Ever since we started filming in Tsavo we’d looked for a big tusker – but they are elusive. It’s the reason they are still alive. They are also very rare. They are bulls with tusks so large that they can rest them on the ground.
There are probably only a dozen of the fabled ‘100+ pounders’ left in Tsavo’s 16,000 square miles.
Kruger used to have its ‘magnificent seven’ – no longer. Tsavo’s collection of great tuskers is now the last in the world. They should be national treasures, cherished by Kenyans and protected by presidential decree, but they are not.
After two years of filming around Tsavo, we heard of one of the fabled bulls. He was living on a community ranch, notorious for its gangs of armed Somalis that poach elephants. According to our source, the huge bull hid in very thick bush during the day – only emerging to feed when it was dark. Much as we wanted to film a true ‘tusker’, we felt we couldn’t risk searching for him. We’d only draw attention to the area he hid in, and that would put him in danger. There was no alternative but to wait.
Seasons passed without sightings.
We decided to change plans, and have one come to us, and so the idea of the ‘box’ was born – a metal hide dug into a bank beside a waterhole. It’s essentially the same technique that poachers use to ambush elephants, for elephants must come to water every 2-3 days.
My relationship with the ‘box’ underwent a brief honeymoon period. I loved the toe-nail height view it gave us of elephants, and for the first few days there was the thrill of the unknown. We had no idea how the elephants would react to it. We didn’t expect an attack, but neither did we expect the box to be able to withstand one. If the worst happened, we just hoped it would crumple gracefully.
The honeymoon ended very suddenly when, after a few grey days, the sun came out. It transformed the ‘box’ into a ‘hotbox’, and me from a filmmaker into an extra in ‘Django Unchained’. Days in the cramped, 4’ x 4’ ‘hotbox’ turned into weeks – and it became a test of endurance. Once the lid clanged shut, with it went the breeze, the light and the sky. Each day started well, but by late morning the metal lid and upper walls became too hot to touch. For 10-12 hours, there was no getting out to cool down, stretch or urinate. The only respite from the mind-numbing heat was to strip, douse myself with water and curl in a foetal position on the muddy floor, around the tripod.
I was about to do that one day, and took a last look out of the filming ‘window’ when I glimpsed something through the heat haze. Initially I thought the sun had reflected off the windscreen of a distant vehicle, but there were no tracks close by. Whatever it was disappeared, then glinted once more. Alert now, it was several minutes before I saw it again. I came to the slow realization that what I was looking at was sunlight reflecting off an elephant’s tusks. Gradually, like in the opening scene from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, their owner materialized through the shimmering haze. A mirage from the Taru desert – a magnificent, dusty behemoth.
Other elephants stood sleeping, clustered in the shade of acacias, apparently unaware of the bull’s approach. He didn’t walk straight to water. It took him almost an hour to cover the final kilometer as he slowly zig-zagged from one bush to another. The glint I’d seen, came whenever he turned his head and appeared to bury it in a bush. Each time he did, he’d wait a few minutes, partially hidden, then continue zig-zagging upwind, scenting the air, to check there wasn’t a poacher hidden at the waterhole.
I was mystified at the bull’s poor attempt to hide – until it dawned on me that he wasn’t trying to hide his body, he was hiding his tusks. At once, I was incredibly impressed, and incredibly sad – impressed that he should have the understanding that his tusks could put him in danger, but so sad at what that meant.
As he neared the waterhole, other elephants left the shade to gather round and greet him. He was a magnificent bull; unmarked, apart from a diagonal scar on his trunk. He had the largest tusks I’ve ever seen. I’ve shown pictures of him to others, and his tusks are of such a size and sweep, that even elephant experts of 40 years standing, have had an audible intake of breath.
We saw him a number of times after that. Initially, I wondered if my interpretation of his behaviour was fanciful, just a filmmaker’s frustration at not being able to get a clear view, but whenever we saw him, he tried to hide his tusks and I am convinced that it was deliberate.
That was last year.
