The Big Tuskers of the Kruger National Park
Ever since the Magnificent Seven were first named in the 1970's, Kruger's elephants with large tusks have been a source of awe and inspiration around the world. While many of Africa's elephant populations have seen the genes of their largest tuskers depleted by ivory hunting and poaching, Kruger's legends live on.
Over thirty years ago seven impressive elephant bulls, all with tusks weighing more than 50 kg each, could be found in Kruger National Park. The Chief Warden at the time, Dr U de V Pienaar, decided to publicize these elephants as a successful example of Kruger's conservation work. He named those bulls that had not already been identified and coined the collective name, the Magnificent Seven, based on the 1960 Hollywood film. Sadly, these giants are no longer with us. The Elephant Hall at Letaba Rest Camp now holds the tusks of Dzombo, Kambaku, Mafunyane, Ndlulamithi, Shawu and Shingwedzi.
#1. DZOMBO (1935 – 1983)
Named after the Dzombo stream that traverses the Mopani Flats between the Shingwedzi and Shawu valleys. (The word Dzombo is derived from the Tsonga word Dzombolo meaning ‘to wait for something that is slow in coming’). He lived in the area bounded by the Tsendze, Letaba and the Shingwedzi Rivers and was most frequently seen along the grassy vlei system of the Shawu valley.
#2 JOÃO (Date Unknown)
Named by Anthony-Hall Martin for Prester John, legendary priest-king of ancient Africa. (João being the Portuguese for ‘John’) João was also to be found near the waterhole of this name along the Shingwedzi River. This waterhole was named in 1961 by Dr Tol Pienaar (former Warden of KNP and CEO of SANParks) after a former mechanic from Shingwedzi who assisted Dr Pienaar with fish surveys along the Shingwedzi River. João was first seen near a windmill called João, in the Shingwedzi region, he was known to frequent the area south of the Shingwedzi River. There were times however that he moved as far south as Mahlangene and Shilowa (East Mopani).
#3 KAMBAKU (1930 – 1985)
Kambaku is the Tsonga word for ‘Great Tusker’ or ‘Old Elephant Bull’. This bull moved over a huge tract of country stretching from Satara/Orpen and the Timbavati to Crocodile Bridge. Kambaku was the third member of the Magnificent Seven. He was commonly seen by the rangers of the Kingfisherspruit area and was photographed by many visitors to the Kruger National Park. Uniquely unlike several of the other Magnificent Seven bull, Kambaku was always seen alone.
#4 MAFUNYANE (Body discovered 16th November 1983)
This bull was named after former warden of the Kruger National Park Lou Steyn who was well known for his quick temper. (Mafunyane is the Tsonga word for ‘the irritable one’ which appropriately refers to the elephant’s disdain for, and intolerance of humans). This bull roamed in the Shangoni section of the Kruger National Park, which includes the upper reaches of the Shingwedzi River and southwards up to the Bububu stream. Mafunyane was the most famous of the “Magnificent Seven” although he was only seen in the wild by a handful of people and was rarely seen by visitors as he kept well away from roads. This could be attributed to his shyness or to the fact that he chosen roaming area was very remote. Mafunyane despite having impressive tusks, was not a large bull and was only 327cm at the shoulder, when compared with the average 340cm shoulder height of the other members of the Magnificent Seven.
#5 NDLULAMITHI (1927 – 1985)
Ndlulamithi earned his name from his appearance, which is a traditional Tsonga word meaning “taller than the trees”. His range was known to occupy a large area between the main road from Mooiplaas to the western boundary and stretching from Byashishi drainage system across to Shingwedzi River to the Phongol River. Ndulamithi was first identified in 1980 along the Nkokodzi River in northern Kruger National Park. He was an aggressive yet secretive elephant and was seldom seen. This bull received some fame for charging Dr Anthony Hall-Martin and his assistant while they were trying to photograph him on foot, his intentions unmistakable.
