Imagine being a kid and sitting front row, every day, at one of nature’s most remarkable live-action shows. This was the reality for conservationist Joseph Kyalo, who grew up along the border of the largest protected area in Kenya.
Tsavo East National Park is known as the ‘theatre of the wild’ and is Kenya’s oldest park. Together with Tsavo West National Park and other protected areas, it forms a conservation area covering about 42,000 square kilometers (16,200 sq mi), known as the Tsavo Ecosystem.
Rhinos, buffalo, lions, leopards, cheetah, wildebeest and zebra call it home, but among its inhabitants is a giant of an animal that stops people in their tracks. At 10 to 13 feet tall, it is a rare type of elephant – positively prehistoric looking – known as the Super Tusker.
“My first encounter with a big tusker was here in Tsavo National Park and I was amazed at how big the tuskers were,” Kyalo recalls. “They were huge, over 100 pounds per side, and they were very long and symmetrical, almost touching the ground.”
The thrill of watching the nature show as a child ignited a passion in Joseph and then 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) – specifically, the Super Tuskers.
“The Tsavo ecosystem arguably holds the largest number of large tusks in Africa,” says Kyalo. The problem is that there aren’t many of them.
The Super Tusker is a bull elephant with tusks that each weigh more than 100 pounds (45 kg) and are so long that they often touch the ground, according to the Tsavo Trust.
There are about a few dozen of these magnificent beasts in the world, with most, if not all, currently concentrated in Kenya. South Africa’s Kruger National Park closely monitors several elephants where emerging tusks are possible.
Elephant tusks are enlarged incisors that appear around the age of two and continue to grow throughout the elephant’s lifespan of 60 to 70 years. Elephants not only use their tusks as their primary defense system, but also to collect food and protect their trunks. Wildlife experts have observed that just like left-handed or right-handed, elephants are also left-handed or right-handed, with the dominant tusk worn down by more frequent use.
A Super Tusker has a genetic variant that causes its tusks to grow faster and longer. And yet, this somewhat menacing quality is also what makes a waver so vulnerable.
According to Kyalo, the chances of seeing a large tusk in its natural habitat are diminishing. Poaching of these wandering giants has drastically reduced their numbers.
“These huge elephants are under constant threat from poachers and trophy hunters in countries where the practice is allowed,” says Kyalo. “There are about 25 individuals in the world, most of which inhabit 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 is why the Tsavo Trust was established in 2013. In partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the organization’s main objective is to track, monitor and conserve Super Tuskers 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 puts the number at 15,989 – that’s about 40% of the country’s elephants.
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Kyalo says there are other rare animals here, including the hirola (an endangered antelope), the endangered 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 human-wildlife conflict,” says Kyalo. Elephants and other animals have been known to attack people’s crops, which can lead to retaliation. Tsavo Trust and KWS are working to mitigate the problem by building fences around cultivated land.
“A lot of conservation awareness has been done by our community department team to promote coexistence between wildlife and people,” says Kyalo.
Just like Kyalo’s childhood experience, the hope is that positive wildlife encounters will help inspire conservation in the communities surrounding the protected area.
Kyalo and the other members of his field team continue to monitor the tuskers in hopes of not only maintaining, but increasing their numbers.
“A future where there are no ‘Big Tuskers’ in Tsavo is not worth thinking about,” says Kyalo. “The presence of these majestic animals brings huge numbers of tourists to the park every year and this income is vital to further conservation efforts and support local communities.”