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Tembe Elephant Reserve - Home of Giants

By Scott Ramsay | Book Accommodation


My next stop was Tembe Elephant Reserve in the far north of Zululand, on the Mozambican border. To the left of Tembe is Ndumo Game Reserve, and to the right is Kosi Bay, which is the northern-most part of South Africa’s east coastline.

The comfortable tents at Tembe Lodge

The comfortable tents at Tembe Lodge

Tembe is very different to anything I have experienced so far on my Year in the Wild journey. The soil is ancient ocean sand, left by a retreating sea more than 130 000 years ago. In this thick beach sand grows some of the most beautiful and biggest tracts of sandforest, populated with huge mahogany, tamboti, saddlepod and Lebombo wattle trees and hundreds of other species (this part of the world has the most number of trees in South Africa). The trees’ roots tap the ground water, which is replenished by the high rainfall in this sub-tropical region.


The dense sandforest of Tembe is magical

Pod Mahogany tree

A pod mahogany tree...

Tembe is a fairyland, where Africa’s largest animal – the elephant – found sanctuary during the Mozambican border war. It’s also the home of the country’s largest population of South Africa’s second-smallest antelope – the rarely seen suni, the adults of which are just a few kilograms in weight. (The country’s smallest is the blue duiker).

The reserve has an interesting history. The local Tembe tribe own and co-manage the reserve, in conjunction with KZN Wildlife. The tribe willingly moved out of the area in 1983, so that the reserve could be created to protect the last sizeable population of free-ranging elephants in South Africa. (As well as making sure that the elephants didn’t raid the communities’ crops).

At one stage, the elephants in the region – which migrated up and down the Maputaland coast – used the thick sandforests of Tembe to escape harassment and poaching – and in the days of the border war, the bullets of soldiers.

Grand central station for elephants...

Grand central station for elephants...

Today, Tembe hosts some of the biggest elephants in Africa, including some bulls with seriously impressive tusks. There are more than 260 elephants at Tembe, and if there’s one thing you’re guaranteed of seeing, it’s elephants! The three biggest “tuskers” in South Africa all live in Tembe: Isilo, Induna and Makobona. On our first morning at Tembe, we were treated to a sighting of Isilo at the main waterhole.  Isilo means “king of kings” in Zulu.


Isilo - king of kings

He is thought to be the largest of all Tembe’s elephants, between 45 and 53 years of age, to weigh between 6,500 and 7,000 kilograms, and to stand about 3.2 metres tall. His tusks are estimated to be about 2.5 metres long, and to weigh between 60 and 65 kg.

According to wildlife surgeon and elephant expert Dr. Johan Marais, tuskers (bulls with tusks that exceed 100 pounds – or 45.45 kg – in weight) play a vital role in their ecology.

But they’ve been systematically destroyed.

Elephant drinking

“During the early 1900s, great tuskers were the norm in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the south-western corner of Ethiopia, southern Sudan and the grassy plains of Tanzania and Kenya.”

Elephant bulls reach their breeding prime at about 35 to 40 years of age – but, “Unfortunately this is the same time when they also emerge as hundred-pounders. Their ivory grows exponentially at this stage so that it becomes very large over only a short number of years.”

“Hunting of these magnificent bulls takes place exactly at this stage, so that few of these bulls are able to pass their genes on to future generations.

“This is exactly the reason why the once numerous hundred-pounders have diminished to less than 40 bulls in the whole of Africa today.”

Dr. Marais’ concern is that, “Selective destruction of great tuskers by trophy hunters in particular has resulted in the loss of some of the finest great tusker genes in Africa today.

“The best genes for ivory in Africa are currently in Kenya, in Tsavo National Park. The second best place in Africa in my opinion for ivory is Tembe Elephant Park. Nowhere else have I seen so many bulls with such good ivory. Even in a park like Kruger National Park, the average bull carries much smaller ivory than the average bull in Tembe. Tembe definitely features as one of the top reserves in Africa when it comes to conservation of elephants with large ivory. The park has been managed really well and the fact that no hunting or poaching has been permitted has allowed the elephant population to develop a fair number of great tuskers – more than Kruger currently!”

The main waterhole at Tembe has a webcam, which broadcasts the action 24 hours a day…check it out here!


The hide at the main waterhole at Tembe gives great viewing of wildlife throughout the day

The main lodge dining area...

The main lodge dining area...

Tembe requires visitors to have a 4x4...the thick sand can be tricky without one 

Tembe requires visitors to have a 4x4...the thick sand can be tricky without one


Tembe up close

Up close...Tembe allows some pretty intense elephant interaction!

Baby elephant