Boasting unique genes that produce enormous ivory, Africa's "tusker" elephants have become a prominent target for poachers in recent years. But an exciting new survey has revealed 12 previously unknown tuskers may be walking tall in South Africa's Kruger National Park.  

A Kruger National Park potential tusker. Image: SANParks 

The findings come from a collaborative citizen-science project overseen by South African National Parks (SANParks). With the help of rangers and aerial surveillance teams, park staff used over a decade of visitor-submitted photos and video to locate big tuskers within the two-million hectare park.  

"Any elephant with remarkable tusks (more than 1.5 metres from the lip line) is of interest," says the team. "Individual elephants are then identified by their ear notches and any unique features (scars, swellings, etc.) they might have."

A dozen of the 28 elephants assessed meet the criteria to be considered "potential tuskers", an awe-inspiring group of bulls that will now be closely monitored.

One of the emerging tuskers, N’watindlopfu. Image: Frans van Achterbergh/SANParks

Because they typically weigh more than 50 kilograms (110 lbs) each, the tusks of such elephants fetch staggering prices through the illegal trade. Just last year, Kenya's Tsavo East National Park lost one of its iconic big tuskers, "Satao 2", to a poaching attempt. His predecessor – once thought to be the largest surviving tusker in Kenya – was also killed by poachers

"When a new tusker is identified we currently name it after a ranger or other member of staff who has given many years of service to the Kruger National Park," says the team. "It is traditional for rangers to be given an ethnic title by their colleagues and staff, and it is these 'nicknames' that are used for the tuskers."

This convention has been in place since the death of the so-called "magnificent seven", a group of tuskers that roamed Kruger over thirty years ago. 

"The public reaction to the 'magnificent seven' was staggering," says SANparks. "When each of these great elephants died, it was decided to retrieve their tusks and skulls in order to display them."

Kruger's tuskers have for years captivated visitors to the flagship park, but they have also captured the attention of big game hunters eager to land a sizeable trophy. Timbavati Private Nature & Game Reserve – which shares a fenceless border with the Kruger Park – made headlines recently following news of a controversial permit signed off by SANParks to hunt a trophy bull on the reserve.

Timbavati relies primarily on hunting permits to fund their conservation initiatives. Although the contentious strategy has drawn criticism, the reserve can boast strong wildlife numbers and minimal poaching. Records do show a trophy elephant on the hunting quota, but Timbavati Warden Bryan Havemann insists that Kruger's tuskers are not at risk and has the records to back it up: in the last ten years, the heaviest tusks of a hunted elephant on record weigh in at 60 pounds, which is not tusker territory.

Big-tusked elephants will always be in demand by hunters and poachers, and the Timbavati controversy serves to highlight the importance of putting effective conservation policies in place to protect these unique behemoths.

With any luck, the newly identified group will be joined by even more tuskers in the coming years – a conservation win that will only be possible with continued submissions from dedicated citizen scientists. Anyone who encounters an elephant of interest is urged to submit both photos and video footage using the link provided here

"Be patient, the animals may not move or behave the way you wish they would," says the team. "Please remain a safe distance away at all times." 

Right: N’wandlamharhi (Image: Anton Jeffery/SANParks); Left: Matlakusa (Image: Joel Roerig/SANParks)


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