Alive, Satao was almost unknown; dead, he became legend.
How did it happen?
A year ago, Satao fell to a poacher’s poisoned arrow in a remote corner of Tsavo East National Park. When news of his death became known early in June 2014, it circled the globe at a speed any publicity agent would have been proud of. The international press, from Le Monde to The New York Times carried news of his death. It generated millions of tweets and Facebook page reads. There were YouTube tributes, news reports, articles, blog posts… two online petitions signed by 180,000 called for presidential protection for the remaining Tsavo tuskers. A week later, a tribute released on YouTube by the Great Elephant Census – created from the last footage we filmed of Satao, was seen by 135,000. ( http://youtu.be/KjDH_QZd0ok ) News of his death went viral in a way normally reserved only for pop stars and royalty.
Satao would have been just another poaching statistic, but for his tusks. When he died, he had possibly the largest tusks in the world.
Kruger National Park, once famed for its giant tuskers, lost the last of its ‘Magnificent Seven’ thirty years ago. In January, just four months before Satao was killed, a bull named Isilo, said to have the largest tusks in the world, died in Tembe elephant park in South Africa. His tusks were never recovered. It left the claim for the world title open.
The irony was that Satao was almost unknown. Unlike Isilo, he didn’t have a FaceBook page with thousands of followers. He’d lived forty nine of his fifty years in obscurity in a remote corner of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park. He was unknown to the park authorities, even to researchers – some of whom had worked there for decades. Until a few months before his death, he didn’t even have a name – he had only a number: SA1
That he was unknown is not as surprising as it sounds. Tsavo is vast, the same size as Massachusetts. Much of it is difficult to access. Recently, a bridge over the Galana River has been built – previously, heavy rainfall meant that half the park could be cut off for weeks at a time.
Satao’s tusks weren’t huge by historical standards, they were just very large. Look at almost any photograph of Mombasa’s ivory room from the last century, and you’ll see tusks the same size. At about 50kg a side, Satao was easily a fabled ‘hundred pounder’ but what made him special was that somehow he had survived the decades of poaching that had cut down larger tuskers, until he was the largest left standing.
His death could have gone unremarked, like other huge Tsavo tuskers before him – witnessed only by those behind the guns and the bows – but for the fact that he was known and his body was found and identified.
In the aftermath of the shock that such a magnificent elephant had been poached, I had wondered what it was about the death of Satao that caught the public imagination – that caused people to care, to want to know more, and to act. A year has passed since he died – what has the publicity, and collective outpouring of grief, achieved?
I think Satao assumed such stature, as he showed, in a very visual and visceral way, just what we are losing. He was the most magnificent individual of his species, but he died just like hundreds of thousands of other elephants – in pain and fear, attacked and slaughtered by our kind. Many people thought that elephant poaching had been brought under control in the 90’s, when Richard Leakey was head of Kenya Wildlife Service ( KWS) and were shocked at its obvious resurgence.
His death became a rallying point to publicise what was, if left unchecked, becoming the elephants’ slide to extinction.
Tuskers of Satao’s size hark back to an earlier era. That his ivory probably ended up as trinkets or chopsticks in the Far East, made his death all the more obscene. News of his death prompted questions and concern that spread as far as China – and it had an impact.
For many it was further evidence that to ensure a future for elephants we must have a complete and permanent ban on any trade in ivory. For us, it confirmed that education is a crucial part of the process. As a process, education might be slow, but it endures.
Chinese ‘consumers’ have to learn that an elephant’s tusks don’t just fall off and re grow like a deer’s antlers. They have to learn that every year, their desire for ivory trinkets results in the cruel death of over thirty thousand elephants. They have to learn about the ecological impact that the loss of elephants has on ecosystems. They have to learn what sentient, wonderful creatures elephants are and learn to respect them – as much as they do their own pandas. It is why we have been making ‘The Elephant Movie’ (www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie) for the past four years.
Satao was an individual that people could identify with – that helped. He had a story (http://tinyurl.com/ptnx8xp) albeit from the few months that he was known. I have no doubt that he hid his tusks from humans. For our team, it further demonstrated the sentience and intelligence of elephants. In the short time Satao was known, he survived at least one attempt on his life. Having a ‘story’ helped build empathy and bring character to an individual who might otherwise have been a statistic.
Perhaps the biggest impact his death had was in Kenya. Satao was compared to Ahmed, the famous giant tusker from Marsabit who was granted presidential protection by Jomo Kenyatta. A generation on, Satao assumed Ahmed’s mantle. This past year, there has been a growing call for Uhuru Kenyatta to act like his father and grant presidential protection to the remaining tuskers.
Satao became the ‘poster boy’ for the ‘Hands off our Elephants’ campaign led by Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Wildlife Direct ( http://tinyurl.com/lvwggyp ). It brought the plight of Kenya’s elephants to public attention.The result was an outcry over poaching, and a resurgence of national pride in Kenya’s elephants. Kenya Wildlife Service recruited 560 extra rangers, and received an extra $20M in government funding.
Shortly after Satao’s death a seizure of over two tons of ivory in Mombasa, most of it from Tsavo elephants, led to the arrest of alleged ivory ‘kingpin’, Feizal Ali Mohamed. It was the most important arrest related to elephant poaching in Kenya for fifty years. That he is still in jail, pending trial, reflects the public awareness and anger at what is happening to Kenya’s elephants.
Wildlife crime intelligence has improved. KWS has just opened a forensic laboratory, so DNA evidence can be submitted in cases of wildlife crime. Across the country there has been better collaboration between KWS and elephant NGOs. Help with anti-poaching comes from a variety of organisations working in the field: Save The Elephants with its ‘Elephant Crisis Fund’, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, BigLife, the Tsavo Trust, the Milgis Trust…(see below for links).
It has made a difference – the rate of poaching in Kenya has fallen. Across the border in Tanzania, elephant populations are in free-fall. Ruaha National Park was recently reported to have lost over half its elephants in a single year. In the last five years Mozambique has lost half its elephants.
Kenya’s elephants still aren’t secure – the rate of attrition might have slowed, but while Feizal Ali Mohamed awaits trial, other ivory ‘kingpins’ are active. At the end of April, Thai customs seized three tonnes of ivory hidden in a container from Mombasa. In May another three and a half tons of ivory from Kenya was seized in Singapore. It represents the death of over a thousand elephants.
Perhaps most importantly though, Satao’s death drew attention to what we still have. In Tsavo, thanks to the Tsavo Trust’s monitoring project, we know that at least eight big tuskers remain. Nowhere else in the world can compare. We need to celebrate them. If we hide them, they will be poached one by one and the world will be poorer for their loss.
Satao’s death showed that people care about elephants. Tsavo and its tuskers are part of Kenya’s extraordinary natural heritage. The genes for big tusks run through the Tsavo population – both bulls and cows carry extraordinary ivory – they are the last great tuskers. There are no other elephants quite like them.
It took the death of Satao to bring Tsavo and it’s giant tuskers to international attention. We can’t let ourselves forget just how special they are.
http://www.savetheelephants.org, www.biglife.org, http://www.wildlifedirect.org, www.milgistrustkenya.org, http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org, http://www.tsavotrust.org, http://www.greatelephantcensus.com, http://www.elephanttrust.org, http://www.elephantvoices.org
© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorised 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.