Imagine being a child and having a front-row seat, every day, to one of nature’s most remarkable live-action shows. That 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 “theater of the wild” and is Kenya’s oldest park. Along with Tsavo West National Park and other conservancies, it forms a preservation area covering about 42,000 square kilometers (16,200 square miles), known as the Tsavo ecosystem.
Rhinos, buffaloes, lions, leopards, cheetah, wildebeest and zebra call it home, but among its residents is one giant of an animal that stops people in their tracks. Growing between 10 to 13 feet tall, it is a rare type of elephant – positively prehistoric looking – known as a Super Tusker.
“My first encounter with a big tusker was here in Tsavo National Park, and I was amazed at how big the tusks were,” Kyalo recalls. “They were huge, more than 100 pounds per side, and were very long and symmetrical, almost touching the ground.”
The thrill of witnessing nature’s show as a child ignited a passion in Joseph, and then a career. He’s a conservation officer and pilot for Tsavo Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting the wildlife in the Tsavo Conservation Area (TCA) – in particular, the Super Tuskers.
“The Tsavo ecosystem holds arguably the largest number of big tuskers in Africa,” says Kyalo. The problem is, that’s not a lot.
On the brink
A Super Tusker is a bull elephant with tusks that each weigh over 100 pounds (45 kilograms) and are so long that they often touch the ground, according to Tsavo Trust.
There are roughly a couple dozen of these magnificent beasts left in the world, with most, if not all, currently concentrated in Kenya. South Africa’s Kruger National Park is keeping a close watch on several elephants there that are possible emerging tuskers.
Elephant tusks are enlarged incisor teeth that show up around the age of two and continue to grow throughout the elephant’s life span of 60 to 70 years. Elephants not only use their tusks as their primary defense system, but also to gather food and protect their trunks. Wildlife experts have observed that just like left or right-handed humans, elephants are also left-tusked or right-tusked, with the dominant tusk becoming worn down from more frequent use.
A Super Tusker has a genetic variation that causes the tusks to grow faster and longer. And yet, this somewhat menacing-looking feature is also what makes a tusker so vulnerable.
Opportunities for witnessing a big tusker in its natural habitat are dwindling, according to Kyalo. Poaching of these wandering giants has drastically reduced their numbers.
“These massive elephants are under constant threat from trophy poachers 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 viable gene pool of ‘Big Tuskers’ remaining.”
That’s why the Tsavo Trust was founded back in 2013. In partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the organization’s main aim is to track, monitor and preserve the 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.
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 aren’t the only threats to endangered wildlife in Kenya. “Other issues include human-wildlife conflict,” Kyalo says. Elephants and other animals are known to raid people’s crops, which can lead to retribution. Tsavo Trust and KWS work to mitigate the problem by constructing fences around farmed areas.
“A lot of conservation awareness has been done by our community department team to promote co-existence between wildlife and people,” says Kyalo.
What the future holds
Just like Kyalo’s childhood experience, the hope is that positive encounters with wildlife will help to inspire conservation within the communities that surround the protected area.
Kyalo and his fellow field team members continue to monitor the tuskers with the hope of not only preserving, but growing their numbers.
“A future where there are no ‘Big Tuskers’ in Tsavo is not worth thinking about,” Kyalo says. “The presence of these majestic animals brings huge numbers of tourists to the park every year and that income is vital to further conservation efforts and supporting local communities.”