Satao – one year on



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 ( ) 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’ ( ) 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.

He wasn’t.

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  –

© 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.


About Mark Deeble

A wildlife filmmaker in Kenya. My home is in Cornwall. My heart is in Africa. I have a tent in Tsavo. I share it all with Vicky. We are working with an amazing team, making a wildlife feature film -
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26 Responses to Satao – one year on

  1. Eva Bednar says:

    Wondrous writing. Thank you.

  2. Linda says:

    Thank you for reminding us of this horrible loss. Satao. My heart is breaking anew – a year later and it continues still with no end in sight. What is wrong with our species?

  3. Suzie Haller says:

    Thank you! Amazing read as always. Love it! XX

  4. Deep thank you’s for your sharing of your trip to visit Satao’s remains… most touching, terribly sad and important to re-experience through your eyes, one year later… so many desire this senseless killing to STOP!

  5. Delta Willis says:

    A beautiful example of how we might learn from elephants, now known to mourn their dead. When promoting a film abut the work of Iain Douglas-Hamilton in the 70’s, we at Survival Anglia Ltd. met criticism for suggesting elephants were grieving, despite footage of them paying a silent visit to fallen friends, fondling bones with their trunks, milling about in unusual quiet, self-imposed slow motion. We should all join their procession, pay tribute, acknowledge what is lost. You have captured a moment in time when we still have these magnificent creatures, yet one feels the heat of encroaching humanity. We should all weep, then get mad, and take action. Even if poaching is stopped, the over-population problem will remain, with human-wildlife conflicts as happened in Laikipia this week, where police shot the oldest elephant in the sanctuary after he “invaded” a local tomato garden.

    • Mark Deeble says:

      We filmed an elephant ‘memorial’ recently, and I completely agree – the skull touching and ivory caressing left us in no doubt that we were witnessing a ceremony. What really struck me, and what you so rightly refer to, is the change in their mood – it is palpable.
      Action is what is needed, and what we all, individually, should take. I think that starts with calling for, and expecting, a total ban on ivory sales. That is in the short term – in the long term our overpopulation is the ‘elephant in the room’ .

  6. marvalus2013 says:

    I enjoy your posts so much, even though the topic is so wrenchingly sad. I go through various states of mind – furious anger, desperate grief, mad bursts of petition signing and letter writing, then sheer hopelessness when I think of the bottomless pit of corruption and greed that are the giant stumbling blocks to getting any change to what is happening. Poaching, hunting, habitat loss and embedded corruption, combined with total indifference to their suffering make the job of saving the elephants pretty much an impossibility. Yet we continue because not to do so is unthinkable. I’ve stopped commenting on most FB posts as the daily outpouring of “This is terrible” in various forms is really not helping. The big question is..what will?

  7. Flo Stone says:

    Dear Mark: Thank you for yet another deeply moving essay with Satao One Year On – illustrated with photographs of striking beauty. I wonder if your film will be finished by March 2016 and if there was a chance that you and Vicky could come to Washington DC to present it and a retrospective of your films that we have celebrated often over the years. I wanted to propose this idea to the EFF staff programming committee if there was a chance it could happen. Your elephant film might also be presented as a work-in-progress if t won’t be completed until later in the year. All my best to you both – Flo Flo Stone Founder Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital

    Flo Stone


    Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital

    1228 1/2 31st Street, NW

    Washington, DC 20007

    Tel: 202.342.2564

    Fax: 202.298.8518

    23rd Annual Festival: March 17-29, 2015

    Selected for the 2012-13 Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington

  8. Gail Taylor says:

    It took much courage on your behalf to revisit Satao’s site and read about your departing ‘tears’ for I’m sure many of your readers experienced ‘tears’ upon reading your returned visit. Thank you for sharing your inner thoughts with us.

