-rich coast.

 

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