When I last wrote about Satao, I felt that I couldn’t use his name. I could refer to him only as a ‘magnificent tusker’ or an ‘iconic Tsavo bull’. I feared that naming him would risk revealing where he lived. Now that I can use it, I wish that that I couldn’t.
On the 30th May, poachers finally caught up with Satao. 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. To begin with, he might have run, to get deeper inside the park, where he felt safe. Running would have made the poison work faster. He didn’t get very far. Eventually he stood still in open ground, not a mile from the park boundary – with the potent cardio-toxin coursing through him. Without any cover to hide his tusks, he’d have felt exposed and vulnerable. He would have stayed on his feet as long as he could. When the end came, it was probably quick. He collapsed, his legs splayed out – slumped in the macabre likeness of a sleeping puppy. He never got to his feet again. I hope he died before the poachers got to him.
He’d been injured by poachers’ arrows before – the last time in February, but they’d not penetrated far enough for the poison to do much damage. We’d attended – with Richard Moller of the Tsavo Trust, and the DSWT / KWS vet, Jeremiah Poghon, who’d decided that the risk of immobilizing him outweighed the benefits of treatment. It had been a good call, and Satao had recovered by himself. After that experience, I’d hoped that he’d stay where he felt safe, close to water and where he could be monitored.
He might have done so, and still be alive, if it wasn’t for the rain. In mid May, when the the rest of the park was drying fast, it rained. It was unseasonal and torrential. Rain is normally something to celebrate in Tsavo, but it couldn’t have been worse – a huge thunder storm tracked along the southern boundary of the park, a remote area notorious for poachers – protected only by a single ranger post. We flew over it soon after. There had been a deluge that had filled the waterholes. From the air, the track of the storm was visible as a green swathe that cut across the Taru desert. The storm had electrified the the night sky. The elephants had responded to the infrasound and trekked in from miles away. Within days it was an Eden – lush, soft, new-growth green. There were mud wallows, and waterholes – too numerous for the elephants to use them all.
Satao would have heard the distant thunder, and been briefly lit by lightning. He wouldn’t have been the first to respond – he was too old and wise for that. He’d have waited. He might have waited for days. The bulls that provided his company, his askaris, would probably have made the first move – to join the others streaming past. Eventually, he would have made the decision to join them. It turned out to be fatal.
We heard rumours of his death last week – the carcass of a big bull had been found, his face hacked off – tuskless. Poached elephants are difficult to identify. I don’t know what finally confirmed his identity, but I suspect it was a combination of near-perfect ears and the tell-tale diagonal scar that Satao carried on his trunk.
When we’d first filmed Satao over a year ago, I’d been surprised by that trunk. I’d been in our ‘hot box’ – a metal hide dug into the side of a waterhole. Satao had been around, but behind me, out of sight, as he preferred. As one blistering hour of inaction piled on another, the group of bulls he was with had slept in the shade of a tamarind tree. I’d dozed off too – only to be woken by the sound of snoring. At first, I thought I’d woken myself up, but the snoring continued. I opened my eyes and saw the tip of a trunk, just a foot from my face. It was shiny-wet and quivering. A drop of moisture rolled off the tip. I was instantly wide awake. The orifice I looked into was so large that it would have taken a grapefruit to plug it. Much as I admired Satao, I didn’t want his trunk probing around the hide or him getting a shock, so after a moment’s reflection, ever so gently, I blew towards it. The trunk slowly withdrew. Above me he shook his head – and the ground shook with him. A cloud of dust from those mighty ears drifted down, and he was gone.
Now he has gone for good.
We saw him again yesterday. It is two weeks after he died. The news wasn’t released until his identity had been confirmed. I’d flown with Vicky the day before and, quite by chance, she’d spotted the carcass of a big tusker. I flew back with Etienne the next day – we soon found him, out in the open – splayed and alone. Where glorious red Tsavo soil had once patterned his skin, it was now white-painted with vulture faeces. For the first time in my life, I found it difficult to take any consolation in death bringing a bounty for the scavengers, and a resurrection for the soil.
It was just a terrible sight.
We circled and circled above him, somehow compelled, until we ran low on fuel. As we banked to leave and set course for home, Etienne spotted another carcass and then I another. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing – it was a killing field. They were all carcasses of large bulls and recently poached.
As we flew home we passed a herd of fifteen big bulls, led by a magnificent tusker, heading for the same spot.
© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone 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.