Last week, we had a call to say that a big tusker might be in trouble. We were told only that it was an old bull with very large tusks. He had been seen and filmed a week before by a foreign crew for a film about the current pan-African elephant census by scientist Mike Chase. In reviewing the footage, Mike had noticed two weeping wounds on the bull’s flank – probably from poison arrows. It needed following up. We became involved as, if the bull needed to be immobilized and his wounds treated, the film company wanted it documented.
We’d been sent images, and I suspected that the elephant might be the same magnificent bull we’d filmed from the ‘hotbox’. The shots were too distant to see the tell-tale scar, but the overall ‘giss’ was uncomfortably similar. I was concerned.
The bull we’d known never built up a pattern that would allow poachers to predict his movements. His visits to water were irregular. He would turn up a few times, but never at regular intervals, and then disappear for months. It’s what had kept him alive.
We set off before dawn. It was cloudy and cool It boded well, not for filming but for immobilization, as elephants risk overheating once they go down. We met Richard Moller, of the Tsavo Trust, at a remote airstrip just after sunrise. Somehow, I managed to fold my limbs into the rear of the Trust’s Supercub, 5Y-ACE, and we set off to try and find the bull. Richard takes great pride in the cub’s history – she’s flown over Tsavo for decades, long before there were tracks and tourists.
The ‘cub’ knows her way around Tsavo, and she didn’t let us down – within half an hour Richard spotted the bull. We circled him once. We were high, to avoid frightening him, so I couldn’t see if he had a scar on his trunk, but his tusks looked enormous and disturbingly familiar. As we flew back, I had time to wonder whether the ‘cub’ had flown over the bull before – perhaps as a calf in the early ’60‘s, one of the first to be born into an independent Kenya. I felt she probably had.
On landing I looked around at the assembled people and vehicles. I was struck by how all the elephant conservation organizations in Tsavo were pulling together to go to the help of the iconic old bull. KWS was responsible overall. Tsavo Trust had been monitoring him; but what we were about to do wouldn’t be possible without the Sheldrick Trust’s funding and equipping, of the park’s wildlife vet.
We drove out to the bull. As the vet, Jeremiah Poghon, examined him through binoculars, we fell silent. We all recognized the risks inherent in immobilizing an elephant that size – but it was compounded by the bull’s huge tusks which, at more than 50 kgs /side, might hinder him getting to his feet.
When the vet made the decision not to immobilize him – there was a collective sigh of relief. One wound had stopped weeping and the other didn’t look swollen. Neither appeared to be bothering the bull much. Elephants have a huge capacity to heal. The vet explained that, as the wounds didn’t appear too infected, he thought the bull would be OK, but he would be monitored over the next few weeks, to check that his condition didn’t deteriorate.
As the vet drove away to attend another case, we had time alone to film the bull. We parked well ahead and downwind. We had to reposition a couple of times as It proved difficult to get a clear view – there always seemed to be a bush in the way. The old bull got to within 25m before we could see him clearly – but long before that, I knew that when he turned, there would be a diagonal scar on his trunk.
I was silent as we drove back that evening – exhausted by the day and the mix of emotions.
I was thankful that the bull’s wounds were healing and that we hadn’t had to dart him, but I was devastated that poachers had somehow managed to predict his movements and get close enough to fire two poison arrows into him.
I am appalled at what that means – that the survival skills that the bull has painstakingly learnt over half a century have been rendered useless by the poachers’ use of mass-produced Chinese goods; GPS smart-phones, cheap motorcycles and night vision goggles.
I think the old bull knows that poachers want his tusks, and I hate that he knows.
More than anything, I hate the thought that poachers are now closing in on one of the world’s most iconic elephants.
For over half a century the vast expanse of the Taru desert has provided him with refuge – but it no longer seems vast enough.
© 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.
I do so hope he recovers from his wounds; what an awesome sight he must be! Thank you for sharing 🙂
A fantastic story to read. I want to know if they will guard him day and night … or if this is impossible. I know this used to happen with some rhinos … but it probably didn’t work in the long run. A desperate situation.
Isn’t it amazing that this elephant knows his tusks are a target and tries to hide them. Elephants are so very intelligent; it pains me that humans destroy them for their tusks. I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel to Kenya and see elephants living in the wild. That is the most amazing site I have ever seen! I pray that humans wake up and realize what we are doing to our planet and its inhabitants.
there are no words to describe what is happening as well as your article does. have shared it widely. pray man is capable if reversing this, but am not confident we will do so in time.
