One of the Kruger National Park’s most sought-after sightings, elephants are found throughout the Kruger, from the Crocodile River in the south, right up to the Limpopo River in the far north of the park.
Large bulls can weigh up to 7 tonnes, whilst the females average around 3.5 to 4 tonnes. With this bulk, it stands to reason that they eat a lot of food, in some cases, as much as 250kgs are consumed each day. Some of the latest figures on elephant population growth suggest that around 17,000 elephants can be found in the Kruger National Park. Multiply that number by their daily food consumption and we see that the park must supply approximately 34,000 tonnes of food every day, to support just the elephant population.
On top of that, they drink about 200 litres of water per day as well!
Elephants eat everything, from grass to tree branches, often pushing over trees with a trunk diameter of over 50 centimetres to get to the succulent leaves or fruit, at the top of the trees. At a shoulder height of 3 metres, these truly are massive beasts, in every respect of the word - an icon of the African savanna. A Kruger safari simply would not be complete without having seen elephants roaming around in their natural habitat.
Elephant breed throughout the year and after a gestation period of 22 months give birth to a calf that weighs about 100kgs. Orphaned calves will be adopted by lactating females and elephant cows are fierce protectors of their young. Elephant cows tend to remain in their herds whilst young bulls. usually around 13-years-old, will be forced to leave.
Young elephant bulls often form small, loosely structured herds accompanying older, stronger bulls. In such instances the young bulls are often referred to as ‘askaris’ - an east African term for a soldier or policeman.
Care needs to be taken when approaching elephants in Kruger Park. They are big and can, if they feel threatened or are simply in a bad mood, be dangerous.
Obviously the first rule is never get out of your vehicle. Give them space and observe their body language. Its relatively easy to tell if an elephant is irritated by your presence - shaking their heads, approaching your car with heads raised and mock charges are all signs that it’s best to give them a wide berth or extract yourself out of the sighting.
Do not park in the middle of breeding herds and be especially careful of elephant bulls displaying signs of musth, a condition found in bulls where their testosterone levels are raised by as much as six times their normal levels. This condition is relatively easily observed by a strong smell, fluid secretion (temporin) from their temporal ducts and often dripping from their penis. Bulls showing signs of musth should be avoided and preferably not approached.
In the Kruger National Park, elephants often walk down tourist roads as it’s probably just easier than walking in the bush. You probably would too! And as it so happens, sometimes they walk in your direction. The safe bet here is to slowly reverse you vehicle, keeping a healthy distance between yourself and the elephant. At some point they will return to the bush, at which point, if you see they are not showing any signs of aggression, you may proceed in the direction you were initially travelling.
They may allow you to pass quite close by. Keep an eye on them until you are safely out of their way.
In general though, elephant sightings in the Kruger National Park are very special, harmless and an amazing opportunity to see these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat.
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African elephant bulls, especially in the Kruger Park where they eat sufficient amounts of food, can grow an impressive set of tusks. Kruger’s Magnificent Seven documents seven massive elephant bulls that roamed the Kruger Park over 30 years ago. Their names were:
Dzombo roamed the northern regions of Kruger Park between the Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers. He was an iconic elephant with perfect tusks, both almost identical in length and shape. As far as elephants go, he was a textbook example of this grandiose beast. There were very few more impressive than the mighty Dzombo. He was also the only member of the Magnificent Seven to succumb to a poacher’s rifle and died at the age of 50-years-old.
Also found in the north regions of the Kruger, João frequented the Shingwedzi River area but was sometimes spotted as far south as Mopani. At a shoulder height of 340cm, this was a massive beast who also faced poachers in his life, luckily surviving the encounter to continue his legacy. During his time, his combined tusk weight of 130kg was the highest in Kruger Park. He, however broke both his tusks presumably in a fight with another bull. His tusks were never recovered.
Meaning “Old Elephant Bull” in Tsonga, Kambaku moved across a huge area of the Kruger National Park, from the central regions around Satara and Orpen all the way down to the Crocodile River in the extreme south of the park. He was a loner, never really seen with other elephants (askari) and was mercifully euthanised in 1985 by one of the Kruger’s rangers when it became apparent that he was suffering from a bullet wound, probably picked up during one of his raids into neighbouring sugar cane fields, found outside the Kruger’s borders in the south of the park. When he could no longer walk, and death was imminent, the decision was made to end his suffering.
He was an irritable elephant, not the friendliest, and only seen by few people due to the remoteness of the area he called home.
Also found in the Shingwedzi area of the park, his tusks were relatively straight (not curved as with many others) and due to their enormous length, chiselled at the tips due to his tusks rubbing on the ground as he moved through the bush. A hole in his skull, which extended into his nasal cavity through which he could breathe, made him easy to identify (apart from his obvious massive tusks).
He died of natural causes at around 57-years-old.
The northern region of Kruger Park was home to Ndlulamithi. Like Mafunyane, he was also aggressive but shy and seldom seen. He too died of natural causes at around 58-years-old.
Named after the Shawu valley where he spent most of his life, this elephant, like Kambaku traversed a huge area in the Kruger National Park. He occupied the area between the Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers from the main tourist road going north to the Lebombo Mountains in the east. Shawu’s tusks are the longest on record in the Kruger National Park and the 6 th longest recorded length ever to come out of Africa. He was a relatively calm bull not showing much aggression in the presence of vehicles. He died of natural causes just east of Shingwedzi Rest Camp at the ripe old age of 60 years.
Named after the river and rest camp where he spent his last few years, his left tusk was considerably shorter than his right tusk, offering the perfect example of the master servant tusk theory where elephants use either their left or right tusk more, much like humans who tend to be either left or right-handed.
By all accounts, he passed away peacefully, under the shade of a sycamore fig tree at the age of 65 years.
All truly impressive with tusks weighing more than 50 kilograms each. Ndlulamithi’s left tusk weighed an even more impressive 65 kilograms, but, in terms of tusk length, none of them beat Shawu, whose left tusk measured 317 centimetres in length.
There is an interesting elephant museum situated at Letaba Camp in the Kruger National Park, where all (except for João) of their tusks are on display. If you visit the north of Kruger, take some time to visit the museum - you will not be disappointed.
Gentle giants of the African bush, it’s always a treat seeing and observing elephants. From the young calves showing their bravado and trumpeting at passing vehicles to the old bulls who silently move through the bush in search of water and their next meal, the Kruger National Park is home to vast herds of elephants. Enjoy them!
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