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.
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 (http://www.savetheelephants.org/elephant-news-service.html ).
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.
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.