On The Trail Of Kenya’s Super Tuskers

The new documentary, Emergence, sheds light on the rare elephants, the challenges they face, and the work dedicated humans are doing to protect them.
An estimated 21 super tuskers exist on the planet, nine of them in Tsavo, Kenya. Photography by Nicholas Haller

By Martha McGuinness

“Back up now.” “Move sideways.” “Behind that bush.” Those were the firm words of renowned conservationist James Robertson when Lugard, the elephant with the heaviest tusks in Africa, noticed us standing 40 feet away and began moving toward us.

I had the privilege of accompanying Robertson on foot to see this iconic elephant. But the invitation came with a few caveats: follow behind, don’t speak unless it is urgent, and do exactly what he says. He also told me that if anything happens, he would always step between the elephant and me. This last part made as much sense to me as a mosquito stopping a Mack truck, but I soon learned what he meant. Robertson, a third generation Kenyan, is a legend in conservation. He is known for leading private safaris that offer a truly authentic, tented experience while maintaining the indulgences of a luxury camp. He often takes clients on bush walks and he never carries a gun. His understanding of the nature of wild animals runs in his blood.

I silently followed him, weaving through the thorny brush of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. We knew the general vicinity of Lugard, because our film crew had spotted him in the bush plane earlier that morning. After 30 thirty minutes, we heard the sound of large branches being pulled from trees and bushes being uprooted like weeds. In front was what looked like a gigantic living, breathing, rust-colored boulder. We angled our way closer and caught a first glimpse of Lugard’s colossal tusks. He was spectacular. We stood for several minutes watching; it was thrilling to share space with such a massive and majestic creature in his own environment. I was surprised he didn’t see us, but elephants have notoriously poor eyesight. Although they have a keen sense of smell, we luckily were downwind. After a few minutes, Lugard moved, and James gestured to a clearing with a better view.

I’m not sure if a twig snapped or the wind changed, but suddenly he lifted his head, stopped eating and stared directly at us. He flared his enormous ears, a signal that he was no longer comfortable, and took a step forward. True to his words, James moved toward Lugard. It was amazing how confidently and deftly he handled the situation. He began communicating in the most incredible, authentic elephant language, making low guttural, rumbling sounds. At the same time, he gently spoke to Lugard: “Easy boy.” ‘It’s OK.” “It’s alright.” After a tense five minutes, my body in full sweat, Lugard put his head down and returned to browsing.

I was in Kenya shooting Emergence, a documentary on the super tuskers of Tsavo. Super tuskers are male bull elephants whose tusks are so large they touch the ground; each appendage weighs well over 100 pounds. An estimated 21 super tuskers exist on the planet, nine of them in Tsavo, many of them reaching the end of their life span of approximately 55 years. Fortunately, 32 male bull elephants possessing the tusker gene and four female tuskers, known as “iconic cows,” have been identified in Tsavo. With protection, there is an opportunity for these elephants to breed. The documentary sheds light on these rare elephants, the challenges they face, and the work dedicated humans are doing to protect them. Empowers Africa, where I am a trustee, executive-produced the documentary. It will be shown at the World Elephant and World Lion Day Film Festival on August 14 at the Southampton Arts Center.

Lugard, named after Lugard Falls where he was discovered, is considered a Kenyan national treasure. As large as he is, Lugard is not easy to find. Like most bull elephants, he is solitary. He is also not comfortable around humans, nor should he be. An elephant of Lugard’s age (he’s 50) has witnessed a multitude of atrocities, including a massive poaching crisis in the ‘70s and ‘80s where the elephant population in the park was all but decimated. He has seen his habitat and roaming territory diminished by human development, and he has experienced the trauma of human-wildlife conflict. He continues to navigate the effects of climate change, and is living through the worst drought the eastern horn of Africa has seen in 4 decades. Large elephants of Lugard’s size drink 40-60 gallons of water a day. Lugard seems to have an unusually perceptive ability to smell where water is located. He is known to travel up to 15 miles in a day on cracked, parched earth to find it.

We were fortunate to have Nick Haller, Chief Operating Officer Tsavo Trust, a field based organization founded to protect and ensure the propagation of the super tuskers spend 8 days with our crew. The organization, which was founded in 2013, employs 36 rangers who patrol the park daily removing snares and traps, arresting poachers and violators of illegal logging and cattle grazing and maintaining the park’s ecosystem and infrastructure. There is an aerial unit and ground surveillance teams that in addition to monitoring the super tuskers, protect other high value game, including the park’s black rhinos. Some of the black rhino have even had chips embedded into their horns that transmit to tracking devices mounted to the underside of the bush plane.

With the severity of the drought and the desperate need for water, the Trust is experimenting with a new Sand Dam project to ecologically manage and maintain water sources. Although ivory poaching has largely been controlled, crop-raiding and retaliation by local tribesmen has become a new cause for alarm for elephants. The Tsavo Trust is looking for ways to prevent this, and is testing fencing projects in various areas. Tsavo Trust works in conjunction with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) but there seems to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that if it weren’t for Tsavo Trust, the big tuskers in the park would not exist today. KWS seems grateful for the support and on my first night in camp, two KWS rangers arrived to ask for Nick’s help in locating a mother rhino and calf that had been missing from the IPZ (Intensive Protection Zone) for 3 weeks. Nick left in his plane at first light to help the search.

As the shoot wrapped up, I began to feel melancholy about saying goodbye. It was inspiring to be among this talented crew, and witness their dedication to conservation. It was fascinating to see firsthand the work Tsavo Trust is doing to protect the Tuskers and safeguard the park’s ecosystem. But standing in front of Lugard and watching him quietly browse was otherworldly. I felt humbled and at the same time exhilarated. I was a bit saddened by the contrast between the peace I was witnessing, and the violence he must have seen. Despite being a wild animal, it was clear all he really wanted to do is live peacefully and be free. There is solid evidence that elephants are some of the most intelligent, social and empathetic animals on earth. I am inspired by Lugard’s strength and the opportunity we have not only to protect the super tuskers, but all elephants and endangered species. Not only for them, but for the health of our planet. empowersafrica.org