Media of Note
Last elephant standing
Towards the end of May, when heavy rains slaked a remote and arid corner of Tsavo East, Kenya’s largest national park, more than 1,000 elephants marched through the bush to feast on fresh leaves and grass.
Bare trees and silvery shrubs, scorched by the tropical winds, turned green overnight. Sparse, barley-coloured grasses bloomed into pasture. The elephants gorged themselves. It had been raining heavily for a week.
Yet of all the lumbering giants lured to the edge of Tsavo East, one elephant stood out. Satao was one of the world’s last great “tuskers”. A 45-year-old bull, around 12ft tall at the shoulder, he boasted enormous, sweeping tusks that curved in like a ballerina’s arms. They were so long they touched the ground; the undersides had been polished smooth where they rubbed along in front of him.
“He had huge ivory that stuck out a mile,” says Richard Moller, a pilot and chief conservation officer at the Tsavo Trust, a charity that works alongside the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) to protect the region’s most endangered elephants.
Moller has probably spent more time with Satao than anyone else in the past 18 months of the elephant’s life.
“He was an elephant that we monitored very closely,” he explains, as we sit beneath the poster-sized pictures of tuskers that adorn the walls of his home, deep in the bush beyond the boundary of the national park. “In May alone, I had seen him nine times from the air and several times on the ground. I even believe he knew the sound of my car, because I could get very close to him.”
The last time he saw Satao alive was from the cockpit of his Super Cub, a single-propeller, two-seater plane in which the passenger rides pillion, behind the pilot.
Light and manoeuvrable, it is able to land on the roughest of runways and is well suited to surveying, from just 30-40 metres above the ground, the elephants, the poachers and the rangers that the Tsavo Trust supports.
“I’m looking for anything out of the ordinary,” he says through cockpit headphones as we fly over the savannah: a breathtaking mix of shrub, old volcanoes and lava floes. “A plume of smoke from a campfire – a poacher might be having a cup of tea before he heads out. That’s why I try to fly really early. Or you might see hyenas heading towards a position. A lot of poachers are poaching for bush meat, and drying it attracts the hyenas.”
Moller relays anything of interest to KWS rangers. Likewise, they call him if they need eyes in the sky to help them track animals or poachers, sometimes in the midst of battle.
Tusker was a term adopted by colonial-era trophy hunters to describe the elephants whose mighty tusks weighed more than 100lb a piece. (It is also the name of Kenya’s national beer.) Today, because of poaching, it denotes a group of no more than a dozen of these elephants that are still alive in Kenya.
The “industrial scale” of poaching over the past five years is pushing African elephants to the brink of extinction. The British charity Tusk Trust claims at least 35,000 elephants are being killed each year to feed an insatiable demand for ivory in Asia. “This species may only have ten years left,” it has warned.
For people like Moller, the situation in Tsavo is even more urgent. With only a handful of tuskers still alive, he fears the genes for those enormous tusks could be wiped out even sooner.
The Tsavo Trust was founded some 18 months ago. Moller runs its Large Elephant Monitoring Project. At the moment the project is one man and one plane patrolling two national parks, Tsavo East and Tsavo West, and the surrounding ecosystem – an area twice the size of Wales.
On May 19, Moller woke before dawn and drove the quarter of a mile from his house to the airstrip. Taking off to the east, he climbed towards the Yatta plateau, an ancient lava flow that bisects Tsavo East, before dipping to the right and setting course for Satao.
The tusker was, as usual, surrounded by four younger bulls. “It was as if he had four best mates,” Moller recalls. “Satao was an old bull. He was very much a creature of habit, and more often than not he’d hang out with these same four guys. His bodyguards.”
Nowhere is totally safe for elephants. Tsavo’s two parks and ecosystem cover 17,000sq miles (44,000sq km), and even with armed anti-poaching units, poachers have managed to strike deep inside the reserves. Last year, gunmen shot a family of 11 elephants in Tsavo East. A newborn calf was crushed under her mother’s carcass.
Yet some places are particularly dangerous for elephants, and Satao was in one of them. In the area where the Voi River flows out of Tsavo East, the cattle herders are notorious for harbouring poachers.
