Raindrops in the dust

Wide ele bull in rain


Yesterday it rained in Tsavo. It was the first time in months. It wasn’t a downpour, but was enough to fill the shower bucket an inch or so.
There had been signs. The evening before, we’d seen scorpions out hunting, and a solifugid which ran in manic bursts around the fire. That morning, before dawn, I’d woken to the gentle drone of bees searching out the tiny flowers in the Dobera tree above my tent. It heralded change.
It was mid morning when the fig-tops bent to the first squall. Fly sheets bounced and snapped like sails, then glistened as the rain came – not in fat drops, but driven sheets, from a rushing, cloud-low sky.
Within minutes, activity replaced dry season languor: hornbills started calling, and a pair of brown-veined white butterflies tangoed through the raindrops – taking the hits, but somehow staying airborne. I wondered where they’d come from – a hollow branch perhaps, or had they been furled tight, deep inside a caper bush?

Rain is so sporadic here, that for most animals, the immediate imperative is to find a mate, and get a head-start on raising a family. Be too early though, before the rains set in, and the expected flush of vegetation and insects may never materialize. Too late, and the competition is intense and the predators will have their young to feed. Timing is everything.

As dusk fell and the drops turned to drizzle, a white-tailed paradise flycatcher flew up to snatch termite aylates from the air – we watched until all we could see was its disembodied tail fluttering in the twilight.
I was surprised that the rain hadn’t been enough to get the frogs going – not one had called. High in the branches above the equipment tent, a grey tree frog merely raised his head. He hadn’t moved from his perch all dry season. I like to think he might have stretched a leg, or opened his mouth to drink, but we saw him do neither.

The next morning I drove out, expectant. Rinsed of its ochre dust, Tsavo was palpably sharper and more vibrant.
I’ve always loved the change that rain brings – but, that morning, I felt something was missing. I couldn’t work out what it was, so I ignored it – thinking that, in time, it would reveal itself. I delighted in small detail: a terrapin, woken by the rain, and in search of a waterhole, scuttled along the track. As I passed, it withdrew into the protection of its shell. I was reflecting on how different defensive behaviour might evolve (some urban hedgehogs, when approached by a car, now tend to run instead of roll), but I didn’t need to go far to see the benefits of both. Around the next bend, a tawny eagle stood in the track, crouched over a terrapin. I’ve seen other raptors, especially fish eagles, chip away until they break through the carapace. It looked like the same would eventually happen, but as I braked, the eagle looked up and relaxed its grip, the terrapin’s head and legs shot out, and it dashed away to cover.

As I meandered along the tracks, I looked for signs of change – behaviour or activity that was the direct result of the rain. They were there, but they were subtle. When I drew close to a dark stain on the ochre track, it became animated. What had looked, at a distance, like a patch of damp soil turned out to be a raiding party of ponerine ants, hundreds strong. I’ve always thought that, on the move, they look a disciplined force, armed with powerful stings, always on the lookout for prey. When I stepped out to get down on their level, they sensed the vibrations and immediately went into defensive mode – the column scattered and they rushed around, stridulating loudly, searching for something to sting. I smiled at the sound they made – like a tiny, manic crowd, communicating in high-pitched whispers. I left them in peace.

I stopped next for a tiny leopard tortoise. It had fallen into a shallow wheel rut and couldn’t escape. It was exquisite – a miniature replica of an adult, but only the size of a lime. Its shell had the same pitted and glossy patina. It was still slightly soft, and rounded from months of being curled inside a shell. The underside had an umbilical scar that hadn’t quite closed – it could only have been a few hours old. I moved it to the side of the road – it looked at me briefly, lurched to the left and, seeing no threat, scuttled into cover. I enjoyed the thought that only a day ago, somewhere close by and hidden underground, a clutch of tortoise eggs had hatched. The moisture seeping down would have stimulated them to break out and dig towards the surface. Once started, there would have been no turning back, as they would have been packed head to tail, inside a tunnel, digging in the dark, eyes closed – driven only by instinct. I would have loved to have seen them break through, blinking in the sunlight, trying to assimilate such a colourful new world.

Baby leopard tortoise


I decided to return to camp by a different route. The early morning gloss was starting to fade; that delight that begins anew every day at dawn, that by 8am has started to ebb away, the shadows to shorten…

Already there was a hint of breeze and as the ground warmed and the moisture wicked away, the tiny spatter-craters the rain had made started to collapse and erode. By the end of the day, what little rain had fallen, would be just a memory – the frogs had been right.

It was when I saw the elephant that I suddenly realized what I’d been missing. The day before, we’d flown to try to find the matriarch we’d last filmed months ago. We’d followed up on the ground, checking each family, but without any luck.
Within a few miles of camp there had been over a hundred elephant, not an exceptional number, but enough for them to be the dominant presence in the landscape. This morning, I’d driven perhaps fifty miles, and not seen one. I couldn’t explain why I hadn’t noticed their absence before.

The elephant was a bull, unmarked and beautifully dark-grey clean. The rain had transformed him. His tusks shone. He stood motionless, the Irima plains behind him, ochre mud drying at his feet. It was as if he had stepped out of his dust-red Tsavo work-clothes, straight into a morning suit.

