Mystery surrounded the identity of the elephant, which was estimated to have been between 40 and 60 years old, but had never been seen before in Zimbabwe’s southern Gonarezhou National Park.
But its tusks, which almost touch the ground in a photograph taken moments after its shooting, confirmed its exceptional nature, weighing a combined 120lb.
It was shot on October 8 in a private hunting concession bordering Gonarezhou by a hunter who paid $60,000 (£39,000) for a permit to land a large bull elephant and was accompanied by a local, experienced professional hunter celebrated by the hunting community for finding his clients large elephants.
The German national, who the hunt’s organisers have refused to name, had travelled to Zimbabwe to conduct a 21-day game hunt including the Big Five of elephants, leopards, lions, buffalo and rhinoceros.
The kill was celebrated in hunting forums around the world, where it was suggested he might have been the biggest elephant killed in Africa for almost 30 years.
Conservationists and photographic safari operators in the area expressed their outrage on Thursday night, saying the animal was one of a kind and should have been preserved for all to see.
Anthony Kaschula, who operates a photographic safari firm in Gonarezhou, posted pictures of the hunt on Facebook, said the elephant had never been seen in the area before but would have been celebrated by visitors and locals alike.
“We have no control over poaching but we do have control over hunting policy that should acknowledge that animals such as this one are of far more value alive (to both hunters and non-hunters) than dead,” he wrote.
“Individual elephants such as these should be accorded their true value as a National Heritage and should be off limits to hunting. In this case, we have collectively failed to ensure that legislation is not in place to help safeguard such magnificent animals.”
Unlike Cecil, the black-maned lion beloved by tourists who was shot by American dentist Walter Palmer in Hwange National Park using a bow and arrow in July, the animal’s origin was not immediately known.
It was speculated that he might have come up from South Africa, since there is no border between the Kruger National Park and Gonarezhou, which form part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park created by former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Some suggested that the elephant might be a massive bull called Nkombo, who was a satellite collared elephant from the Kruger who lost his collar in 2014. Nkombo was however spotted in the Kruger on October 3, making it unlikely that he would have completed a journey of several hundred miles in five days.
William Mabasa, of South Africa’s National Parks, said Kruger’s elephant experts were looking into the case. “If this elephant came up from the Kruger, he would have had to go through all the communities on the edge of Gonarezhou and someone would have seen him. It’s not possible.”
Louis Muller, chairman of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters Guides Association, said the hunter had only realised how large the “tusker” was once he had been shot.
“He told me when he and his client were stalking this elephant he saw the tusks were big but did not realize just how big until afterwards and he saw them close. He is going back to see if he can find the lower jaw and bring it back so we can accurately age this elephant,” he told The Telegraph.
“We checked everywhere and this elephant has never been seen before, not in Zimbabwe nor Kruger. We would have known it because its tusks are huge. There have been five or six giant tuskers shot in the last year or so, and we knew all of them, but none as big as this one.”
He said his organisation had suggested that unique elephants should be collared to protect them from hunting. “We have suggested before to all concerned parties that each elephant area should collar a few with biggest tusks, so that we do not shoot them,” he said. “Nobody responded to our suggestion last year. We believe this might now be taken seriously.”
The man who helped arrange the hunt, who did not want to be named, defended his client. “This was a legal hunt and the client did nothing wrong,” he said. “We hunters have thick skins and we know what the greenies will say. This elephant was probably 60 years old and had spread its seed many many times over.”
He said his organisation paid as much as 70 per cent of its hunting fees back to the local community and observed quotas for animals. “This is good for Zimbabwe and good for local people,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for hunters to spend $100,000 (£64,551) each trip.”
Meanwhile Zimbabwe National Parks has called for stiffer penalties for poachers following the discovery on Tuesday of 26 more elephant carcasses that died of cyanide poisoning at two different locations in the Hwange National Park.
Cyanide poisoning is a growing problem in the country since a mass poisoning is a growing problem in the country.
The 26 elephants were discovered by rangers following another discovery last week of 14 other elephants, also poisoned to death by cyanide.