“Security was stepped up,” Moller says. That was why he’d made nine flights to that part of the park in the first 19 days in May. KWS rangers, armed with G3 automatic rifles, increased their patrols. Even Satao appeared to know that he had put himself in harm’s way.
“Close to the park boundary, where he spent his last days, he was more cautious,” says Moller. “He was wary. It’s as if he knew.”
Wildlife photographer Mark Deeble had watched Satao a few months earlier from a purpose-built hide, where he observed the elephant trying to conceal his tusks, as he zigzagged towards a watering hole. It took him an hour, Deeble said, to cover the last kilometre to water, because he stopped to bury his tusks in the bushes, as if he knew they made him vulnerable. Scars on his rump suggested poachers had tried to kill him in the past.
“He’d wait a few minutes, partially hidden, then continue zigzagging upwind, scenting the air, to check there wasn’t a poacher hidden at the waterhole,” Deeble wrote. “I was incredibly impressed, and incredibly sad – that he should have the understanding that his tusks could put him in danger.”
Moller says most of the tuskers he monitors show similar behaviour. “They all know their ivory is something humans want to get their hands on. Best to hide it.”
Vultures circling near the spot where Moller last saw Satao was the first sign of something wrong. Together with a ranger from KWS, he launched a reconnaissance flight on June 2, and found a carcass in a clearing. It was less than a mile inside the park.
“One has to hope,” Moller says. “And I was hoping.”
Moller put the plane down at the closest airstrip and drove back towards the carcass.
A poisoned arrow had penetrated deep into the elephant’s left flank, and he had collapsed onto his stomach with his legs crumpled beneath him. Satao’s face had been hacked away so the poachers could remove his tusks, forcing Moller to find other ways to identify him.
Red murram earth caked onto his forehead was similar to that seen on him when he was alive, and the carcass had “clean ears”, the Tsavo Trust said, no tears or scars, making him “easily identifiable”. Moller and his colleagues reached the “appalling conclusion … the great Satao is no more”.
As Satao’s demise made headlines around the world, the Tsavo Trust received a million visitors to its websites; some asked why such a well-known animal was allowed to die; some blamed the Trust for not doing enough to save him.
The arrow that killed Satao had been smeared with a thick, black, tarry paste made from the Acokanthera tree, a bushy evergreen that grows widely in East Africa.
One of Aristotle’s students, Theophrastus, first described the poison in the 3rd century BC as “a root with deadly effect”, which Ethiopian bowmen used to smear on their arrows.
Made by grinding up the bark, wood, roots and leaves and boiling them for many hours, the poison is wrapped in plastic to preserve its potency. Some poachers wrap rags or animal guts soaked in the poison on the shaft, which then expand inside their prey. The shaft of the arrow, or sometimes a spear, is often designed to break off, leaving its payload in place. A well-placed arrow laced with poison can kill an elephant in hours, though sometimes they take days, even weeks to die. There’s no antidote.
From the poachers’ point of view, they are silent and simpler to procure than guns. The downside is they may have to track their prey for many days before the animal dies.
Kalashnikovs, favoured by Somali poachers, can attract unwanted attention, but they let the poachers kill whole groups at a time, and they can defend themselves from rangers if they encounter a patrol.
In the wake of Satao’s death, the Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta faced calls to put the last tuskers under his personal protection. It was what his father, Jomo, did, when he was president from 1964-78, for an elephant called Ahmed in the north of the country, paying for round-the-clock guards to protect him.
“It would show that Kenyatta realises that Kenya really is one of the last repositories of these awesome examples of the African elephant,” says Frank Pope, chief operations officer at Save the Elephants. If the tuskers aren’t saved, Tsavo’s elephants could end up like their cousins in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park, which have evolved to have either much smaller tusks, or none at all. “There was so much selective pressure because of hunting not to have them, it caused a genetic bottleneck,” says Pope. “Only the tuskless individuals remained and they were the ones that bred.”