I stopped to look. I took my time. In his isolation, and his stillness, he seemed unusually significant.
I don’t know whether it was his unexpected colour, the fact that I’d just returned to Tsavo, or that he just returned my gaze, but it produced a surge of appreciation I found almost overwhelming.

After two and a half years of filming and living with elephants, it was as if I was seeing him and his kind through fresh eyes. I felt at once humbled and privileged.

After weeks of being away, it felt like a moment of reconnection to this land and its extraordinary wildlife.

It felt good to be back.


© 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.



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Satao – the legacy

Satao - plain legacy

It’s been months since I was in the ‘hot-box’. The unseasonal rain that scattered Tsavo’s elephants has passed and we have seen the return of the dry season winds. In the past few weeks, they’ve wicked the moisture from the surface of the soil and the grasses have brown-withered. The days of plenty are over. Elephants can no longer rely on the seasonal waterholes and wallows, and are returning to permanent water.

In my absence, the steel filming hide we call the ‘hot-box’ had become a ‘wet-box’ – it had been submerged for months. We spent the first hour of the day bucketing out a ton of anaerobic sludge. I spent the hours afterwards, evicting toads and giant centipedes that had sought refuge in the gloomy, fetid interior.

Last year, I spent several weeks confined underground in it. In all that time, I never saw as many elephants as I did recently – more than 400 drifted in to drink. There was only a handful of big bulls though, and not one of them a ‘tusker’.

The last time I spent time in the ‘hot box’, Satao was alive, and came to drink with his four ‘askaris’.

Much of the press about the death of Satao, has mentioned how important the last remaining big tuskers are to the gene ‘pool’. The implication being that they are the last repository of ‘big tusk’ genes, and are responsible for passing them on. If we lose them, then we won’t see big tuskers in the future. Back underground again, and waiting for the ‘magic hour’ light, I wondered if that was right.

For the remaining tuskers to be passing on their ‘big tusk’ legacy, tusk size needs to be inherited, and the big tuskers sexually active.

I don’t know of any studies on the inheritability of tusk size, but what we’ve seen suggests  that tusk ‘character’ runs in families. Closely related elephants often have similar tusks eg. crossed tusks, or narrow ‘tooth picks’. Occasionally they are tusk-less. Researchers in Amboseli ( the Amboseli Elephant Project is the longest-running ‘vertical’ study of African elephants ) can sometimes place an elephant in the right family using physical traits alone – tusk ‘character’ amongst them.

If tusk size is inherited, is it passed on by males? It probably is, but in almost every animal, some genes are sex-linked. In humans, haemophilia and red-green colour blindness are sex-linked traits – carried by females, but expressed in males.

It would be ironic if we protected bulls to save the gene pool, only to find that the future of ‘big tusk’ genes lay with the cows.


Are the big tuskers passing on their genes?

Elephants grow throughout life – and so do their tusks. Bulls with the largest tusks are often the oldest. Tusks indicate age, not virility. Bulls can live to be 70, but their reproductive prime is likely to be closer to 40-45. This is when they come into musth for longer, and when they mate most.

Satao was about 50 when he died, but over the year and a half we filmed him, we never saw him mate – nor did we ever see him in musth. By that age, as a dominant bull, he had probably sired a disproportionate number of offspring. By the time he became a true tusker, he is likely to have passed on his genes many times over. Those genes are out there in the population, in his progeny – they will only ‘show’ when the cows and bulls he sired, grow older.

In the big tusk gene ‘pool’ it is possible that the very biggest tuskers are a quiet ‘back-water’ – their genes already passed on, their ability to reproduce slowly waning. They are the ‘elder statesmen’ of elephant society.

Perhaps more important to the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes are the bulls and cows that carry disproportionately large tusks, yet are still in their reproductive prime.

If they live long enough, their tusks will grow and they’ll earn the accolade ‘big tusker’ (for a bull this reflects tusks over 45kg). For now, they are doing the essential work of passing on the ‘big tusk’ genes.

Satao - cu

In the long term, I suspect that the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes depends more on what is happening at the population level, rather than at the individual – and there, the outlook is less encouraging.

Tsavo’s elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks for hundreds of years. Swahili merchants, Arab traders, colonial hunters, now poachers – the onslaught has ramped up in the last few years. They have all targeted elephants with the largest tusks – it’s a strong selection pressure, and the result is the evolution of elephants with smaller tusks. Today, Africa’s elephants have tusks half the size of their forebears.

The same pressure is probably driving up the proportion of tusk-less elephants.

Tusks are not essential, but there is no doubt they make life easier. I once saw Satao asleep, leaning slightly forward, his huge tusks propping up his head. Besides being used as a headrest, we’ve seen them used as weapons, or for digging up tubers, prising bark from trees, or excavating for minerals and water. Bulls don’t need tusks to mate, or for cows to find them attractive – sheer physical size is more important. A huge, tusk-less Tsavo bull named ‘Thunder’ is testament to that. Like a small percentage of the population, he is genetically tusk-less.

