Recently, I flew to find Satao’s remains. The anniversary of his death was approaching and I felt compelled to visit. Besides, I rationalised, I was curious to see to what extent the nutrient overload had killed the vegetation, and how long it would take to recover. I’d always assumed it would be a year or two, but it would give me the chance to find out.
Last year, from the air, I’d marked the spot but, now on the ground, it was difficult to find. It had rained heavily an hour before – I’d seen the degrading cumulonimbus when taking off from Voi. The bush was thick – wet green lush, the tyre treads quiet in soft ochre. I knew that Etienne was flying nearby, and radioed him to see if he had more accurate coordinates – but it wasn’t until he flew over and directed me in, that I finally found the spot where Satao had fallen.
I recognised the dead Comiphora that, when I’d last been there, had been white with vulture faeces. Then, the surrounding bush had been smothered by a confetti of Ipomoea flowers. This year there were none – such is the way of Tsavo. Now it was the turn of the white Heliotropis – their compound, decurved flowers swayed in the breeze and reminded me of tongues – a chattering crowd.
As I drove up and got out, I flushed a back-backed jackal. I saw where she’d curled up against the rain at the base of a brittle Boscia bush. The hollow she’d created was still dry, the soil still warm to the backs of my fingers, a faint muskiness still present. I took it all in, putting off the moment when I’d have to look up and engage with why I’d come.
I wasn’t surprised I’d found the remains difficult to find – the bones were scattered. The huge femurs and scapulas were hidden by grass a few metres away from the site of decomposition. Nothing grew there. The dark stain of putrefaction was ringed by star-grass, creepers and Heliotropis – all pushing in, eager to get at the nutrients… still too concentrated toxic though – perhaps next wet season, or the one after, they’d be diluted enough for the plants to risk sending roots in.
Looking at the scattered bones, I began to wonder why I had come – what I’d hoped to achieve. I walked in a circle, looking for what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps something to give my visit a focus and Satao’s death some meaning. I stopped and crouched downwind. The smell of putrefaction was still there. It had once been a tide, now it was a trickle.
Against the dark earth-stain, the bones were beginning to bleach. Hyenas had gnawed at the pelvis. Scavenger’s jaws had left sharp shards of rib. The only sign of life was down amongst the vertebrae, where brown pitted longicorn beetles fought and mated – slow-motion lives, lived in a charnel house. There was little to take inspiration from.
It was late in the afternoon and I had to get back before dark, but I was loathe to leave. It started to rain. I hunkered down beneath the Boscia bush and remembered Satao.
I remembered how we’d first found him – the months of fruitless searching for a giant tusker for our film ( http://www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie ) then the change of tactic – the wait.
The month spent baking in a cramped metal box, dug into the ground at the edge of a remote waterhole, hoping that a giant tusker would materialise – not knowing whether we were wasting our time.
I remembered how he had first appeared as a mirage from the Taru desert, sun glinting off incredible tusks – and our delight that such a giant still existed.
I remembered trying to discover if anything was known of him – we’d checked through boxes of photo-ID cards with elephant researcher, Barbara McKnight; I’d corresponded with Janet Goss who’d known and photographed elephants there for over a decade; we’d sent his details and photograph to the Tsavo Trust, who had just started a ‘large elephant’ monitoring project.
All drew a blank.
I loved that Tsavo was so vast that such an impressive bull could have gone unknown for so long.
In the weeks that followed, we filmed him on a number of occasions – but never far from the waterhole. His visits were irregular – as if he didn’t want to build a pattern. He’d drink, hang out with other elephants and then leave with his askaris – the bulls that accompanied him. When they set off into the Taru desert evening, we’d break off. We would have loved to have followed, but we couldn’t risk drawing attention to him.
At that time, late in 2013, the poaching pressure on Tsavo’s elephants was at its peak. It was probably the only waterhole where he’d felt safe. He’d not been alone. Sometimes hundreds of elephants gathered with him.
Then it rained. The herds vanished, and with them went Satao. We heard nothing more until we had a call, four months later. Satao had been spotted from the air during the ‘great elephant census’ ( http://www.facebook.com/greatelephantcensus ) and Mike Chase, its director, had thought he might be wounded. We were part of a team that went to check, and film him. He had been hit by a poisoned arrow, but it hadn’t penetrated far enough to be life-threatening – and he hadn’t needed treating.
It meant though, that poachers had got close enough to wound him. Next time he might not be so lucky.
Two months later on May 30th Satao fell and died just a couple of meters from where I now crouched, hunched against the rain. A similar rainstorm, with its promise of lush vegetation and brimming waterholes, had drawn him right to the boundary of the park in an area notorious for poaching. Elephant movements are so dependent on rainfall that the poachers would have known that after such a deluge they could just wait for the elephants to arrive. This time, the poison arrow had driven through into his body cavity. Where Satao fell is no more than a few hundred yards from the boundary of the park.
The rain eased and I stood and stretched. I could hear distant goats – I couldn’t help but feel that humanity was pushing in on elephants. Beyond the fence had once been some of the best elephant country in Africa, but we’d not seen a single elephant out there in the three years we’d flown it, only the smudge of illegal charcoal kilns, as every year there were fewer trees.
As the sun tried to push through the clouds, and I looked around and prepared to leave, a pair of butterflies alighted – their folded lime-white underwings somehow perfect against the dark stain that had once been Africa’s most magnificent elephant. As they uncurled their probosces and started to suck minerals, I thought of how Satao was returning to the ecosystem that produced him – sip by tiny sip.
It was enough. I climbed back into the battered land-cruiser. The butterflies took wing, and they were replaced by a small flock of superb starlings, who descended into the chaff of larval skins and beetles – a vocal flurry of chestnut and turquoise electric.
Close to the airstrip, I came across a herd of elephants. The moment they turned away from me, I suspected I knew who they were. I knew that trying to photograph them would be futile, but just to prove it to myself, I angled gently around. As a herd, they swung their heads away and headed slowly for thick bush. I let them be.
Minutes later and airborne, it needed only a glance down to confirm that they were the same fifteen magnificent bulls that I’d seen a year ago, heading towards the carcass of Satao.
Then, I’d thought that they were heading for the killing fields. On that flight home, I had wept.
Now, almost a year later, and setting the same course, I allowed myself a faint smile. Despite the depredations of the last twelve months, that herd is still intact – and there is hope.
Aerial photo: Pete Cayless – http://www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie )
© 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 & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.