North-east Zululand – Tongaland Tembe Elephant Park

About the Birding

Under the custodianship of Ezemvelo KZN Widlife, Tembe Elephant Park is situated at the extreme northern edge of Zululand bordering southern Mozambique. Named for the local Tonga tribal leaders, this reserve covers an immense area of 30 000 hectares. Tembe was proclaimed in 1983 to protect the local African Elephant and Suni Antelope (one of Africa’s smallest antelope species) populations as well as diverse habitats including sand forest, open and closed woodlands, grassland, and swamps. Over 350 bird species are known to occur, including many of South Africa’s most sought-after species.

The reserve is traversable by a number of sandy 4×4 tracks covering most of the visitors’ area and, although birding is generally quite difficult given low bird density, it is frequently rewarding including many sought-after and incredibly range-restricted species.

Tembe Elephant Reserve is perhaps the best site anywhere in South Africa – read as, only reliable site – for the threatened Plain-backed Sunbird. This species has a preference for closed canopy sand forests, frequenting the upper strata. All other sand forest specials are commonly encountered including the Gorgeous Bush-shrike, African Broadbill, Woodward’s Batis, Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis and Neergaard’s Sunbird. Other notable species in the forest and woodland habitats include the Crested Guineafowl, Brown Scrub-robin, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Eastern Nicator, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Purple-banded Sunbird, and Green Twinspot. More open woodland supports the Flappet Lark, Croaking Cisticola and Black-bellied Bustard.

The many small, seasonal wetlands hold an interesting selection of waterbird species including the African and Lesser Jacanas, African Wattled Lapwing, Little Bittern, African Marsh Harrier, Saddle-billed and Woolly-necked Storks, African Pygmy Goose, and Collared Pratincole. The uncommon Rufous-bellied Heron is occasional. Tall emergent reeds support nesting colonies of Southern Brown-throated Weaver and Red-headed Quelea in the summer months – both easily identified in their breeding plumages. The surrounding grasslands support the Senegal Lapwing, Lemon-breasted Canary, and Rosy-throated Longclaw; the latter preferring damp areas of grassland.

Key species:

Plain-backed and Neergaard’s Sunbirds, Pink-throated Twinspot, Southern Banded Snake-eagle, Woodward’s Batis

About the Birding Site

Tongaland describes the extreme North-eastern corner of Kwazulu-Natal bordering Mozambique to the north and flanked to the east and west by the Lebombo Mountains and Indian Ocean, respectively. Much of the region is drained by the Phongolo and Mkhuze Rivers and the area is dominated by the respective floodplains of these two rivers (as well as their tributaries) and is characterised by many shallow pans, Lala palm savannah and bush/forest clumps.

Riverine forest borders some of the larger pans and streams, while the coastal stretch is blanketed in coastal dune forest. As the region is situated in the sub-tropical plain on the east coast, the area is extremely biodiverse and supports many species not found elsewhere in South Africa. Tropical species, both marine and inland, are also regular to this region and can be found nowhere else in South Africa.

Ndumo Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park are perhaps the two premier sites along this sub-route, with the former boasting the highest bird list for any protected reserve in South Africa. Together, these are the premier destinations in South Africa for the full complement of sand forest specials including the Pink-throated Twinspot, Neergaard’s and Plain-backed Sunbirds, Rudd’s Apalis, and African Broadbill. Waterbirds such as the African Pygmy Goose and Lesser Jacana can be common on the floodplains, while the surrounding habitat support impressive numbers of Pel’s Fishing Owl, Palmnut Vulture, Lemon-breasted Canary, Rosy-throated Longclaw and Black-throated Wattle-eye. Access to these two reserves is extremely good, implying that they are extremely rewarding destinations to visit, while some of the other destinations on the sub-route are less accessible and offer more of an adventurous feel. Other sites on the birding route include Kosi Bay and the Tshanini Community Nature Reserve.

Key species:

Plain-backed and Neergaard’s Sunbirds, Pink-throated Twinspot, Southern Banded Snake-eagle, Woodward’s Batis

Other Related Information

From the N2 highway linking Durban to Pongola, travel up to the Jozini/ Ndumo/ Kosi bay turn-off (situated 50km south of Pongola). Drive up through the village of Jozini, and over the Jozini Dam Wall. Continue with this tar road for about 76km, following the signs to Kosi Bay and Manguzi. The park’s turn-off is situated on the left had side of the road and is signposted.

Notable points of interest include the:
Entrance to Tembe Elephant Park: -27.0486, 32.4223

The nearest towns to Tembe Elephant Park are:
Kwangwanase: 30km

Other related information:

Access and facilities:
A network of roads facilitates access to most areas of the reserve, though roads are extremely sandy and a 4×4 vehicle is recommended.

Gate times are as follows:
Summer (October-March): 05:00-19:00
Winter (April-September): 06:00-18:00
Office hours: 07:00-16:00

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Tembe offers luxury tented accommodation, each located with maximum privacy and seclusion. The tuxuary tents feature an outdoor shower. A public dining area is located near the main reception area in a magnificent setting.

For more information, or to make a reservation, please contact:
Tel: +27 (0)31 267 0144
Fax: +27 (0)31 266 8718

The nearest Birder Friendly Establishments are at Kosi Bay, Sodwana and Ndumo, all within easy reach of Tembe Elephant Park. For more information, please visit:

Local guide information:
Tembe Elephant Park offers guided walks and drives through the reserve, with experienced trail guides.

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Plain-backed and Neergaard’s Sunbirds, Pink-throated Twinspot, Southern Banded Snake-eagle, Woodward’s Batis

Contact details:

For more information, please contact:

Tembe Elephant Lodge
Tel: +27 (0)31 267 0144
Fax: +27 (0)31 266 8718