Conservationists accept it would be harder to protect the animals in Tsavo, compared with Marsabit, where Ahmed lived. Satao’s home range was more than 390sq miles (1,000sq km), much of it thick, impenetrable bush with few roads.
The KWS doesn’t have the manpower. The Tsavo Trust doesn’t have the resources. Kenya is bursting with wildlife charities, but they often compete for space and donations.
“People need to get behind the Kenya Wildlife Service,” says Moller. “I don’t mean the guys in their offices in Nairobi, but the boots on the ground. The field operatives.”
They are in a dangerous business. A few days after Satao was killed, three poachers suspected of killing a different elephant in Tsavo West were killed in a gun battle with KWS rangers. Another three suspected poachers were arrested in a town about 60 kilometres from where Satao was found, on suspicion of his death. A poison dealer was also arrested in Kilifi, on the Kenyan coast.
For all its victories, KWS is hopelessly overstretched, with only a few hundred rangers covering the area. Civil service regulations mean it’s difficult to recruit locally, because most don’t have the required qualifications, but while its staff are educated, they sometimes lack bush skills and a rapport with the communities they work in. The veteran conservationist Richard Leakey, who in 1989 helped ease a poaching crisis by transforming Kenya’s Wildlife Department into the professionally trained and well-armed KWS, blames corruption in the government for letting the ivory barons roam free.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the head of Save the Elephants, argues that the only long-term solution lies in curbing demand in China, where ivory carvings are status symbols for the country’s rapidly growing middle class.
Ian Saunders, the Tsavo Trust’s chief operations officer, believes that one solution lies in getting the communities, including the poachers who live just outside the park, invested in protecting the animals inside.
“For the past 50 years, the justification for having wildlife in this country has been tourism,” Saunders says. “But the individuals who coexist with wildlife are at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to what that wildlife generates. We need to change that.”
He is helping members of the Orma tribe, semi-nomadic cattle herders who live on the remote and lawless northeastern boundary of Tsavo East, to set up a conservancy. Omar Hassan Boneya, the Orma chief, says his people’s greatest problems are water for cattle and communication in emergencies, because the roads are terrible and there is no mobile-phone coverage. He is supporting the conservancy because he hopes it will protect their territory from a government land grab.
“By creating a conservancy, if someone wants to develop it they will have to come and ask,” Boneya says. “You are saying this area is protected. It belongs to a certain community.”
The conservancy, Saunders hopes, will eventually convince the Orma to raise fewer cattle of better quality, which will require less water but have a higher value at market, thereby increasing their wealth but reducing competition for resources. They will install a radio network, and recruit men who might otherwise be poachers as rangers, thereby tapping into the community’s local knowledge.
“Not everyone in a community can be straight,” admits Ibrahim Dame Shambaro, the village chief in Kone, a collection of mud and tin homes where the only whitewashed building is the mosque.
At a recent meeting in Shambaro’s home to appoint the conservancy’s board, there was no sense of shame when an elder admitted he had been an avid poacher in his youth.
“I started using arrows, and later I used guns,” said Saied Abarufa. He said he was paid 2,500 Kenyan shillings – perhaps £17 – a kilo when he was poaching in the Eighties. Today, he said, poachers get six times as much. He only stopped because he got old. “In those days, I could do anything,” Abarufa said. Kone, like many of the poachers it produces, is almost beyond the reach of the government. The nearest police station is three hours’ drive. There used to be a KWS ranger station there, but last year, following claims they had killed a boy herding cattle, the villagers burnt it down.
The Orma graze their cattle inside the parks, which is illegal, but claim the boundary was never clearly drawn.
“The community have a closer relationship with the bandits than they do with KWS,” says Shambaro. Young men are lured into elephant poaching by the money.
“The Somalis come and say the last time they were here they made 20 million Kenyan shillings [£140,000]. Anyone would be attracted. The young men say, ‘These people came from far away, but we are right next to these elephants. We should join them.’ ”
Not even the KWS is immune, Shambaro says. Some rangers take a cut to turn a blind eye. “Some of the KWS have shares; 20 per cent or something like that.”
