Learn more about Tembe Elephant Park, the breathtaking surroundings of the Thonga land and the Tembe people.

Home of the great tuskers

This is home to some of Africa's mightiest elephants, and part of the legendary Ivory Route where the great tuskers still trample along their ancient pathways through habitats ranging from endemic sand-forest to virgin marshes. This is Tembe Elephant Park, a 300 square kilometre (30,012 hectare) reserve located in Maputaland, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is situated north of Zululand, on the southern Mozambique border, and is home to Africa’s largest land animals and it's smallest antelope, the 35cm suni.

The Big Five and many more also call Tembe their home – Africa's largest elephants, lion, leopard, black and white rhino, and buffalo, as well as more than 340 bird species and a myriad of other predators, herbivores and omnivores. It is the residence of majestic trees and plants, butterflies, frogs and many more treasures. It is a world of hot stillness and deep sands, where everything slows down and only the rising and setting of the sun marks the passage of time. It is also the ancestral home of the Tembe nation.

Download the Wildlife Species Checklist


The three largest Elephant Tuskers in Southern Africa are from Tembe and tend to be quite visible as they generally live in the south. Their names are Isilo, Induna and Makobona.
A "Tusker" is an Elephant whose Tusks exceed 100lbs (45.45kg).

Download the Tembe Elephant Park: Elephant Status Report 2010

Download document on the current Tembe Tuskers


Isilo Statistics:
Age Estimated - 48 to 55 years
Tusks Weight Estimate - 55 to 60 kg
Tusk Length Estimate - 2.5m
Tusk Circumference at lip - 50 cm
Elephant Weight - 6,500 to 7,000 kg
Elephant Height - 3.2 m

Biodiversity Importance

Southern Mozambique and the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal have been recognised as an International Centre of Plant Diversity, namely the Maputaland centre. High levels of endemism and biodiversity (not only in plants) have being highlighted for this region, of which Tembe Elephant Park forms a part.

At least 2,500 species of vascular plants occur in the Maputaland centre; of these at least 225 species are endemic (an endemic is a plant or animal predominately confined to a particular area). Other endemic groups are 14 mammals (mainly of subspecies rank), 23 reptiles, 3 frogs and 8 fresh water fishes. The area also abounds in insect life, on which there is a shortage of information.

The Maputaland centre also corresponds with the southern part of the South-eastern African coast Endemic Bird Area (EBA). Of the more than 472 species of birds in the Maputaland Centre (almost 60% of South Africa’s total), 5 species and about 43 subspecies are endemic / near endemic to the centre.

Not only does Tembe Elephant Park lie in the centre of this Maputaland centre and contain many of these interesting and important species, it also contains a unique and very rare habitat nl. dry forest (referred to as Licuati forest in Mozambique and locally as Sand forest). A significant number of endemics (plants and animals) are associated with Licuati (Sand Forest), perhaps the most remarkable plant community in the Maputaland centre.


The Park is situated within the sandveld ecological zone and consists mainly of closed woodland and secondary thicket formation. The zone falls within a transition area between tropical and sub-tropical forms and therefore is home to a great diversity of vegetation. With this diversity of habitats, Tembe is home to a spectacular variety of animals and birds.

The primary habitat is sand forest, ranging from dense woodland to forest and thicket. Additional habitats include savanna grasslands, palm savanna, wetlands of reedbed, swamp and open water, and seasonal pans.

Download Vegetation Map of Tembe Elephant Park


Park Facilities

Tembe Elephant Park is a proclaimed National Park, whose biodiversity is managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. The surrounding land is Ingonyama Trust land, managed by the Tembe Traditional Authority, on behalf of the Tembe nation. The wonderful Tembe people are eager to share this treasure with you, to introduce you to the real wilderness, and the richness of their own culture. 

Tembe is a special place with very basic day visitor facilities and a road system consistent with the wilderness management of the area. Only ten vehicles are allowed into the park on a daily basis and these must be 4X4s to negotiate the sand tracks that form the road network. Not far from the maim entrance gate on the tourist route is Mahlasela Hide, and overlooking a pan in the Muzi Swamp is Ponweni Hide. Also on the tourist route is the picnic area at Manungu, a walking trail closed off from large animals by an electric fence and a viewing tower on Gowanini, which offers a panoramic view over the reserve. A handcraft stall managed by the community is situated near the parking area.