Mark, this is just beautiful. He’s a magnificent bull, so desperately sad that he seems to know he is in danger. And your words more than do him justice – thankyou so much
So sad their numbers are diminishing. Must have been on the edge of your proverbial seat when the vet was deciding whether to/or not to sedate/immobolize. Then to read of the poachers. I was afraid of that. Makes me sick! What can one do or say, it’s just so heartbreaking. I just hope/pray they, the magnificent elephants do find a safe corner to live out their natural existence. Thank you.
Almost as if he learned long before we humans, that he needed to help himself avoid the awful destruction of his kind, that we are witness to today! Long live my friend, long live!
Thank you for enlightening us on the world of tuskers and thank you for your patience and endurance of filming and documenting their plight. In October, cities around the globe will be their voice and hopefully will put pressure on world leaders, especially African leaders, to get out of their easy chair and put into action, new laws that will bring this horrific crime to an end. If citizens stay quiet, we will lose all that is sacred. We need action and they need protection now!
This makes me so sad that our fellow inhabitants of this planet can’t even be safe from human destruction. I hope he is able to continue living his life for many years to come, too bad he has to live in fear of vile human scum.
Thank you for sharing, caring and spending your life doing what the rest of us just dreams of. All we can do is share onwards, hope that awareness rises and thoughts change.
Just another infuriating example of how poachers now resemble the mafia in their ability to find and destroy. They stop at nothing. I have no doubt this bull does know about it’s tusks and that makes me sad but also happy because it’s why he is still alive. I continue to help by donating, educating through my blog, and praying for a more humane world. Thanks for an excellent post. Lori from AfricaInside.org
Thank you for sharing the photos and story. He is truly stunning and tragic at the same time. I feel privileged to be able to see him, even if it is just a photo. One of the most beautiful beings I have ever seen.
Reblogged this on Hannah Strand.
God bless the people that are working tirelessly to save these beautiful creatures – and catch the mindless poachers.
Amazing story, but really sad that even in 2014 nature conservation in Africa seems to be what Kipling called the ‘The white man’s burden’.
I’m shocked and suprised that these Elephants know they are being hunted for their tusks. I am not convinced of this theory. After all, we don’t really know what they think. There could be something else going on. Such as the tusks are too heavy or they know tusks reflect light, alerting predators. And he could be hiding because the tusks no longer work as defense tools. They may be too big to defend himself effectively anymore. If they know for certain they ate being hunted for their tusks. That is really, really sad. An evil indictment of humanity.
I was sceptical at first but, time and again, elephants have proved to be extraordinary – communication, thought processes, consciousness… Elephants have been seen to remove the tusks from old elephant skulls and carry them away.
I was in conversation with another conservationist recently about the same tusker and, quite unprompted, he described him as ‘the tusker who hides his tusks’. The question is why he does it. His only potential predator is man and his stature and size mean that he rarely, if ever, needs to defend himself against other bulls – the sight of his tusks puts them off immediately. I once saw him walk to water and the twenty or so other bulls who were there all gave way, one by one. I can’t prove that he knows he is being hunted for his tusks but my experience with him, says that he does.
Sadness comes with knowledge…I wonder what is heavier for him: his tusks or this weight on his heart…
According to the ATE researchers they claim that a Great Tusker is like a person from the medieval Royal Family-a KING for this matter and therefore commands great respect amongst all Elephants families, no other Elephant would dare enter into a contest with him. I’m praying and hoping above all faiths that His creator look after him for many more years, He blind the poachers anytime they get closer to his vicinity.
Kiura – I wish the tuskers were able to blind poachers when they got close – it would save us all a lot of heartache.
Elephants are intelligent enough to use what they learn. A big tusker has been around for many years and has no doubt seen more than one carcass, perhaps even the tusks being removed. No surprise at all that he should understand the risks to his own survival.
brilliant article. I couldn’t help but share
This is horrible. I hope it survives.
How can we persuade the government to take extra measures to save this gentle creature?
