Remembering epic elephants
South Africa has hundreds of museums. Among the biggest and the best are the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, Museum Africa, the Apartheid Museum and the Johannesburg Art Museum. Then you get the smaller gems in towns and cities around South Africa. They range from converted houses dedicated to individuals (like the Louw Huis Museum in Sutherland), to sheds of farming implements (the Bathurst Agricultural Museum). There are also some dedicated to animals, like the Richmond Horse Museum.
Popping into these often-obscure establishments is always a highlight on any road trip I take.
To my knowledge, the Letaba Elephant Hall is the only museum in South Africa dedicated to elephants. And why not? When you see an elephant, it’s impossible not to marvel at their size. They symbolise strength, curiosity and the ability to endure. They have been immortalised in literature, art and history. In many fables, the elephant is the wise chief, with a long memory and many stories to tell. Their trunks are astonishingly deft, their family interactions are strangely familiar to us, and their tusks inspire wonder, respect and, all too often, greed.
Their trunks are astonishingly deft, their family interactions are strangely familiar to us, and their tusks inspire wonder, respect and, all too often, greed.
Today’s elephant populations wander freely in South Africa’s national parks. It is always a thrill to see them and some of my best memories in the bush involve sitting for hours, watching them. Predictably, I was late for my appointment in Letaba for exactly this reason – I stopped to watch a herd of ellies digging for water in a riverbed; and for another elephant, who felt he had just as much right to the road as me and wouldn’t move out the way.
I got there, though, and with my recent sightings fresh in my mind, spent a fascinating hour or so exploring the Elephant Hall, which preserves the histories of some of the Kruger National Park’s most epic elephants. Generally, dead things on the wall give me the creeps, but the museum, which houses the ivory and skulls of some of Kruger’s largest tuskers, like the Magnificent 7, is different. Each exhibit is accompanied by extensive notes and is clearly intended to honour the elephant in question
Kulani Mashamba, host at the hall, has his own favourite, Mafunyane, 'because he had a hole in his head which he breathed through'. His 1st encounters with elephants took place as a child growing up near the Punda Maria gate. He’s grown to love these pachyderms and talks at length about a particular encounter that stuck in his mind, when 1 of the emerging tuskers, whom he’d been longing to see, paid him a close visit.
For him, as well as many visitors, the elephants seem to symbolise all that is good and important about South Africa’s conservation efforts, as well as something deeper: a personal feeling of connection to these animals as individuals. They have roamed far, seen much and survived to grow bigger and stronger than any other land mammal. In the process they've earned our respect.
While the elephants in the hall live in memory alone, there is an ongoing project to track a new generation of emerging tuskers, with the help of photos submitted by the public. To qualify as an emerging tusker, the ivory should protrude at least 1.5m on a young bull, with tusks that will still grow.
It’s not of scientific value, but the data collected, with the help of public sightings, is nonetheless interesting, explains Kristy Redman, who has been involved in the Elephant Hall since 2000. She explains that the museum is due for an overhaul at some stage, 'but people feel so strongly about it and 'their' elephants, we can’t change it too much!'.
My visit to the museum was strangely moving and, aside from what I learnt about the big tuskers, I also enjoyed the general display, tracking the history and biology of elephants. There is a complete elephant skeleton, information on their age classes and respective heights, and a replica of an elephant’s heart – massive!
It’s good and fitting that these big tuskers have a museum dedicated to preserving their memory and sharing their magnificence with future generations. And, of course, another thing that I really like about elephants is that although size does matter, the female is (almost) always the boss.