#6 SHAWU (October 1982)
The “Shawu Bull” was named after the Shawu valley (Vlei) in which he spent much of his life. Shawu moved over a large range which spanned the flat Mopani covered plains country between the Letaba and Shingwedzi rivers and stretched from the main road to Lebombo Hills. He did not however, cover this enormous area regularly, but drifted around slowly, taking about 6 months to move from South to North. Shawu was a fairly approachable animal and showed no particular fear or distrust of vehicles. He was a large bull having a shoulder height of 340cm. Due to the pincer formed by his large tusks he was sometimes referred to in Afrikaans as “Groot Haaktand”. In 1981 it was decided to fit Shawu with a collar as poaching was a constant threat from Mozambique, this was done successfully and he was monitored on a regular basis.
#7 SHINGWEDZI (1934 – 1981)
Shingwedzi was named after the river and rest camp where he spent the last few years of his life. (Shingwedzi means, “place of ironstone” referring to the gabbro rock outcrops common to the area. Shingwedzi is derived from the Tsonga word Ngwetse which means ‘the sound of metal objects rubbing against each other’). He was known to move as far west as Nkokodzi and Chugamila hills and as far as the Lebombo’s in the vicinity of Shingwedzi Rest Camp. His tusks are on display in the Letaba Elephant Hall.
The New Generation
The legend of the Magnificent Seven lives on in Kruger National Park through a number of animals carrying impressive ivory. Here we will highlight and look at the descendants of these legends. When a new tusker is identified, current policy requires that they be named after their home range or characteristics unique to the individual tusker.
Named in memory of Gus Adendorff who served as a ranger in the Kruger National Park for 27 years. (‘Bidzane’ is Swahili and refers to the zebra skin band around the hat that Gus always wore).
‘Botsotso’ is Tsonga and refers to particular style of jeans that were worn in the olden days and is a direct reference to the large very prominent folds of skin on the rear of this bull making it one of his identification characteristics’.
The name‘Hahlwa’ Tsonga meaning ‘twin’ was given to this bull due to the background and history towards his final identification. The tusks and the ear markings of this bull resemble almost identically those of Masasana and in many images would seem to be his twin.
Kukura is Shona meaning “growing” referring to the speed at which this bulls tusks developed from Emerging to Larger Tusker status in a short space of time.
Machachule has been named in memory of Corporal Joe Managanyi who served 33 years service for the Kruger National Park. (Machachule meaning ‘the lead dancer’ this name was given this name by his staff as he was known as a very strict worker who did not waste time and who had to do things immediately, leading by example).
Named in honor of Johan Kloppers who served 36 years in conservation in the Kruger National Park (Madolo meaning ‘Knee’s’, was given to Johan due to his penchant for walking. According to staff who knew him well he inherited this name due to his unique stride when walking).
‘Masasana’ a Tsonga word meaning ‘One can always make a plan’ was named in recognition of Johan Sithole who served the Kruger National Park in both the Conservation and Scientific Services departments in a career that spanned 35 years before his retirement on the 4th March 2008.
‘Matlakusa’ from tlakusa, is Tsonga meaning to ‘raise, lift up’, this is a large open pan and bore-hole, alongside the eastern border, southeast of Malonga in the Kruger National Park.
Named in memory of Piet Otto who served firstly as a helicopter pilot and later as Head of Flight and Game Capture operations in the Kruger National Park 25 years. (Mavalanga is shangaan meaning ‘one who has very good eyesight’, this refers to Piet’s exception ability to spot game on census long before anyone else for this he was dubbed “Mr Eye’s” by those who worked with him).
Named for Lynn van Rooyen who served in conservation for South African National Park for 39 years. (Mbazo meaning ‘axe’ refers to Lynn’s early years as a ranger where he was known to lead field patrols armed only with an axe).
Mondzweni originates from the name of a borehole (named by Section Ranger Gus Adendorff, see Bidzane) situated alongside the N’waswitsontso River on the bend where it changes course to flow south to Ngwenyeni. Mondzweni meaning “at the Leadwood tree” in Tsonga was felt to be an appropriate choice due to the Leadwood’s that predominate in the general range of this formidable tusker.
