Year in the Wild Blog

Kruger National Park – The Magnificent Seven at Letaba

Letaba Camp is one of my favourite in Kruger. It’s beautifully set on the banks of the river of the same name, and huge sycamore fig trees provide ample shade to the bungalows which circle underneath. There’s a special feeling about the place.

I also have an ancestral link to Letaba. Long ago, my oupa and ouma used to come here with my mom and her two brothers, on their holidays. And my parents always used to bring me and my two sisters here when we were growing up. Somehow this place is part of me.

One of the very best things in all of Kruger is the Letaba Elephant Hall. It must be one of the most intriguing and fascinating “museums” in the country. Here you can see the tusks of some of Kruger’s biggest elephant bulls, including the “Magnificent Seven”, which used to wander the park from the 1930s to the 1980s (although of course the tusks only reached their maximum size in old age).

These original huge tuskers have passed their genes down into the current generation of elephants, and in ten or twenty years, visitors should be seeing even more of these truly impressive creatures.

The original seven were Dzombo, Joao, Kambaku, Mafunyane, Ndlulamithi, Shawu and Shingwedzi.

These big guys all had tusks in excess of 50 kilograms. The largest belonged to Joao, which had one tusk of an estimated 70 kilograms (although his tusks broke off late in his life, probably while fighting another bull, and they were never recovered – Joao is the only bull whose tusks are not represented at the Elephant Hall).

The longest tusk belonged to Shawu, a truly impressive 317 centimetres, and weighed 52 kilograms! (Shawu’s tusks are the longest ever recorded in Kruger, and the sixth longest of all African elephants). All the bulls lived for around 50 years, and some for over 60.

Mafunyane’s tusks were perfectly symmetrical, each one weighing 55, 1 kilograms and extending 251 centimetres.

Hunting in Africa has largely eliminated the genes of large tuskers, and so it’s reassuring to know that the genes of these legends remain in Kruger’s population of elephants. Do yourself a favour, and stand next to Shawu’s tusks…then tell me how anyone can possibly shoot such a creature. I just don’t get it, but then I never will.

(Dzombo was the only one of the seven to be killed by poachers. According to info at the Elephant Hall, it was only by a stroke of luck that Dzombo’s two tusks were not taken. He died in a hail of bullets from an AK 47 fired by a poacher from Mozambique in October 1985. The miscreants were in the act of chopping out the tusks when they were disturbed by the approach of Ranger Ampie Espag and fled leaving their trophies behind.) Joao was wounded by a poacher’s bullet, yet lived to a ripe old age.

For more about the Letaba Elephant Hall, and the Magnificent Seven, check out SANPark’s website here.

Mafunyane...His tusks were perfectly symmetrical and of identical length and mass. The bull had a 10cm hole in the right side of his skull that extended into his nasal cavity allowing him to breathe through this passage.

Shawu, the longest tusker ever recorded in Kruger, and the sixth longest ever in Africa. In 1981 it was decided to fit Shawu with a collar as poaching was a constant threat from Mozambique.


The tusks of Mafunyane...named after former warden of the Kruger National Park Lou Steyn who was well known for his quick temper. (Mafunyane is the Tsonga word for ‘the irritable one’ which appropriately refers to the elephant’s disdain for, and intolerance of humans.)


Shawu's tusks...the most impressive of them all, named after the Shawu valley in which he spent much of his life.


Shawu's tusks

These ellies were spotted near a waterhole close to Letaba...they probably carry some of the genes of the Magnificent Seven.


Letaba camp is shaded by huge sycamore fig trees, making it one of the prettiest in Kruger


The plaque on one of the benches...where my ouma and oupa used to sit and watch the ellies drinking from the Letaba River


Bushbuck are common in Letaba camp...and habituated to people.


Ground hornbill near Letaba


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