ELEPHANT IVORY TUSKS Of the Rhodesian Light Infantry

ELEPHANT IVORY TUSKS Of the Rhodesian Light Infantry

By Richard Henry, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, 12 May 2020

The DITSONG: National Museum of Military History has two sets of elephant tusks. One set is large and the other medium size. These tusks were held in storage on behalf of the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association (RLIRA) post Zimbabwe independence in 1980.

The large tusks in storage at DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

The Rhodesian Light Infantry

The 1st Battalion, Rhodesian Light Infantry (1RLI), commonly called The Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), was a regiment formed in 1961 at Brady Barracks, Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia.) It formed part of the army of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. A year later it was relocated to Cranborne Barracks, Salisbury, where it remained until1980. In 1964, when the Federation was dissolved, the RLI formed a major part of the Southern Rhodesian Army and later became the main counter-insurgency unit of Rhodesia. The RLI was nicknamed “The Saints” .

The beret badge was made from silver anodised aluminium. A British Queen’s crown over a heraldic lion standing on ground and with an exaggerated tail curved over its back. In the lion’s paw is an elephant tusk. The lion stands in the curve of a bugle horn with below downward scroll on which is written RHODESIAN LIGHT INFANTRY.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry were presented with the Queen’s and Imperial Regimental Colour on 19 June 1965. Colours are also normally paid for by the Regiment. These Colours, the embodiment of the Regiment were displayed in the Officers Mess at Cranborne Barracks.

In about 1971, after the Rhodesian Light Infantry was given the honour of the Freedom of the City of Salisbury, the Colours were flanked by a set of large elephant tusks. These are the large pair of tusks at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History. It is not known how tusks were acquired by the RLI.

The large tusks flanking the Queen’s and Regimental Colour displayed at Cranborne Barracks.
Ref: The Saints by Binda, A, 2007, page 468.

The RLI have a close association with elephants. Many of the soldiers of the RLI had close encounters with herds of elephants while on operational duty.  A trooper Pete Pitman came across a herd of elephant at a river.  He sat down waiting for the herd to move on. Suddenly a spotter plane appeared overhead and startled the herd into a stampede.  One enraged bull saw the soldiers and targeted Penrose and Pitman. The fleeing Penrose stumbled and fell and the elephant grabbed him with his trunk and tossed him, after which he knelt on him to crush him. Pitman raced to Penrose’s aid and began clubbing the elephant in the ribs with his rifle but to no avail. Pitman hit the elephant on the ear with the rifle butt; the elephant whirled around and knocked Pitman down.  Luckily for both the elephant lumbered off into the bush. Pitman was awarded 31 days leave and awarded the Military Forces Commendation for his non-operational bravery on 23 October 1970.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association
The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association (RLIRA) was founded in 1968. The Regiment and the Association was at the Cranborne Barracks in the then Salisbury. RLIRA consisted of ex serving members of the regiment and there function was to promote and sustain the Esprit de Corps of the Regiment. RLIRA held many successful functions and fund raisers and obtained sponsorship or prizes from local businesses. Along the way photographs, trophies, memorabilia and other significant items in the history of the Regiment were collected and displayed in either the Officers or Non Commissioned (NCOs) messes. These items were mostly privately purchased, donated or purchased from Regimental funds and belonged to the Regiment or the Regimental Association and were not purchased by the state and therefore did not belong to the state.

Following the creation and independence of the, Republic of Zimbabwe, a Colour Parade on 17 October 1980 was held at Cranborne Barracks where the Regimental Colour was laid-up. This symbolised the closing down of the regiment. The unit’s last Commanding Officer J. C. W. Aust took the parade which was attended by a large crowd of spectators. On the 31 October 1980, the Rhodesian Light Infantry was disbanded.

The well-known ‘Trooper’ statue, a memorial to the men of the RLI, was made from melted-down cartridge cases and sculptured from a master by Captain Michael Blackman, It had recently been unveiled on the unit’s official regimental birthday on 1 February 1979. It stood in the centre of the “Holy Ground” in front of the Battalion Headquarters and was saluted by all officers and men of the regiment when they passed it. This iconic statue along with Queen’s and Regimental Colours, the elephant tusks, regimental documents, trophies, and other paraphernalia left Zimbabwe on a South African Air Force C-130 Hercules for Pretoria on Monday 28 July 1980. Later it was moved to the then South African National Museum of Military History. It was stored in two of the Director’s Residence garages.

In about 1984 all the RLI memorabilia crates were moved to a Department of Public Works (DPW) store, Fennel Street Selby, Johannesburg. This store was used by the Museum for surplus and large material which could not be stored at the Museum. Various ex commanding officers and men (RLIA) viewed their stored memorabilia from 1984 – 1999. Security at the stores declined. It was decided that the RLI material be moved back to the Museum. Some of the more sensitive material was moved to Museum storage for safekeeping, but would not form part of the Museum collection. This included firearms, the Regimental and Queen’s Colours and the tusks. The tusks were stored in Brink Hall, Bay Number 4. The Colours were stored in the flag store and the firearms in the armoury. The rest of the material was stored in a shipping container in the museum workshop area. The RLIRA later decided to ship their material to England. A listing of all the material in the container was made by the registrar and the writer of this article. It appears that the then director, General Pretorius, in telephonic discussion with RLIRA agreed that the items which could not be shipped to England such as the tusks would be donated to the Museum. The RLIRA however failed to complete a donor’s form for this material. The materials in the container, as well as the two Colours were shipped by Calvert Removals in November 1999. They eventually found their place at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol England. The Trooper Statue now stands in the grounds of Hatfield House, the country seat of the Marquis of Salisbury.

The Trooper, the RLI’s regimental statue, on the grounds of Hatfield House, England in 2014

The two sets of tusks were left at the Museum by the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association who was unable to ship them to the United Kingdom. In August 2012, a representative from the government Department of Environmental Affairs came to view and document the two sets of tusks. There was to be a micro-chip attached to the tusks to document and the tusks in accordance with the Conservation of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES )


  • Binda, A The Saints – the Rhodesian Light Infantry 30 ⁰ South, Johannesburg, 2007
  • RLIRA The Cheetah – Magazine of the Rhodesian Light Infantry 30 ⁰ South, Johannesburg, 2007
  • Wikipedia The Rhodesian Light Infantry
  • Henry, R Personal involvement in documenting the equipment

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