Tsavo. Elephant country. Big skies, big horizons, big herds. For eons, this eastern portion of Kenya has been home to large herds of elephants. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, paradise was disrupted. Drought took a huge toll on all animal populations in the Seventies; thousands of elephants died from starvation and dehydration. In the Eighties, poaching escalated to unprecedented levels. By the end of that decade, Tsavos’s elephant population had been reduced by 80%, compared to populations in the early 1970s.
With the ban on ivory trade in 1989, and good rain cycles, populations began to recover. Tsavo is one of my favorite elephant haunts. I have a special relationship with Tsavo, having “almost died” there in 1986 when I was struck with a vicious travel virus. I’m told by my traveling companions that I would have been airlifted to Nairobi had the camp’s radio been working, but since it wasn’t, they iced me down in the bathtub and hoped I made it through the night. When I awoke in the morning, and looked out the window to see elephants at the waterhole, I decided that if I were going to die on the road, this would be as good a place as any. I survived and lived to visit Africa and Kenya many more times, but had not been back to Tsavo since then. Having followed its reported recovery from afar, I wanted to see firsthand and in 2011 was able to spend a few days there. What a delight. There is nothing like a big Tsavo elephant, encrusted with red earth, sauntering across the golden stretches of grass with blue mountains in the distance. I visited the Elephant Research Station there and talked to several of the researchers. They were very optimistic about the outlook for the park and its natural treasures.
Fast forward to the present. News outlets all over the world this week are reporting on the slaughter of a herd of Tsavo elephants. Twelve, including a baby. NBC reports (click here) in grim detail the brutality of the attack and the process of tracking down the poachers. Although Tsavo is no stranger to the brutality of poaching, this one is the largest single poaching incident ever reported in the Park.
I think back to my time with many of Tsavo’s elephants in August 2011 and wonder, are any of the elephants I photographed victims? Are the elephants in the photo above part of that ill-fated herd? It’s personal this time.