Last of the ‘Super Tuskers’: Saving Kenya’s majestic megafauna
Imagine being a child and having a front-row seat every day to one of nature’s most remarkable live-action shows. Growing up along the border of Kenya’s largest protected area, this was the reality for conservationist Joseph Kyalo.
Tsavo East National Park is known as the “theater of the wild” and is the oldest park in Kenya. Together with Tsavo West National Park and other conservancies, it forms a protected area covering about 42,000 square kilometers (16,200 sq mi), known as the Tsavo Ecosystem.
Rhinos, buffaloes, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wildebeests and zebras call it home, but among its inhabitants is a giant of an animal that stops people in their tracks. Growing between 10 and 13 feet, this is a rare breed of elephant – positively prehistoric looking – known as a super tusker.
“My first encounter with a large tusk was here in Tsavo National Park, and I was amazed at how big the tusks were,” Kyalo recalls. “They were huge, over 100 pounds per side, and very long and symmetrical, almost touching the ground.”
The thrill of watching nature perform as a child ignited a passion, and then a career, in Joseph. He is a conservation officer and pilot for the Tsavo Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting wildlife in the Tsavo Conservation Area (TCA) – specifically, the super tusker.
“The Tsavo ecosystem has arguably the largest number of large tusks in Africa,” says Kyalo. The problem is, it’s not much.
A super tusker is a bull elephant that has every single tusk Weighs more than 100 pounds (45 kg) and are so long that they often touch the ground, according to the Tsavo Trust.
There are about two dozen of these magnificent animals left in the world, most, if not all, currently concentrated in Kenya. South Africa’s Kruger National Park is keeping a close eye on several elephants there that may be emerging tuskers.
Elephant tusks are large incisors that appear around the age of two and continue to grow throughout an elephant’s 60 to 70 year lifespan. Elephants not only use their tusks as their primary defense system, but also to gather food and protect their trunks. Wildlife experts have observed that, like humans who are left- or right-handed, elephants are either left-handed or right-handed, with the dominant tooth worn down with frequent use.
A super tusker has a genetic mutation that causes tusks to grow faster and longer. And yet, it’s also a somewhat menacing-looking trait that makes a tusker so vulnerable.
According to Kyalo, the chances of seeing a big tusker in its natural habitat are slim. Hunting of these wandering giants has greatly reduced their numbers.
“These large elephants are under constant threat from poachers and poachers in countries where the practice is permitted,” says Kyalo. “There are about 25 individuals left in the world, most of which live in the Tsavo Conservation Area. It is imperative that every effort be made to conserve the last viable gene pool of surviving ‘Big Tuskers’.
This is why the Tsavo Trust was established in 2013. In partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the organisation’s main objective is to track, monitor and protect the super tusker and their habitat as well as other wildlife in the Tsavo Conservation Area. .
This ecosystem is home to Kenya’s largest elephant population. A 2021 Wildlife Census This puts the number at 15,989 – about 40% of the country’s elephant population.
Conservatories protecting Africa’s vulnerable animals
Kyalo says there are other rare animals, including the herola (a critically endangered antelope), the endangered Grevy’s zebra and about a fifth of the country’s critically endangered black rhinos. .
Poaching and trophy hunting are not the only threat to endangered wildlife in Kenya. “Other issues include human-wildlife conflict,” says Kyalo. Elephants and other animals have been known to attack people’s crops in retaliation. Tsavo Trust and KWS work to mitigate the problem by building fences around farming areas.
“A lot of conservation awareness has been done by our community department team to promote coexistence between wildlife and people,” says Kyalo.
Like Kyalo’s childhood experience, the hope is that positive encounters with wildlife will help inspire conservation within the communities surrounding the protected area.
Kyalo and his fellow field team members continue to monitor the tuskers with the hope of not only preserving them, but increasing their numbers.
“A future where there are no ‘Big Tuskers’ in Tsavo is unthinkable,” says Kyalo. “The presence of these magnificent animals brings large numbers of visitors to the park each year and this revenue is vital to further conservation efforts and support local communities.”