There is a network of sandy 4x4 tracks covering most of the 12,000ha public area, with access restricted to ten 4x4 vehicles per day. The wilderness area amounts to the remaining 18,000ha.

Day visitors and lodge visitors both pay once-off fees of R35 per vehicle and a R30 conservation levy.


History and Importance

The park was developed by the Tembe Tribal Authority and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and was established in 1983, but was only opened to the public in 1991.
The area, until recently, was relatively wild, with very few people and no major fences around it except the northern international border fence. This fence was no obstacle for the elephants and they crossed freely into Mozambique. Very few people lived in the area mainly because of the scarcity of surface water. What water there is, is seasonal and the more permanent waters of the northern sections of the Muzi swamp are saline, and therefore not suitable for cultivation. The soils are poor for cultivation except along the Muzi swamps and the elephants destroyed any crops that did manage to grow.
The park falls within the Tembe Tribal ward and Chief Mzimba Tembe donated the land for the formation of this game reserve. The reasons for the establishment of Tembe Elephant.

Park and primary objectives are: 

  • Protect the lives and property of the local people from damage and injury by free-roaming elephant.
  • Preserve the last naturally occurring population of African elephant in KwaZulu-Natal.
  • Conserve and protect the unique Sand Forest.
  • Protect one of the largest populations of suni antelope in southern Africa.

Tembe Elephant Park was proclaimed in October 1983 and the south, west and eastern borders were fenced with game proof and electric fences. This still allowed free movement of elephant and game north into Mozambique. Later, in 1989, the northern border with Mozambique was fenced, stopping any elephant movement north. This was necessary due to poaching of elephant.
The park is now home to 250 elephants, which are the largest in the world and Isilo is the largest living tusker in the southern hemisphere. 200 more elephants which used to be part of the same group live in the Maputo Special Reserve in Mozambique. The Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area is planned to link the two reserves and the Lubombo Conservancy in Swaziland in a single transfrontier reserve. This park is to be included into the: Usuthu-Tembe-Futi Transfrontier Conservation Area.


The Ivory Route:

Since the old days of Arab traders and transport riders, this area of Tongaland between Mozambique and Zululand has been known as the Ivory Route. The silent sand veld would echo to the shouts of the hunters, the creak of wagons and the passing conversations of travellers as they made their way from the ancient ports on the African East Coast to the home grounds of the mighty elephants, famous for their tusks. The hunting and trading ended years ago, but the tuskers remain. More than 200 of these gentle and intelligent animals tramp the quiet paths through the brush, secure in the safety of this haven. It is a rare eco-system, this transition zone between tropical and sub-tropical, and this ecological diversity suits not only the elephants but also huge numbers of animal and bird species. To preserve the pristine wilderness, Tembe park management employs a minimum-impact policy: non-intrusive visitor facilities; sand roads; sympathetic environmental management.
Tembe’s elephants are acknowledged giants. Dr Johan Marais, writer of two books on Africa’s elephants (Great Tuskers of Africa and In Search of Africa’s Great Tuskers), believes that the largest elephants in the world can be found in the Tembe Elephant Park. The largest of these are Isilo, Mkadebona and Siqualo. Isilo, the biggest of them all, is thought to be about 52 years old, to weigh about seven metric tons, and to stand 3,2 metres tall. His tusks are approximately 2.5 metres long, and weigh more than 60 kgs.
“During the early 1900s, great tuskers were the norm in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the south-western corner of Ethiopia, southern Sudan and the grassy plains of Tanzania and Kenya. But through hunting this has diminished to less than 40 bulls in the whole of Africa today. The best place in Southern Africa to see ivory elephants, in my opinion, is Tembe Elephant Park. Nowhere else have I seen so many bulls with such good ivory." says Dr Marais.

"Tembe definitely features as one of the top reserves in Africa when it comes to conservation of elephants with large ivory. The park has been managed really well and the fact that no hunting or poaching has been permitted has allowed the elephant population to develop a fair number of great tuskers – more than Kruger currently!”