Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard

Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: and and the next post coming soon!)


[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.


Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested: