The passing of a giant

Tusker head

Recently, we went on a recce for the film. The destination was a distant waterhole. We set off early. It was a typical Tsavo waterhole – seemingly hewn out of ochre. That warm glow seemed reflected in the animals that, as we watched, came to drink. A magnificent bull elephant, encrusted with dry mud, stood beside a tamarind as if surveying his personal fiefdom. He seemed unimpressed by the flights of sand-grouse that tumbled from the sky, briefly patterning his skin with their whirling shadows. They sipped twice, sometimes thrice, and clapped their way back into the sky. As they disappeared into the expanse of the Taru desert and their whistling blended with the day’s first gentle movement of air through the acacia thorns, the bull stepped forward to drink. He drank calmly and deeply. He might have traveled thirty miles to reach the water. He wasn’t going to hurry now. He’d drink a while and then rest in the shade, and then drink again as the shadows lengthened – or so we thought. What actually happened was that he drank deeply and stepped away. He faltered briefly and then suddenly collapsed. His legs spasmed as he thrashed in the dust – and within minutes he was dead.

It was utterly shocking.

Our plans for the day changed rapidly after that. A call to KWS/ DSWT vet Jeremiah Poghon resulted in an impromptu postmortem beside the waterhole.  He removed the head of a poisoned arrow that had been embedded in the bull’s flank, and released over 100 liters of pus from the hidden infection –  the result of the bull’s encounter with a poacher months before.

We’d watched the bull through binoculars before he fell and there was no noticeable sign of injury. It chills me to think how many others there may be like him, walking around, apparently fine, until the poison or infection finally catches up with them.

As we knelt beside the dead bull, I recalled a conversation I’d had with a vet ministering to the elephants in Gorongosa National Park. They were survivors from the great herds that existed in Mozambique’s flag-ship national park before the civil war. They spent their lives on the firing line between RENAMO and FRELIMO. Both sides had targeted the elephants for their meat and their ivory. In his opinion, if he’d been able to take a metal detector to the elephants he’d had to tranquilize in the course of his work, he thought that he’d find bullets or shrapnel in all of them. I wonder what the results would be if the same was tried in Tsavo?

I’d planned not to write about elephant poaching until the blog was more established. Living in Tsavo through these times, the specter of poaching is constantly with us and the more I thought I’d delay,  the more I found myself thinking about it.

The poison can take days or even weeks to kill an elephant

Poison can take weeks to kill an elephant

There are many different ways to kill an elephant. In the last year alone, across Africa, elephants have been targeted with rocket-propelled grenades, helicopter gunships, automatic rifles, poisoned arrows, wire snares, spears, poisoned foot-spikes, poisoned food, and poisoned salt-licks and waterholes. You only have to subscribe for a short time to Melissa Groo’s daily elephant news summary for Save the Elephants, to gauge the full scale of the onslaught ( ).

In the greater Tsavo ecosystem the poachers’ method of choice is the AK 47. It can bring down an elephant comparatively quickly, and if a gang of poachers is involved, then whole elephant families can be targeted. The huge number of illegal weapons in Somalia, its porous border with Kenya, and the presence of large Somali communities living just outside the borders of the park, and who graze their cattle on adjacent ranches, means that sourcing weapons, and the people to use them, is easy.

The sound of a gunshot can carry for miles. Almost every Kenyan now has a mobile phone and a call to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) can result in an aircraft on site in under an hour. Poachers have to work fast to chop the tusks out, cover their tracks (probably bury their guns and ivory) and get away before rangers with sniffer dogs arrive on the scene. The influx of cheap Chinese motorbikes into Kenya in recent years has meant that the ubiquitous pedal-bike taxi, the Boda-boda, has become motorized. Outside the Park, that has made the poachers’ lives easier. In thick bush, motorcycles can get down tracks and elephant paths that would defeat a 4×4. Poachers, weapons and ivory can be moved around quicker and easier than anytime in the past. In recent years, the introduction of bloodhounds has helped track poachers, but all too often now the dogs follow a poacher’s scent through the bush, only to lose it at a track, where a motorcycle had been waiting.

As a poacher, the problem of firearm noise means you can never be sure that you haven’t been heard. The alternative is poaching with bows and poisoned arrows and we are seeing many more elephants now with festering arrow wounds. It may be that poachers are changing their MO (unlikely in the case of Somali gangs), but it is more likely the high price of ivory is tempting poachers who might otherwise be targeting smaller animals for bushmeat. Bow-hunting sounds clean and selective. The reality is quite different. This isn’t the extraordinary long-bow style of hunting that powerful Waliangulu hunters traditionally used to bring down elephants and which earned them the admiration of chief Park Warden David Sheldrick over sixty years ago. Their legendary prowess combined 6’ bows of 120lbs+  draw and 3’ arrows, with powerful poison made from the Acocanthera bush that could, reportedly, fell an elephant in 200 paces.