  9. A sad story which broke my heart. The loss of Satao changed my path and I have started

  10. Beautifully written. I cried when I heard about the tragic incident and cried today reading this. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us all around the world who care and love not only these majestic animals but all God’s creatures and our planet which is so threatened! stay strong sherie shackleton cape town

  11. Kristine Spencer says:

    I feel all the emotion as if it were my own. Your writings on Satao, and his life, death, and legacy, brought me to sadness and a desperate need for hope, if only on the wing of a butterfly, but it’s enough, it has to be for now.

  12. croeyre says:

    Beautiful. Satao – we remember you. A complete ban on all ivory sales must happen. I was in Italy last weekend and was horrified at the huge amount of ivory figures for sale in jewellery shops on Capri of all places. In our local auction house (Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury) they regularily have ivory for sale at their Oriental Auctions. I’ve visited – all are bought for prices much higher than the guide price by chinese bidders. Why is this allowed to happen? It seems bonkers to give ivory a value other than a prison sentance. Then, some voluntary extinction. Less people should have less children.

  13. Renae says:

    Heartbreaking what humans are doing to these magnificent, outstanding,animals. My heart breaks at the loss of each one. We must somehow make humans realize the destruction they’re doing to our planet without these loving gentle giants. Humans could learn so much from these loving, caring animals they have so much to give to our planet and us, this is there planet we’re blessed to be here to enjoy them. Thank you for your strength of going back and giving us an update”.

  14. Dr. Rex says:

    Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Remembering this huge loss …. SATAO, the tusker!! RIP ….

  15. says:

    I had never considered the nutrient overload scenario. It is a sad thing.

  16. marie sweetnam says:

    Here in South Africa we mourn the death through poaching of THOUSANDS of our Ellies and Rhinos, with our Government completely uninvolved with putting a stop to either of them. Mozambique have no more Ellies, yet they have tonnes of ivory in stores – the electric fence between our countries were removed since our departure from the Old Government. Now we reap the tragic results of this madness.

  17. Joy O says:

    Were the killers ever caught? May his death never be in vain!

    • Mark Deeble says:

      Some weeks after Satao’s death there were reports that his killers were arrested by KWS, but I have not heard of a trial or conviction. Satao’s tusks were never recovered. We will be posting five ‘reflections’ on the’Decades of Satao’ at this coming week as a tribute, leading up to the anniversary of his death on May 30th.

  18. Elizabeth Lake says:

    Thank you for your beautifully written and moving piece on Satao. It does help to read your communications, it is something one can do, not just silence. And thank you for “there is hope”

  19. Thank you for your always touching and beautiful writing about Satao and all the other elephants you post about. Like everyone else who has commented, this is such a touching and said remembrance of that great ele. We mourn his sickening and tragic death and hope some day, through knowledge and awareness, that this killing will stop.

  20. Jai says:

    What a lovely, sensitively written article. Profoundly moving. While the immediate, wrenching pain of the brutal killing of such a magnificent being has eased, the shame, regret and sorrow remains as a dull ache. I hope our species has the grace, wisdom and compassion to do something to make amends before it is too late–the time to act in protection of our fellow beings is NOW.

  21. Hello Mr.Deeble.

    I just wanted to touch base with you and let you know that a few years on Satao has continued to inspire and help his kith and kin. You had given me permission to reblog your article on his murder. This was the original article …

    In a strange twist of fate we (my husband and I too were witness to the murder of another elephant – not of an iconic stature as Satao but as beautiful. In the Mara. We shared that horrible experience on our blog –

    If that was not a ceremony, we do not know what is. Albeit one of grief.

    and as a follow-up we did a write up too –

    After many moons our pictures were picked up by two different people on the other side of the ocean in the Americas. And proved to be the reason some funding came in for the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that rescued the orphan of the poached female. The first of these people gave me HER story of why elephants and poaching caught at her heartstrings. And the answer lies in – Satao.

    I just thought you should know.

    Deep regards,
    Swati & Siddharth.

  22. Pingback: Pavel Cisarovsky, un graffeur engagé contre le braconnage – Les Yeux de la Girafe

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