He was enormous, iconic and beloved among elephants. His name was Satao and he was the most famous “tusker” in the world.
Tuskers are elephants with tusks so big they weigh over 100 lbs. each and nearly touch the ground. Not every elephant has the genetic pre-disposition to grow tusks this big. Satao was perhaps the largest one left. He roamed the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya for some 45 years – a magnificent reminder of how grand and glorious wild animals truly are.
All that changed on May 30, 2014. On that day, ivory poachers left Satao dead, lying in a heap on the muddy ground with his face hacked off.
Felled by a Poisoned Arrow
Satao had recently taken to wandering near the boundary of the Tsavo East National Park. Nearly 1,000 other elephants were doing the same, as this area provided newly abundant vegetation due to recent rain. The problem is that this same location has long been a popular poaching spot.
Well aware of the constant threat to Satao, for 18 months the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Tsavo Trust, a Kenyan not-for-profit conservation group, banded together to keep track of his whereabouts. Using aerial reconnaissance and people on the ground, the team did everything it could to shield Satao from danger.
They’d seen him alive and well nine different times during May from the air and the ground.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough. On May 30, one poisoned arrow brought Satao down. Watch a video containing what may be some of the last footage ever shot of Satao here (warning: at the end of this video are graphic still images of his carcass):
“An arrow smeared with Acokanthera poison hit him in his left flank and penetrated his body cavity. It travelled right through to his vital organs,” reported wildlife photographer Mark Deeble on his blog, A Wild Filmmaker in Africa. Satao had been shot with such arrows before and recovered, but this time was different.
“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,” noted the Tsavo Trust in a press release about the incident.
“A Great Life Lost”
Searchers found Satao’s carcass on June 2, but with his mighty tusks and most of his face missing, they needed verification before announcing the death. KWS and the Tsavo Trust searched for Satao along his regular range for days and could not find him.
Ultimately, Satao’s still-perfect ears and the pattern of mud caked on his forehead and back provided the necessary proof. If you can bear to see what he looked like when found, click here for a photo of Satao’s carcass. Look at it to understand the enormity of the crime being perpetrated against these majestic creatures.
“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,” the Tsavo Trust announced on June 13.
“The loss of such an iconic elephant is the most visible and heart-rending tip of this iceberg, this tragedy that is unfolding across the continent,” Frank Pope of Save The Elephants told The Telegraph.
Fighting a Losing Battle with Ivory Poachers
Ivory poaching is indeed an incredibly serious problem. In 2013 alone, more than 20,000 elephants were killed in Africa, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
To put the problem in perspective, ivory is now reportedly more valuable than gold. It’s little wonder criminals are unable to resist the lure of so much money. It’s tragic they care so little for ivory-bearing animals that they don’t hesitate to kill as many of them as they can.
The Tsavo Trust, working with Save the Elephants and KWS, has launched a program aimed at offering better protection to the Tsavo area tuskers. The Large Elephant Monitoring Project regularly flies over the Tsavo East National Park, keeping tabs on the tuskers. With luck, they’ll be able to prevent further such tragedies.
An iconic elephant is gone for no reason other than human greed. Those who loved Satao are grieving. Those who killed him had certainly already forgotten him, being too busy hunting Satao’s friends to give him another thought.
Those poachers may be thinking of him now, though. In a final bit of good news in this case, KWS authorities reported on June 21 that they’ve arrested three suspects in the killing of Satao. Perhaps a measure of justice will prevail after all. Whatever happens, it could never compensate fully for the heartbreaking loss of this one-of-a-kind legend.
Photo credit (all images): Richard Moller/TSAVO TRUST