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Botswana Safari

Tuli Region & Tuli Game Reserve - Safari Information

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The Tuli Region
Lovely rock formation in TuliAt the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers is a land of big vistas, big skies, giant trees and great herds of game.  Rich in history and mythology, it is a place where the present echoes with footsteps of the past and stirs the imagination, making it difficult to leave and impelling one to return.  The greater Tuli region, which encompasses the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, is bounded by the Motloutse, the Shashe and Limpopo rivers in the northeastern corner of Botswana and the southwestern part of Zimbabwe.

The region has a variety of landscapes, which fall into several broad categories...  Beautiful riverine forests along the river banks and watercourses, particularly on the banks of the Limpopo, Motloutse and Shashe rivers, Karoo sandstone outcrops forming picturesque hillocks and buttresses, dolerite dykes - the most spectacular being Solomon's Wall - and Mopane savanna presenting vast vistas with clean horizons, magnificent sunsets and no sign of human habitation or excroachment. (1)

History of the Tuli Region
The area is rich in history and prehistory.  Early Stone Age peoples roamed these parts and sheltered in the sandstone caves and overhangs, their hunter-gatherer lifestyle interrupted by the arrival of pastoralists in the 11th century, which heralded the start of the Iron Age.  Across the Limpopo river, adjacent to the reserve, is the newly proclaimed World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe, which emerged as southern Africa's first kingdom in AD 1220.  The people of this ancient dynasty established five satellite cities, one of which is situated in the reserve near the Motloutse river and is known locally as Mmamagwa.

During the 1800's the area saw the ruthless ambition of the Matabele chiefs, Mmzilikazi and Lobengula, as well as that of Cecil John Rhodes of Britain.  It witnessed the rule of Khama the Great, grandfather to the first president of an independent Botswana, the intransigence of President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic, and several of the opening conflicts between Boer and British forces during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Specifically, between 1890 and 1902 Tuli became the stage for numerous disputes between the two powerful African chiefs, Logenbula and Khama, and endless spats between the unyielding political personalities of Rhodes and Kruger and of various military confrontations between their two nations.  Tuli was by all accounts an inhospitable land of dense bush, rocky outcrops and swamps with biting insects and wild animals; yet it was an area in great demand by all.

During this time, the Tuli was also a popular hunting ground for the famous 'Great White Hunter' Frederick Selous and others of his ilk.  Like the rest of Africa, it too was systematically raped for its wildlife by ruthless traders and hunters, greedy to harvest its great stores of ivory, pelts and furs. 

Today Tuli has shrugged off its turbulent past and is a successful game reserve, with thriving herds of elephant and antelope, giraffe and zebra, and it is shortly to become a core area for a huge Transfrontier Park. (1)

Tuli Circle
Southwest of the Shashe river the borderline between Botswana and Zimbabwe forms a semi-circle known as the Tuli Circle. This demarcation originated as a result of a severe epidemic of rinderpest (lung disease) which affected the Bangwato cattle herds of Botswana in 1891. The British South Africa Company (owned by Cecil John Rhodes) were concerned that their cattle at Fort Tuli on the Zimbabwean side of the Shashe river would catch the disease and consequently, King Khama III of Botswana granted a 12-mile radius of land on the Botswana side, which was to be a "no-go" zone for cattle, in order to prevent the disease from spreading to Rhodes' herds.

History of Northern Tuli Game Reserve
Huge fig tree in Northern Tuli Game ReserveThe Northern Tuli Game Reserve was established over a period of years during the 1960s, during which time wildlife was extremely scarce in the area.  This was primarily due to the region having been used as a farming area for many centuries.  The land was cultivated for crops as early as AD 900 by tribal pastoralsists and elephants and predators viewed as a threat to the planted fields and livestock.  The acceleration of wholesale hunting during the 1800s and then the final division of the Tuli area (or Tuli Block) into farms by Rhodes' British South Africa Company in 1920, further depleted both the land and the game.

As late as the 1960s the region was still being degraded by agricultural pressures, cattle crossing over the border to graze, and poachers from South Africa shooting anything they could find.  To this day white and black rhino, roan and sable antelope, brown hyena and wild dog remain extinct in the area.  There would not be any giraffe either if they had not been successfully reintroduced in 1984.