I think the president has to take a stance. Up to now, he has been very quiet about poaching. I think Kenya should follow Zimbabwe’s lead where there has been a ‘presidential herd’ for many years. At the very least, Kenya should have its ‘presidential tuskers’. Ahmed, the famous Marsabit tusker, was afforded presidential protection by Jomo Kenyatta, so there is a precedent. Uhuru Kenyatta needs to know that the world is watching.
Maybe Kenya Breweries should start a “Save our Tuskers” campaign…
I have just read an article about the Zimbabwean Presidential Elephants and they too are in dire danger by the sound of things. Here is the link to the article:-
and how will we make him understand this?
Unfortunately mark the world just watches. We have been watching for generations. In the mean time tens of thousands of elephant have been hunted. The time for watching is over but will enough of us stand up from our seats at the same time?? The next five years will prove to be crucial. The top of the hill was reached years ago . Only time will tell if we can stop the snow ball. Indications are that we can’t because in reality too many are watching. Not enough are acting.
Great photo of a great bull. How sad he hides his great tusks instead of proudly showing them off as they once would have been. Thanks for the article.
Hi Mark How are you guys? I’m enjoying your blog’s. Thanks man! We’ve got this fair sized tusker here on Malilangwe Game Reserve in Zimbabwe. I have no idea on judging size, but people say between 100 & 115lbs. (see attached) I filmed him a bit last year and then saw him more recently and he’d sadly broken one of his tusks. The break wasn’t fresh but at the time he was challenging another bull, so possibly broke it fighting. We haven’t found the broken piece yet. When do you guys hope to finish up on your elephant project? All the best and hi to Vicki Cheers Kim Wolhuter
A petition could be started, no? It’s a start at the very least. I will research it and get one going. Perhaps it won’t be enough to convince the president but it’s something. 🙂
Perhaps a petition as a start? I will make one.
We spent millions on protecting useless politicians. Can we not spent a fraction of that amount to protect innocent wild animals.
Those poachers must be caught! I don’t why no one has tried to go after the poachers! I wish I was there, becacuse if I was i would have personally strangledthose poachers! (By the way thuis a view from a 12 year old so don’t judge!)
Having recently returned from another fabulous journey into Africa, I know as you do that Elephants are so very special. Kenya and Kenyans are a joy, as well as their Wildlife.
Bus some days when I read about the poaching I think that the human race should be banned from this planet. The African people need to realize that without “animal tourism” they will not prosper. They must elect (and communicate to) politicians that protect their Wildlife. Mark, please stay strong in your efforts and in letting us know how we can help. Thanks to all for raising your voices and lenses for the wildlife.
Wow this was simply an amazing article and I really enjoyed reading it even though it has an eerie feeling of doom about it. I am working with Colobus Conservation in Diani Beach at the moment and am planning a trip to Tsavo in June. I can only hope this amazing creature is still alive and strong and that I can get a glimpse. Thanks again for this article all best.
Thank you, Mark, for this absolutely beautifully written article about the huge tusker. I want so much to DO something – more than just reading about this and blogging about ele’s and donating to certain groups. But I imagine that those higher-ups in Kenya and other countries must step up to the plate in order for change to happen, eh? Do you have any particular group you would suggest who it is safe to donate money to for the ele’s? I so want to do something.
I donate to the DSWT and foster a couple of young elephants. Dame Daphne has devoted her life to rearing orphaned elephants and has a dedicated team around her who are a vital part of elephant conservation in Africa. There is another elephant orphanage just outside Lusaka, Zambia which is part of Game Rangers International. However, altho I used to know the family who own Lilayi Lodge (from when we lived in Zambia) I always have difficulty getting onto the website for the elephant orphanage there.
Thank you Marvalus2013, for reminding me about the David Sheldrick Trust. I’m going to foster an ele.
I think there are a number of Trusts here doing very god work – the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Tsavo Trust for example. I also think there are a couple of smaller really worthwhile trusts that help rangers with anti-poaching equipment or help protect areas where elephants roam – I would recommend the Milgis Trust: http://milgistrust.wildlifedirect.org/ and Walking with Rangers: https://www.facebook.com/RaabiasWWR
Thank you SO much, Mark. This makes me feel better, that I’m doing something to help this horrible situation.