Tsonga meaning ‘River’ due to this bull’s habit of roaming along the full length of the Crocodile River and been seen from the various lodges on the opposite banks, in what is otherwise a large home range.
‘Ngwenya’ meaning Crocodile in Tsonga, originates from the favored home range of this bull.
Named in memory of Sergeant James Maluleke who served a combined 33 years in service to the Kruger National Park. (Ngunyupezi meaning ‘one who likes to dance with woman but who will always go home at the end of the night’).
Named for Uys de Villiers (Tol) Pienaar who served in conservation for South African National Park for 36 years. (Ngonyama is the Tsonga word for ‘Lion’. This nickname derives itself from an incident on the 21st July 1956 when Tol was bitten by a lioness along the Timbavati spruit (where present day Roodewal camp is). Tol was also known for his green eyes that could flash like a lion’s when angry.
Named in memory of Bruce Robert Bryden who served in conservation with South African National Park for 29 years. (Ntombazana is the shangaan word meaning ‘young lady’ this name was affectionately bestowed on him by his staff referring to his love of the ladies when he first arrived in the Kruger National Park).
Tsonga meaning “only one” in reference this bull’s notable single tusk.
Named in honor of Ted Whitfield, who served as a Section Ranger in the Kruger National Park for 24 years. (Nwashinangana meaning ‘somebody that blows the animal horn’, due to his habit of whistling softly while he was working).
N’watindlopfu spruit in the Kruger National Park meaning ‘spruit of the elephants’ in Tsonga and refers to the historical site where in 1987 a striking and relatively well preserved panel of rock paintings depicting a group of four elephants on a small granite koppie alongside this spruit was found. The is reference to the proof of the early existence of elephants in the Kruger National Park and therefore links to the great discover that was this bulls sudden appearance as a large tusker.
‘N’wendlamuhari’ is Tsonga for the Sand River which means ‘the river that is fierce when in flood’ The meaning of this name was felt to be a suitable link to the bulls preferred location of the Tsendze spruit which is also known for its dramatic flooding in heavy rains.
Range: Letaba, Mooiplaas and Phalaborwa, sighting of this bull have also been confirmed north of Mopani and towards Giriyondo Border Gate. Recent sighting have him predominating in the Mooiplaas/Mopani area with infrequent visits to Letaba.
Named for Sgt Aaron Nkuna who served as a Field Ranger in the Kruger National Park 37 years. Thandamamba is Zulu for “the one who is fond of the black mamba snake/the black mamba snake lover”, this unusual name came about during a conversation with Brian Harris (ex-section ranger Stolznek), where Aaron had indicated the one thing he loved most about the KNP was the snakes particularly the black mamba.
Timaka was named in memory of Lance Corporal Wilson Ndlovu who was sadly killed by an elephant in the line of duty as a Field Ranger at the Stolznek section.
Named in memory of Ampie ‘Tsotsi’ Espag, who spent many years in the service of the Kruger National Park as both a ranger and hospitality manager. (Tsotsi, meaning sneaky, troublemaker, skelm).
Tsonga meaning ‘untidy’ Vusopfa refers to the heavily torn and ‘scraggly’ ears of this bull making him easily identifiable.
Tsonga meaning ‘large or big in body’ referring to not just the impressive and thick tusk size of this bull but also to his large body size and shoulder height.
Xindzulundzulu is Tsonga for ‘walking round and round in circles’ this is in reference to this bull’s very localized home range.
Kruger's tuskers have for years captivated visitors to the flagship park. Although many of Africa’s elephant populations have seen the rare genes of their largest Big Tuskers depleted by ivory poachers, the legend lives on as elephants in the Kruger National Park are constantly being monitored as contenders for the title “Emerging Tusker”. Like living relics from a bygone era, the new generation of Africa’s Big Tusker elephants brings hope that the rare genes for mythical tusks aren’t entirely lost.