The last “Super Tuskers”: the fight to preserve Kenya’s elephant megafauna

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Imagine being a kid and sitting front row, every day, at one of nature’s most remarkable live-action shows. That was the reality for conservationist Joseph Kyalo, who grew up along the border of Kenya’s largest protected area.

Tsavo East National Park is known as the “theatre of nature” and is the oldest park in Kenya. Together with Tsavo West National Park and other conservation areas, it forms a conservation area covering about 42,000 square kilometers, known as the Tsavo Ecosystem.

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Rhinos, buffalo, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wildebeest and zebras call it home, but among its residents is a giant animal that makes people stop. Growing to between 3 to 4 meters in height, a rare type of elephant – positively prehistoric in appearance – known as the Super Tusker.

“My first encounter with a large prey was here in Tsavo National Park and I was amazed by the size of the prey,” Kyalo recalls. “They were huge, over 100 pounds on each side, and they were very long and symmetrical, almost touching the ground.”

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The thrill of witnessing the spectacle of nature as a child sparked a passion in Joseph and later a career. He is a conservation officer and pilot for the Tsavo Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting wildlife in the Tsavo Conservation Area (TCA) – in particular, Super Tuskers.

“The Tsavo ecosystem arguably contains the largest number of large prey animals in Africa,” says Kyalo. The problem is that it’s not much.

on the edge of the end

A Super Tusker is an elephant with tusks that weigh more than 100 pounds each and are so long they often touch the ground, according to the Tsavo Trust.

There are around two dozen of these magnificent beasts in the world, with most, if not all, currently concentrated in Kenya. Kruger National Park in South Africa is keeping a close eye on several elephants that are possible emerging prey.

Elephant tusks are enlarged incisor teeth that appear around age two and continue to grow throughout the elephant’s lifespan of 60 to 70 years. Elephants not only use their tusks as their main defense system, but also to gather food and protect their trunks. Wildlife experts have noted that, like left- or right-handed humans, elephants also have left or right tusks, with the dominant tusk wearing down with more frequent use.

A Super Tusker has a genetic variation that causes its tusks to grow faster and longer. And yet, this somewhat menacing appearance feature is also what makes prey so vulnerable.

Frustrating poaching

Opportunities to observe a large predator in its natural habitat are dwindling, according to Kyalo. Poaching these wandering giants has drastically reduced their numbers.

“These huge elephants are under constant threat from trophy hunters and trophy hunters in countries where the practice is allowed,” says Kyalo. “There are approximately 25 individuals left in the world, most of which reside in the Tsavo Conservation Area. It is vital that every effort is made to protect what is arguably the last remaining viable ‘Big Tuskers’ gene pool.”

That’s why the Tsavo Trust was founded in 2013. In partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the organisation’s main objective is to track, monitor and preserve the Super Tuskers and their habitat, as well as other wildlife in the Conservation Area. from Tsavo.

This ecosystem is home to Kenya’s largest population of elephants. A 2021 wildlife census puts the number at 15,989 – about 40% of the country’s elephants.

Kyalo says there are other rare animals here, including the hirola (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 threats to endangered wildlife in Kenya. “Other issues include conflicts between humans and wildlife,” says Kyalo. Elephants and other animals have been known to encroach on people’s crops, which can lead to reprisals. Tsavo Trust and KWS work to mitigate the problem by building fences around cultivated areas.

“A lot of conservation awareness has been done by our community department team to promote coexistence between wildlife and people,” says Kyalo.

What the future holds

Much like Kyalo’s childhood experience, the hope is that the positive wildlife encounters will help inspire conservation in the communities surrounding the protected area.

Kyalo and his field teammates continue to monitor the prey with the hope of not only preserving them but also increasing their numbers.

“It’s not worth thinking about a future where there are no ‘Big Tuskers’ in Tsavo,” says Kyalo. “The presence of these majestic animals brings huge numbers of tourists to the park each year and this income is vital to furthering conservation efforts and supporting local communities.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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