Satao’s death was a watershed. That an elephant so well known, so well loved and, in theory at least, so well protected could be poached inside a national park bodes very badly for the elephants left behind.
Soaring demand for ivory in Asia has seen record levels of poaching across Africa. A few days before Satao was found, police found 228 tusks in a warehouse in Mombasa. Ivory, which cost less than £35 a kilo in 1976, can in China sell for more than £4,000 a kilo today.
Tusks like Satao’s could sell for $1 million each (£590,000) according to international trafficking expert Esmond Martin. He found a 40kg tusk, slightly smaller than Satao’s, on sale for that price in China. If the slaughter continues at this level, African elephants will be extinct in the wild in a generation.
Yet while Satao’s death is an unwelcome milestone, it is not the end of the road.
As the Tsavo Trust’s Super Cub buzzes over Tsavo West, Richard Moller lets out a small yelp of glee as he spots two large bulls.
“Those two guys are the up-and-coming tuskers,” he says, swooping over a pair of particularly well-endowed elephants. “Give it another five years.”
Conservationists have welcomed a recent decree that puts wildlife services under the command of the inspector general of police, so they can better coordinate their resources. China can do more to reduce demand, just as Europe and America banned the trade in 1989, at the height of the last poaching crisis. President Obama banned the sale of ivory in America earlier this year. Conservationists have urged CITES, the convention on trade in rare species, to make all ivory trading illegal, indefinitely, instead of the current system of exemptions and one-off sales.
The KWS rangers, who risk their lives on the front line, will have to enlist the help of the communities who live alongside wildlife.
“Satao may have gone,” Moller says. “But the fact these huge tuskers still remain is a huge step forward. If we look after the handful of tuskers that we have got today, tomorrow we’ll have two handfuls.”
Tsavo Trust is a Kenyan non-profit organisation working in support of wildlife and communities in the Greater Tsavo Ecosystem (tsavotrust.org).
Big Life Foundation, which was founded by photographer Nick Brandt and conservationist Richard Bonham in 2010, protects the wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem of East Africa (biglife.org)
Five rhinos killed in week as year of slaughter worsens
Jerome Starkey Africa Correspondent
Published at 12:01AM, February 27 2014
Poachers in Kenya have killed at least nine rhinos in 2014, including five in a single week, in one of the bloodiest starts to a year on record.
One rhino was shot at least 19 times in Nairobi National Park, four were killed in a Nakuru National Park, while a further four were killed on private ranches close to Mount Kenya.
Paula Kahumbu, the chief executive of Wildlife Direct, said the death toll was “really extreme” and warned there may yet me more rhinos carcasses undiscovered. “There are lots of dead rhinos and dead elephants out there that are never seen and probably never will be seen,” she said.
Paul Mbugua, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), said: “Most of the poaching happens during the full moons [January 16 and February 15] because these guys need to see. In some places, like Nakuru, they come into the park and stay for days before they strike. They bring their dry food with them and monitor where the rhinos are.”
At least six suspected poachers, including an off-duty policeman, have been killed in three separate clashes with armed wildlife rangers, officials said. “We have knocked out some poachers. They have also had their losses,” added Mr Mbugua.
Two other rhinos drowned after fighting each other next to a dam in Nairobi National Park, bringing the known death toll in 2014 to 11.
A 12th rhino was shot and wounded on Ol Pejeta, near Mount Kenya, on Valentine’s Day, as Prince William and Prince Charles hosted an international conference in London on how to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. Vets said it is still not clear whether the animal will make a full recovery.
The first rhino killed in Kenya this year was shot on Solio, a private ranch north of Nyeri, on January 5. Felix Patton, the resident ecologist, said the poachers killed an adult female and hacked out her horns. An adult male was killed on February 17.
Rangers shot dead two poachers on the ranch on January 18, while two others were killed there on February 12. Two other poachers were killed north east of Mount Kenya on January 17, KWS said.
Rhino horn, which is used as a traditional medicine in Asia, can fetch up to £40,000 a kilo, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, prompting poachers to take huge risks. Kenya, which only has an estimated 1,041 rhinos left in the wild, lost at least 59 last year compared to 30 in 2012.