Searching for the Last Tuskers… in a Tuk Tuk
Visitors to Kimana Sanctuary can expect a variety of visual delights. The morning sun flickering off a snow-capped Kilimanjaro, herds of elephant emerging from fever tree forests, spotted hyena in pursuit of a startled warthog. The days here are spent staring through the eyes of an awestruck child. On this particular occasion though, the expensively clad, heavy lensed safari visitors were distracted from the sublime by the absurd. Accompanying the dawn chorus of Crested Franklin and crickets came the distinctive chug of an 8 horsepower tuk tuk engine.
We are not a subtle bunch. Despite our safari colours and low(ish) profile it is fair to say you can spot us in the bush quite easily.
Kimana is home to some of the biggest tuskers left alive. What on earth were these city dwelling taxis doing here? The vehicles belong to us, Tuk South, a film crew that travels and exists entirely in two Piaggio tuk tuks. We are in the process of driving them from Kenya to Cape Town to raise money for wildlife rangers, whilst filming the trip for a documentary on conservation and the devastating impact of Covid on Africa’s tourism industry. Kimana is under the stewardship of Big Life rangers who operate within the region for the sole purpose of helping wildlife and people to coexist. Their story over the past 20 years is remarkable. They have overseen a dramatic drop in human-elephant wildlife conflict that was on course to wipe out the wild elephant population.
When Big Life heard there were two tuk tuks driving through Africa, raising money for conservation, they opened their doors to us. Each night rangers would come to our camp for a cup of chai and to watch a film. Planet Earth II was a firm favorite. During the day we joined the team in the elevated Land Cruisers, answering calls to boldly face down 5-ton crop raiding elephants, in pumped up 4WD vehicles that felt altogether too small.
Back at Big Life HQ we met characters with real gravitas, who told us about their vision for the future. People like lead ranger, Francis Legai. When this gentleman spoke, you listened. Francis beckoned us into a room with walls adorned with whiteboards, the contents of which cut a chill through the Equatorial air.
In the early 2000s people and animals were dying every week as a consequence of human-wildlife conflict.
“Boy killed, elephants speared in retaliation, ivory not recovered”
“Man killed, elephant speared for crop raiding, ivory not recovered”
The human population in the area was growing rapidly and these people needed space to live, pushing them onto land that elephants have historically roamed. Conflict was an inevitable outcome. Since Big Life began mediating the relationship between people and elephants in the region, the progress has been unimaginable. From upwards of 20 fatal incidents of human elephant conflict a year in the early nineties, to less than 5 in 2020 and 2021. Thanks to Big Life, elephants are still free to roam through the Amboseli wildlife corridor, as they have done for generations and farmers can plant crops, safe in the knowledge there is someone to call should they find a four ton visitor in their pumpkin patch.
After two weeks of filming the Big Life team, we pulled up to the Kimana main gate to say our goodbyes. Ranger Jonathan came walking over to us grinning:
“Leaving so soon! Really? Craig just entered the park”
Craig is one of the biggest tuskers left alive. The devastating effects of the ivory trade have resulted in the gene pool for big tuskers becoming smaller and smaller. Elephants with huge tusks represent too large a reward and they have paid the price for their impressive teeth. Craig is 50 years old and his tusks are over two metres long. He is a mammoth.
“Looks like he’s been rolling in Amboseli dirt, he is bright red” Jonathan said, “You can’t miss him”
We hurtled through the gold-flecked forest as the light hit that magical hue, signaling the end of another day. If we could avoid the worst of the mud we would make it to the plains. The trees flitting past on either side gave way to grass as our tyres bounced onto the crumbling red earth of the Kimana grasslands. Elephants move fast. He may have left the park already. Had we missed our chance to film a giant red tusker, from a tuk tuk?
We passengers hung from the open sides of the Piaggio, shading our eyes, as we scanned the area. We spotted a small herd of eight elephants and curved around a thicket of acacia trees to see who was leading them. As we rounded the vegetation he came into full view. The biggest elephant we had ever seen, covered in red earth. We parked the tuk tuk and turned off the engine. The light had reached the zone of peak shadows and the colours of Kimana came flooding into focus.
The four of us spilled out of the side doors to better appreciate the scene. To the west, the sun was falling fast behind the sloping ridge line of Kilimanjaro. The air was still and all sound seemed to fade as the lumbering figures came closer and closer. For the first time since leaving the park gates I became aware of my heart rate. It was racing. What if Craig hated tuk tuks? He was used to safari cars monitoring him from afar but I doubt he had bumped into many 8 horsepower engines in the bush. We need not have worried. There was a reason Craig had a posse of seven young males following him, watching his every move. He is fifty years old, the most impressive elephant around and has pretty much seen it all. This wise old bull gave as much credence to our ramshackle outfit as a prize racehorse gives a farm cat.
Over the course of the next hour we rarely strayed more than 50 metres from Craig and his acolytes. Our initial worries, brought about by his sheer enormity, were quickly forgotten. This was one of those moments that you knew would be well preserved through stories shared with friends and family. At one point in life we searched for one of the biggest tuskers in the world, whilst driving a tuk tuk – and he was bright red.
Craig is more than a big tusker. Hundreds of thousands of elephants have been killed during his lifetime for their teeth. He represents the culmination of humanity’s efforts to stem the destruction of the natural world. To see him, is to acquire faith that we may have acted just in time. Thanks to organizations like Big Life, tuskers have scraped through the twentieth century and their numbers are on the rise. They do not just exist as photographs in a natural history book. you can still find them, patrolling the foothills of Kilimanjaro, even in a tuk tuk.