Today’s bow hunting poacher shoots from a blind, often cut into a henna bush on a waterhole. He fires an arrow, smeared with poison, into the flank of the elephant in the hope that it can pierce the body cavity. If it does, and the poacher is lucky, the elephant might die in an hour or two; if not, he might have to follow the elephant for days before it collapses. Often the arrow head fails to penetrate the body cavity properly, and localized infection produces a grapefruit-sized ‘boil’ – it doesn’t mean that the poison won’t eventually kill the elephant, but it will be a slow and lingering death.

Wounds made by poison arrows in the flank of a bull elephant

Wounds made by poison arrows in the flank of a bull elephant

I recently spent a month at a waterhole, filming the herds as they came to drink. On one occasion a herd of eleven big bulls came in that I hadn’t seen before. They were nervous and aggressive and immediately the mood changed. Almost all of them had wounds on their flanks – some old, but some fresh and oozing pus. Bulls do fight and can get wounded, so not every wound represents a poaching attempt. The scars that wounds from fights leave, tend to be ragged and asymmetric when they heal. To me, what I was seeing looked like arrow wounds – they were all in the lower flanks. On two bulls I could see broken shafts protruding where the elephant had tried to pull out the arrow. One bull carried five wounds.

It was too late in the day for the vet to come and assess them. The next day, the bulls did not appear and we never saw them again. It felt like they were on the run – but where they were going, we’ll never know.

When I think about the death of that magnificent bull at the waterhole, what stays with me after the shocking thump of his body hitting the ground, was the extraordinary quiet that descended.

Eland and hartebeest raised their heads, and guinea fowl froze. Even the quelea in the henna bushes ceased their chatter, and the pond-skaters stilled a while on the surface of the water. As the dust settled, it was as if a ripple went out through the bush.

In those few seconds it felt like we all were united in acknowledging his passing. I took some comfort from the knowledge that as the giant carcass returned to the soil, animals as varied as hyenas, vultures and blowflies would benefit – but I couldn’t escape the feeling that with the death of such a magnificent animal, the world seemed a poorer and emptier place.

© Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About Mark Deeble

A wildlife filmmaker in Kenya. My home is in Cornwall. My heart is in Africa. I have a tent in Tsavo. I share it all with Vicky. We are working with an amazing team, making a wildlife feature film -
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26 Responses to The passing of a giant

  1. Ian Redmond says:

    Powerful, beautifully written piece on the death of an adult male elephant in Kenya, killed for his ivory though the poachers in this instance did not acquire the tusks. The only way to stop this is to reduce the demand – if you are moved by it please consider supporting this film to educate the buyers of ivory:

  2. what a sad story Mark – beautifully written- thanks for link Ian

  3. Irene Grilo says:

    Mark, how can someone describes so beautifully such a horrendous story, that you witness. But you could. It felt like a huge punch in the stomach….hard and harsh.
    The demand must stop and the blood must stop in Africa, where it is happening. There is no excuse, I keep on saying, we also have blood in our hands…..REAL and SERIOUS MEASURES MUST BE TAKEN NOW to secure the African Elephants or else……
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Colin J. FRYER says:

    It is not possible to understand the loss. This huge mass of livingness, thriving within the African bush is taken down by humankind. We are loosing in the region of one hundred & forty ele’s a day in Africa to the poaching fraternity. Entire families are slaughtered for what ? Enrichment of those already ‘ enriched ‘, educated and quite fine in their world. Humankind is anything but kind to Mother Nature & her charges. There is a Spirit within each & every one who walks this coil. Within this Spirit is a connectivity you can either thrive within or ignore completely. Each animal taken is a physical loss to our next generation but the Spirit of this animal remains strong, well founded and abundant. On the African plains, in the hills & mountains their Spirits remain as a source of inspiration, love & care for those who ‘ die ‘ every time we lose another creature…..

    • Linda says:

      Beautifully written but I hope I never see the day when only elephant “spirits” are left. This insanity MUST be stopped.

  5. Thanks Mark and a very well written and extremely defined illustration of such a magnificent species. Elephant species have such great importance to the functioning of the African wilderness and its sad to see such species nearly reaching extinction – steps need to be taken for its protection and better models in place for wildlife conservation. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  6. marvalus2013 says:

    We write, we share, we comment and all the while, more elephants are dying in the most horrendous ways. But we must all keep on doing what we can to support the amazing people who are in the frontline if there is to be any chance for their survival. What will it take for people to not want ivory? To make it as useless and worthless as possible for only then will the elephants have a chance.