Im aware it is possible to deploy a UAV for regular surveillance for such a minimal cost as compared to flying a chopper or the Supercub and this is what all the conservancy groups, the Trust and KWS need to deploy. We are willing and in a position to deploy this solution rapidly. These beasts can not be left to annihilate wildlife while we sit, lament and blog away disaster after another.
I am aware that KWS plan to use UAVs for aerial monitoring in the TCA, but I know funding is always an issue. I suggest you contact area warden Robert O’Brien @ KWS if you are in a position to donate them or your expertise. I know it would be appreciated.
These creatures are so magnificient – often more so than humans. What is going on now with poaching not only breaks my heart but is physically painful. What capacity for evil humans have! Thanks for a sad but beautiful story. May he stay safe & when his end comes let it be due to natural causes! i pray at that time that his tusks don’t land in the wrong hands! What an amazing creature! i believe he does understand the danger he faces & is hiding his tusks as best he can!
The very title of this post is an epitaph in itself – The Last of the Great Tuskers. As you say, there used to be many many more of these magnificent creatures. Once this old bull goes, it is unlikely we shall ever see his like again, given the current dangerous environment in which they are struggling to survive. Sadly, unless some very influential and powerful people get on board to change the thinking of the end-buyer and to pursue, prosecute and punish the poaching gangs, our protests and petitions are doing little more than trying to raise awareness. We all feel so utterly helpless in the face of this highly-organised genocide as obviously, most of us have no means of physically stopping the poaching, the trading or the buying. Nevertheless, we still must do whatever we possibly can to make people aware that the extinction of a species means GONE FOREVER. I could not live with myself if I had not at least tried to prevent this by emailing, posting, petitioning and writing to people who might possibly be able to do something.
Beautiful story. But don’t you think that by mentioning this sighting and the place where this bull was sighted gives the greedy killers information on where to look for this magnificent animal? Bringing this much attention to this matter is a double-edged sword. When you find a priceless treasure that is lusted after by many, I believe you should not shout it from the mountain tops lest you bring on unwanted attention to the very thing you are trying to protect. Perhaps not mentioning the name of the place and using a fictional place to protect the innocent may be more prudent.
Poachers know the areas the bulls frequent just as much as the rangers, biologists, conservationists, guides etc. These bulls are being targeted all the time. We found another injured bull today, and so many of the them and the larger cows have poison arrow wounds. We see wounded elephants every time we drive out to be with them – some old wounds, some fresh. The Tsavo Conservation Area is huge – 16,000 sq miles (twice the size of Wales) and as I didn’t give away the location of the big tusker (in the same way that I haven’t mentioned when and where the elephants congregate) I don’t think he is any more endangered. If we do nothing though, then we lose them – one by one. I feel that only by publicising their plight can we bring them to international attention and get any action. Otherwise, they ( and most of Africas other elephants) will be gone within a decade.
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Ah, Mark. This is a very sad story you share. Thank you. Of course the elephant knows the value of his tusks. How many murders of his own kind has he witnessed? Elephants are highly intelligent and they remember. They know. But they are powerless against our technology and weapons, as you so rightly point out. As always, beautifully written and terribly tragic.
Thanks Raven. I am convinced they know. He would have seen other bulls targeted over the last decade and perhaps, in the ’70s, even family members.
Beryl Markham, in her book ‘West with the Night’, recounts how she saw elephant hiding their tusks in the bush as she flew over scouting for Baron von Blixen in the 40s
I wonder if a petition could be started targeting Uhuru Kenyatta, asking him to follow in Zimbabwe’s footsteps and create the ‘presidential tuskers’, as you said, Mark. Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I can research it and create an online petition. Something is better than nothing. 🙂
It is a good idea Alisen. There is a petition on http://www.change.org ( I think by KUAPO, Kenyans United against Poaching) but I think it focusses more on urging the president to declare the poaching a ‘national disaster’. Calling for the declaration of ‘presidential tuskers’ would be a very positive step IMO.
