In the sprawling expanse of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, an elephant named Mshale has been fighting for his life. After taking a total of four arrows in two known poaching attempts, this animal has beaten the odds again and again. Why are poachers so determined to destroy this creature? His ivory tusks, which clock in at more than 100 pounds and are worth around $35,000 on the black market. This market wants to pack his ivory into containers, ship it halfway across the globe and carve it into little trinkets for people to wear as status symbols.
Mshale, now around 40 years old, has been roaming around the northern area of Tsavo East for some time. At the Ithumba Orphans Facility, where he visited often for clean drinking water and the company of other elephants, this large bull was well known to workers. That sense of familiarity might have saved his life in July of 2012 when poachers targeted Mshale and lodged a poison arrow into him. However, before it could take effect, the elephant lumbered to the Ithumba stockades where vets from David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) administered treatment. The arrow was laced with Akokanthera toxin, derived from the unripe fruit of a tree native to the region.
After a short recovery, Mshale made his way back into Tsavo’s wilderness. The DSWT and KWS teamed up with their anti-poaching squads and tried to keep ahead of Mshale’s movements. It wasn’t until March of this year, while doing a flyby of more than 500 elephants, that they saw Mshale again. This time he was badly limping with a wound in his back visible from the air. They set down the craft to find two other large bull elephants guarding him.
Rob Brandford relayed the scene. “He had two large and deep spear wounds which had to be cleaned. One had passed right through his ear deep into his neck; the other into his back.”
The poison spears had taken their toll. When the vet team was finally able to get Mshale sedated for treatment, they realized the wound on his rump had caused a festering abscess the size of a basketball. Pounds of dead tissue had to be cut away before the wound could be cleaned, and many working on the bull wondered if he’d ever be able to walk again.
When Mshale began to stir, they quickly treated the animal with strong antibiotic injections and packed the wound with clay, to seal it from further infection. Within minutes, to the surprise of everybody on staff, Mshale was soon back on his feet. It was said he stared at those who had treated him for a moment, before turning around and hobbling back into the African bush.
In the end, the DSWT and KWS vets have pulled four spears from Mshale in a period of less than two years. His tusks are prized objects, and demand for ivory in China and Southeast Asia has made such poaching endeavors, sadly, commonplace. Poachers, who generally work in groups of about four, use silent methods in Tsavo, such as poison arrows and traps. In other parts of Africa, guns, helicopters, and even GPS tracking methods have been used to decimate entire herds.
Kenya’s ports (many of which have been financed by Chinese investment) and busy, chaotic, international airport, have made Kenya an ideal location for the shipment of black market goods. And although last year KWS successfully seized more than 8 tons of ivory, by the time they reach it, it’s still too late for the elephant.
“We must recognize the importance of education and awareness campaigns, people need to know the truth about ivory to be encouraged not to buy it and instead to see the true beauty of ivory which is only seen on live elephants,” said Rob Brandford. Anti-poaching measures, as well as search and seizure of exports, further training and pay raises for KWS staff must be improved around Kenya to help slow the trade of ivory. However, the sad reality remains, that until consumers stop purchasing it, the poachers will continue to stalk Mshale, and elephants just like him, around Africa’s many national parks.