I am packing for my annual visitation to elephant country. Thirty years have passed since my first visit to Africa. . .to Kenya, a place so filled with wildlife and beauty that I immediately was infected with safari fever, a terminal condition from which I never want to recover. But the sweet sensations of anticipation are somewhat muted this time. Media sources have just confirmed that the two elephants with the largest tusks in Kenya have been savagely poisoned and mutilated this past month.
Satao lived in Tsavo in eastern Kenya and carried the unique gene that produces exceptionally large tusks. His (pictured above on the left) were 6.5 feet long. Dr. Paula Kahumba, Executive Director of WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, wrote a moving tribute to Satao, describing how he lived recently, aware that poachers were after him for his ivory. In the area surrounding Mt. Kenya, another large bull with enormous tusks, Mountain Bull, was killed in the same manner, by poisonous arrows. Mountain Bull, who I wrote about in “The Tale of Two Tusks,” was famous for alluding poachers, seemingly having nine lives. Wildlife officials chose to saw off part of his tusks (in photo above right) to make him less appealing to poachers. Both Satao and Mountain Bull were regarded as national treasures and were closely monitored by wildlife professionals. Mountain Bull even wore a radio collar.
The stories of their demise are heartbreaking, not just because of their celebrity but because even the two most guarded elephants in Kenya fell victim to poaching. In their honor, and to bear witness to how difficult it is to “protect” wild animals, I am quoting the full release from The Tsavo Trust, which provides amazing detail on how closely the Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service personnel followed Satao’s movements.
With great sadness, we report the death of Satao, one of Tsavo’s most iconic and well-loved tuskers. This magnificent elephant was widely known in Tsavo East National Park, where he was observed with awe by many thousands of Tsavo’s visitors over the years. No longer will Tsavo and Kenya benefit from his mighty presence. Satao was shot dead by poisoned arrow on 30th May 2014. The arrow had entered his left flank and he stood no chance of survival. We spotted his carcass on 2nd June but to avoid any potential false alarms, we first took pains to verify the carcass really was his. Today it is with enormous regret that we confirm there is no doubt that Satao is dead, killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries. A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.
For the last 18 months, KWS and TSAVO TRUST jointly monitored Satao’s movements using aerial reconnaissance, and KWS deployed ground personnel in his known home range. But with today’s mounting poaching pressures and anti-poaching resources stretched to the limit, it proved impossible to prevent the poachers getting through the net.
Immediately reports of a fresh carcass in this area of Tsavo were received by KWS, a TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flight took off with a KWS officer on board. It did not take long to locate the carcass near the boundary of the National Park. A joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST ground team followed up immediately. Despite the mutilated head, they deduced that the carcass was most probably that of Satao for the following reasons:
• Satao was well known by the KWS / TSAVO TRUST units operating continuously in this area. When he was alive, his enormous tusks were easily identifiable, even from the air. Although the poachers had hacked off his face and taken his ivory, there were other physical attributes and circumstantial evidence that pointed to this carcass being that of Satao.
• Satao was very much a creature of habit. He roamed a very specific area, known to KWS and TSAVO TRUST, most often in the company of small groups of bull elephant.
• With the recent rain, over 1,000 elephants have moved into the area to take advantage of the green and plentiful vegetation. Satao had not moved from this area for the last two months.
• Satao was last seen alive by TSAVO TRUST on 19th May 2014, just 300 meters from where his carcass now lies. He was with four other bulls that he was frequently seen with. During May 2014, TSAVO TRUST had observed him no fewer than 9 times from the air and several times from the ground. Protection efforts were stepped up when he ventured right up to the boundary of the Park (an area that is a historical and present poaching hotspot, especially for poachers using poisoned arrows).
• Satao had “clean ears” – there were no cuts, tears or obvious scars, making him easily identifiable when he was alive and now that he is dead.
• The mud caked on his mutilated forehead and back was similar to that seen on him when he was alive.
• Since locating the carcass, several joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flights have tried and failed to locate Satao in his known home range.
The facts all point to the same appalling conclusion and we are left with no choice but to acknowledge that the great Satao is no more.
THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK AT HAND
The area Satao frequented is a massive and hostile expanse for any single anti-poaching unit to cover, at least one thousand square kilometers in size. Roads and tracks are few and far between and in parts the vegetation is very thick, making access difficult. Elephants concentrate here in large numbers after the rains which come in from the coast. The communities living just beyond the National Park boundary persistently carry out illegal activities inside the Park in this area. Understaffed and with inadequate resources given the scale of the challenge, KWS ground units have a massive uphill struggle to protect wildlife in this area. There is a tremendous will amongst the KWS field units and the TSAVO TRUST personnel working alongside them to protect Tsavo’s elephant herds but more help is needed.
COOPERATION IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY
At times like this, it is hard to see any positive side to the situation. But let’s not forget that Satao’s genes survive out there, somewhere in the Tsavo elephant population and they too need protecting. Satao would have been at least 45 years old. During his lifetime he would have weathered many droughts and seen many other poached elephants, and he would have sired offspring that, given a safe environment to grow up in, may become tomorrow’s generation of great Tsavo tuskers.
We also wish to emphasize the level of cooperation and coordination between KWS and TSAVO TRUST that this incident proved. Without the regular joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST aerial reconnaissance of this section of the Park, Satao’s carcass may not have been found, and as a result KWS’s swift and successful follow-up may not have ensued. Following TSAVO TRUST’s report from the air, KWS ground units were immediately deployed. The KWS reaction was rapid and decisive, and is still ongoing. Due to the sensitivities of such operations and the risk of compromise, we cannot comment further on the progress being made. We hope to relay additional updates in due course.
Meanwhile, we applaud KWS’s success in arresting the main poison dealer and supplier in Kilifi, whose deadly product has been the cause of many painful and wasteful elephant deaths in Tsavo.
Working together – and often against the odds – we can continue to make a positive difference to Tsavo and to Tsavo’s elephants.
Tsavo is our home, our passion and our life’s work but, as the untimely death of Satao so tragically proves, we cannot win every time. Rest in peace, Old Friend, you will be missed. Rest assured the fight to protect Tsavo’s elephants goes on.