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.