In 1964 the various landowners in the northern Tuli area formed the Limshapo Game Protection Association in an attempt to organize conservation in the region. The first game warden, Adrian Boshier, a man who had lived for years in a cave in the area, living off the land and learning the ways of the bush, was employed and by 1966, Boshier could report that elephants and general game had started to return.

In the late 1960s the owners of the 35 farms in the area went a step further and pulled down any fences that existed to allow for the free movement of wildlife, sunsequently forming the Northern Tuli Game Reserve.  The reserve extends over an area of 71,000 hectares, making it one of the largest privately owned game sanctuaries in Africa.  The reserve's conservation mission now extends to the support of the proposed Transfrontier Park, which will straddle Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. (1)

The reserve is bounded in the east by the Shashe River and in the south by the Limpopo River. The former constitutes the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe and the latter the border between Botswana and South Africa. The south-western boundary is bordered by the Motloutse River, while the remainder of the western boundary consists of a double foot-and-mouth disease control fence. The northern boundary is comprised of a semi-circular unfenced cut-line which demarcates the Tuli Circle Safari Area in Zimbabwe. Within the Northern Tuli Game Reserve there are several privately owned pieces of land of which Mashatu Game Reserve is the largest, covering approximately 30,000 hectares. Animals can move freely throughout the reserve, as well as between the reserve and Zimbabwe.  Although there is a fence between South Africa and Botswana, there is certainly animal movement between these two countries as well.

Transfrontier Park
Cheetah and safari vehicle at MashatuThe dream of a Transfrontier Park in this region is not a recent one: General Jan Smuts first considered the idea in 1922, when he was instrumental in forming the Dongola Botanical Reserve along the Limpopo river.  During the 1940s the reserve became a wildlife sanctuary and ws renamed Dongola National Park. It was at this time that the idea of joining the park with similar areas in neighboring Botswana and Zimbabwe was mooted.  The National Park, some 190,000 hectares in extent, was duly proclaimed in 1947, but the proclamation was repealed a year later following a change in government in South Africa.  In 1994 the idea for the Dongola National Park was reconsidered and an agreement was signed for the creation of a sanctuary in South Africa the following year, which gave impetus to tentative plans for a wider Transfrontier Park.

The proposed Limpopo/Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) will cover 4,872 square kilometers, of whicg 53 percent will be in South Africa, 28 percent in Botswana and 19 percent in Zimbabwe.  The area has a rich biodiversity, spectacular scenery and several Iron Age sites of great archeological importance.  The region is home to a significant population of elephant, as well as all the major predators and has the potential to become a "big five" game area. (1)

Viable populations of lion, leopard, and cheetah are still prevalent and a population of 1,400 elephant exist within the region. The resident elephant population of approximately 600 within the Northern Tuli Game Reserve is the largest population on private land in Africa. The area includes 19 Red Data Book mammals and 26 Red Data Book plant species, as well as several Red Data Book bird species - including the Black Eagle.

Once established, this TFCA has the potential to be a significant sanctuary for wild dog, black rhino and elephant, and for 16 other Red Data Book species. Wild dog and elephants, in particular, will benefit from the larger area of the TFCA. This TFCA, with its' wealth of wildlife and scenery and its' cultural/historical assets, has the potential to become a major new outhern African tourist destination.

Tuli is a semi-arid region, with rain falling in the summer months between November and March, although the rains tend to be erratic and there are frequent summer droughts.  Temperaatures can drop below freezing during winter, but start to climb rapidly at the start of spring in September, when hot and dry winds blow from the east.

The vegetation varies greatly: riparian woodland occurs along the banks of the Shashe, Motloutse and Limpopo rivers, where mature trees of ten meters or more form a thick canopy.  An open, woody community of shrubs and saplings occurs along the banks of the smaller rivers, while by far the most dominant vegetation type is Mopane veld.

The Nyala-berry tree (Xanthocercis zambesiaca) is also known locally as the Mashatu tree.  It occurs in the alluvial soils along the many watercourses and many specimens range in age from 300 to 600 years.  The tree can reach a height of 30 meters and its rounded canopy, supported by a massive trunk, is evergreen.  The origin of the name Mashatu is not certain, but is most probably derived from the Shona word for python, which seem to favor the trees. (1)

Tuli is sometimes called the Land of Giants, for it populations of elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, giraffe and eland.  Apart from its resident giants, Tuli hosts an impressive array of animals.  In addition to the common plains game like wildebeest and zebra, there are troops of monkey and baboon, as well as populations of steenbok, the timid duiker, grysbok, impala, common waterbuck, bushbuck, and warthog. Also present are aardvark, aardwolf, bat-eared fox, African wild cat, spotted hyena and black-backed jackal.