Hi Mark, It would be amazing if you could write a book about filming the wonder of the elephants in Tsavo. Obviously you have documented most of it in this blog, but perhaps writing a book and donating the proceeds to Tsavo Trust and others could provide some much needed funds? Mark Jacobs sent me the link to your blog as he said he worked with you at the NHU. I’ve worked with him and as I have a great admiration for elephants he thought your blog would be of interest. It is truly an amazing blog and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
Thanks Tanya – it would be great to be able to release a book with the film, but the film takes ALL our time (!). All the trusts that work with elephants in Tsavo are doing very valuable work and all need our collective support – DSWT, Tsavo Trust, AEFF…
Amazing Mark. Sadhu. Shubha x
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Reblogged this on Tusafiri Africa Travels and commented:
“Tsavo’s collection of great tuskers is now the last in the world. They should be national treasures, cherished by Kenyans and protected by presidential decree”
Tragic but ever so beautiful to read. Your combined efforts are just simply amazing!
Magnificent beings. It is horrifying to think just how far the ‘great white hunters’ of the early 20th century must have decimated the original elephant gene pool. And yes, apart from Beryl Markham’s observations, it must be likely that elephants will have seen other elephants either being slaughtered and having their tusks cut out, or will have found dead comrades without their tusks. It is has been shown many times that elephants understand death. There are stories too of elephants breaking into colonial ivory stores (tusks confiscated by district officers from African poachers, as opposed to tusks taken by shooters with licenses to kill), and repatriating the tusks to the bush. As far as stopping the poaching in Kenya, the Somali poachers have been threatening eastern Kenya for decades. It would need an army to man the borderlands. How to curb the Asian market would seem to the main objective.
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Incredible story about our Tuskers. I find the hiding of the tusks part incredible and fascinating. I think that over time the elephants have come in contact with poached elephants and they’ve noticed that the tasks have gone missing and for this reason they know they put all efforts to hide them. Just like the Chinese protect their Pandas and Ugandans their Crested Crane, there should be concerted efforts by the Kenyan government to make these great Tuskers a national symbol and this way every citizen will act as a protector of the elephants. This is instead of relying on KWS rangers who many believe connive with poachers probably due to poor pay and other personal selfish reasons. The closest I have been to a great tusk is at the national museum of Kenya where one is preserved and even in that state it is magnificent, what about in its natural place, must be amazing.
I entirely agree Lydia. They should be a source and symbol of national pride – instead of merely representing a deposit on a new Mercedes.
Extremely worried for Satao at reading that he may have been gunned down in May. Reading your blog post about this beautiful being, who is so very intelligent to have learned that his enormous tusks can get him killed and who sadly has to measure his every move for his own safety, has made it all the more heartbreaking. I hope with every fiber of my being that Satao is somehow safe. Thank you for your very hard work and the hardships you endure to witness, document and tell the stories of elephants like Satao.
Lori – we are doing our best to find out. We haven’t seen him for a month, but his area has had good rain and the eles disperse in the rain. The bad news is that the thunder-storms were close to the boundary of the park which would have attracted both elephants and poachers to the area.
He was killed on May 30. 😦
He was following the rain – which elephants must do. It took him to the edge of his range – but the tragedy is that he was killed, with stealth, within a mile of a ranger post.
Thank you for sharing with us about Satao. Thank you for your amazing dedication to collect these stories in words and film. You are doing God’s work. I am touched by the life and now the loss of Satao.
I’ve read and reread everything about Satao. What a magnificent being – and I am not at all surprised by his remarkable intelligence and understanding of personal danger due to the size of his tusks. May his death help galvanize the world to end this horrific destruction.
Make noise using social media! This killings must stop!
I’d not mentioned the bull’s name when I first posted this piece as I thought it risked drawing attention to the area where he lived. Now that Satao’s death has been confirmed, that no longer matters and I’ve included his name in the title. He was very special. If his death can focus the world’s attention on the terrible trade in ivory and help end it, then it won’t have been in vain.
i am so happy to have found this website, but also very sad to hear that Sato was killed by poachers. I have a Turkish website http://hayvanozgurlugucevirileri.com . It is a website about animal rights and liberation, it is mainly a website full of translations about animal rights. I want to add your writings too if you allow me, of course with a link. Thanks a lot for your efforts and beautiful photographs.