  7. marvalus2013 says:

    Reblogged this on Monkeys 'n' parrots and commented:
    A sad, sad story and the saddest part of all is that it’s a true story and it’s happening every hour, every day.

  8. Janet Pugh says:

    Very well thought out essay on a tragic event. So many falling to greed and corruption. My heart is sad for our great giants and also for a world that does this.

  9. Nicky Basson says:

    A moving tale of what happens daily in Africa!! Are we fighting a losing battle????

  10. Such a sadness filled my heart as I read your post. The world needs to come together to stop this slaughter.

  11. sriramjanak says:

    powerful…and very sad

  12. Judith Cavey says:

    A very moving and powerful article. Having made my very first visit to Kenya last November, I could well imagine the scene and the quiet horror which descended upon the elephant’s death. So sad, yet so beautifully written. The plight of Africa’s elephants is with me every day, never stop thinking of them – gentle, intelligent and caring animals.

  13. Ann says:

    So poignant – I love your writing. My heart breaks and my eyes weep. My anger swells!

  14. Pingback: The passing of a giant | Wildlife Trafficking |...

  15. Lee says:

    We verbalize and write very moving statements and articles discussing the plight of these magnificent gentle giants. When is this madness going to stop? I am sitting here with tears running down my cheeks, weeping with shame for men who dare to brutally kill and maim these majestic, gentle animals that can take so long to die with poison shot into their bodies. Brutality! Can’t talk anymore.

  16. S.Lechonitis says:

    A very sad Story.Hope the US and the governments will stop These killings.What a shame and feel sad to read agian a passing of These wonderful animals.The human beins are the worst species on earth.S.Lechonitis

  17. lizk says:

    Good writing if not easy reading, needs to be spread, thank you x

  18. Sandy Juul says:

    When will so-called Homo sapiens, having been a species on this planet for so short a time, become educated enough to appreciate that we destroy more than we contribute to life in our interests of ‘progress’, greed and ignorance? Like dinosaurs, a transient domination leaving too big a footprint for continuation? We could learn a lot from elephant wisdom, sensitivity ….. but 2 tusks mean big money to feed human greed for show-off decorations, now funding wars and terrorism to kill others of our same kind. Homo sapiens – an arrogant misnomer? I wish I could live amongst elephants and be an ‘askari’ with and for them.

    • Ann says:

      Sandy – I share your comments entirely. I call these parasites “the human factor”. Sadly they have so much to learn about respecting Mother Earth and her inhabitants. Very often I make comments such as “if I was God, I would just blow up the current population and start again”. It saddens and maddens me the way in which so many people behave towards animals, wild and domesticated – we are supposed to be the “superior” race, but we fall so very far short of our potential.

  19. Gerald Rilling says:

    It is not the African poachers that are the real problem (with the population increase; there will always be people looking for money). The problem is the end user – mainly in the Far East. They need to be educated about what is happening with the elephant populations and the grief, etc. they are causing. The education has started; but it needs to increase.
    The same is true for Rhinos. The main use for Rhino horn is medicinal, but the doctors who use it KNOW it has NO MEDICINAL value. The India/Pakistan use for erectile problems can be replaced by Viagra, etc.. It does work – for external use only.

  20. Geoffrey Gunning says:

    “United we stand, divided we fall.” While governments, regimes, mafia. criminal gangs and royals are united in themselves, WE are divided. They have always known that, which is why they can ignore our opinions. I implore you to start multiple campaigns to start e-mail and letters to the embassies of China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Philippines, expressing your disgust and confirming that you will boycott their products. Inundate them with letters/e-mails until they choke. “All it requires for evil to succeed is for good men/women to do nothing.” That’s the normal situation, isn’t it? WE DO NOTHING. Doing nothing is tantamount to condoning it.

  21. Pingback: The passing of a giant | Pachyderm Magazine | S...

  22. Pingback: Links 2/9/14 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  23. AfricaInside says:

    In September I had the pleasure of spending some time with Daphne Sheldrick when she came to the US. She talked about these ellie arrow wounds and told stories of ellies coming to the Sheldrick camp in Tsavo to have their wounds attended to. The part of your story of the 11 elephants, wounded, and running from whatever (whomever) wounded them, haunts me. Lori from

  24. Reblogged this on sentientvoice and commented:
    Such a sad waste for status and trinkets. If everyone stopped buying ivory, this unnecessary elephant poaching would stop.

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