The permanent pools in the Limpopo river harbor crocodiles and all the waterways are home to a variety of indigenous fish.

Wild dogs and raon antelope, and tsessebe have been reintroduced on the South African side of the river and the Tuli area has a great diversity of bird life, with over 350 species having been recorded to date. (1)

Tuli Elephants
Elephants in Northern Tuli Game Reserve, BotswanaTuli is home to the last free-ranging, flourishing African elephant population on private land south of the Zambezi River. They are called the Central Limpopo Valley elephant population or more commonly, the Tuli elephants. But this was not always the case. As far back as the early Iron Age people have been hunting elephants for their ivory. During the 1800’s many a hunter ventured to the banks of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers in search of ivory. Herds of several hundreds of elephants are described in these old hunting stories. Elephants were merciless hunted by people like Coenraad De Buys, which was the first white man known to have hunted in this area. From the scanty information available he appears to be a fearless hunter killing elephants at close quarters with an ancient muzzleloader.

Soon after the hunters, the traders arrived on the scene exchanging guns for ivory with the local headsmen and chiefs. David Holme, a trade explorer, penetrated the area as far as the Shashe River. The Boers were not far behind with Petrus Jacobs killing 200 elephants on one expedition only. Rousleyn Gordon Cumming, a man known through history as an animal slaughter came on the scene during the years 1846 – 1848. Cumming conducted two expeditions into the area hunting between the Shoshong and Motloutse Rivers and along the Limpopo River.

By 1855 elephants were so scarce that hunters such as Baldwin, Oswell, Finaughty and Selous had to venture much further north. By the time F. C. Selous led the Pioneer Column into Mashonaland in July 1890 the country was depleted of elephants. For the next 50 years no elephants were observed from the Motloutse River to the Shashe River.

In 1940 Dr. Z. Nel became the first landowner to sight the return of these giants to the area. Elephants were moving into the area from the north and west. In 1956 Bechuanaland had established a game department with the task of controlling elephants within the tribal and irrigation areas. An operation that eventually accounted for 1 800 elephants. During this time Rhodesia had started its culling operations and Transvaal farmers on the Limpopo River were accused of shooting indiscriminately. Once more hounded by the gun and a diminishing habitat the elephants retreated back into the Tuli enclave – there was nowhere else to go.

From then onwards the elephant numbers within the reserve increased steadily with elephants moving in from the north and the west. In the 1960’s a Tuli landowner counted 300 elephants within the reserve. During the 70’s reports of a vast increase in elephant numbers and subsequent habitat change were received. Cries for the reduction in elephant numbers started to be heard. Tree species diversity was declining and many large trees could be seen damaged by elephants. This trend continued through the 80’s and early 90’s. To make matters worse a severe drought threatened the area throughout the 80’s and 90’s. The area was changing dramatically - grass plains were making way for desert sand conditions and huge trees along the rivers were dying either due to elephant damage or a lack of water.

It is during this time period due to the extended drought that several properties changed hands and several farms reverted back to wildlife. This opened up new areas to the elephants and a split in the elephant population where observed.

No fences exist in the area to limit elephant movement and the elephants move freely between the three different countries. In the early 1990’s elephants were observed for the first time in areas that they were absent from for many years. Elephants crossed the Shashe River and a resident herd established itself on two privately owned farms on the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe. Elephants also moved further up the Tuli Block and a herd established itself in the Platjan area. Reports of elephants crop raiding as far as Selebi-Phikwe were received and after the completion of the Letsibogo dam a small herd of elephants established itself in the area around Mmadinari, much to the consternation of local farmers.

The long-term survival of these elephants outside the reserve is doubtful while their continued existence within the sanctuary will depend on the support and cooperation of all concerned. Without the knowledge that makes ecological management possible the Tuli area could become a derelict landscape inhabited by the pathetic remnants of these giants.
Historical information obtained from Mr. Clive Walker.

(1) Information adapted from and used with the kind permission of Roger and Pat de la Harpe, from their lovely book, Tuli - Land of Giants.
More information on Tuli and the de la Harpes' work can be found in their book and on their website http://www.africaimagery.com/.

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