In China and Uganda, poaching has caused a gene responsible for tusk-lessness to spread. I think it is very likely that the same is happening in Tsavo and that the proportion of tusk-less elephants is increasing.

If poaching continues, it seems inevitable that we will continue to see a gradual decline in tusk size, and fewer elephants with tusks.


So what of Satao’s fellow big tuskers – the surviving incumbents…?

I think they are very important. We should be cautious of assuming, however, that their protection is all that is needed to ensure the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes.

As a group, they are the finest bulls left in Africa – the last of an unbroken line of magnificent ‘big tuskers’, that has trodden Tsavo’s red soil for thousands of years.

They are the current poster boys for their species, and a visible rallying point. The international outcry that followed the death of Satao, is testament to this.

Their potential for generating tourist dollars for National Parks is unrivaled.

Above all else, in a world of shifting baselines, they show Tsavo as it was – and what it could be again.


Recently, we returned to Satao. It was a month since his death, but the grass was still tinged green from the rainstorm that drew him there; the vegetation still strewn with Ipomoea flowers. A dead Comiphora nearby had collapsed under the weight of vultures. A tuber he’d been digging up was still exposed, but had sprouted soft, green, downy leaves.

Satao had always belonged to Tsavo’s soil and, slowly, he’s returning to it – fly and beetle larvae have worked their magic. Their dry pupal cases swirled, chaff-like, in the wind – they had collected in the lee of his skull. A brown-veined white butterfly rocked to and fro in the grass. Despite the wind, there was a stillness there.

It will take a year or two for Satao to be subsumed and for the grass to grow again – when it does it will be lush-green vivid. Each season, its fresh growth will mark where he lies – then, perhaps a decade hence, the nutrients exhausted, its colour will fade back to Tsavo.


baby ele in dust


I think a lot about Satao – but what brings a smile, is the thought that somewhere out there, unknown and unnoticed, is a young elephant, whose tiny tusks are an inch or two longer than others in his age group.

We’ve probably driven past him countless times, seeing him merely as a calf in a female herd.

We may not notice him for another three decades, but there will come a time when his tusks, like those of his father, start to glint through the heat haze – and mark him out as a future giant ‘tusker’. I just hope that his world will be a safer place.



© 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.

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Another place, another bull




I woke to the sound of heavy breathing – and lay still. Next came grass-ripping, followed by the sound of sliding cloth – first loud and rough, then soft and slick. I knew that the grass-ripping would be Chota, our ‘camp elephant’, feeding close to our tent. The other sound puzzled me. I kept my eyes closed, delighting in the mystery of what it could be. I knew he was feeding within a few feet, but there was something else going on. The noise came again. I gave up. I opened my eyes. Chota’s huge bulk blocked the moon, and cast a shadow over the bed. He was up against the tent, much closer than usual – pulling grass from beneath the flysheet – where daytime shade and the occasional drizzle-drip has kept it slightly greener. With each trunkful, he’d raise his head – as he did, his tusk tips would press into the tent and slide upwards – first over the rough canvas, then hang momentarily on a seam and slip across the mosquito net window. The next time he did it, I gently extended my right hand and the tip of his tusk brushed my fingertips.


After feeding, he walked a few meters away and stood – four-square and sleeping. The moon set and he dissolved into the dark – only his loose-lipped farts let us know he was there. When we woke, he was gone.


On Saturday morning we left camp – we’d planned a day or two away. That evening, just after sunset, there was a burst of gun fire a short distance upstream and a bull elephant collapsed and bled out in the riverbed. We didn’t hear about it until dawn the next day. The shots were heard from a tented camp, and by people camping close-by. They contacted Kenya Wildlife Service – their headquarters are only ten minutes away. They responded rapidly, but by the time rangers arrived, the poachers had hacked out one tusk and fled. The rangers removed the other. Later that night, hyenas chewed the ears, and the bull became immediately unrecognizable – faceless – just another statistic in a developing genocide.


I could imagine the scene – a mature bull elephant, digging for water in the moonlight – surrounded by females and calves. Within seconds, the tranquility shattered; within hours, the bull reduced to a one-line entry in a KWS manifest, a bloodied and numbered tusk in a strongroom, and another – probably already strapped on a motor-bike, en route to Mombasa.


I looked at my right hand – a similar hand had pulled the trigger and wielded the axe – quite likely while the bull was still alive. I dreaded the thought that the bull might have been Chota.


We flew in the next day and circled the carcass – four hyenas loped away – even from the air we could see how distended their bellies were. I was shocked at how close to the tented camp the shooting had been. Only a short distance away was the campsite. The poachers had been brazen.


I thought back to the Saturday morning.  As we’d driven back into camp a family of elephants had spooked – hundreds of meters away and upwind. They’d screamed and run. We’d had lions all around camp the night before, and I assumed they’d chanced upon them – but we later remarked on how they’d carried on running. Their fear was contagious, and for the next few hours, elephants all around were noisy and nervous. I wonder now, whether it hadn’t been lions, but poachers that had spooked the herd.


We landed and set off for camp – prepared for the worst. While away, we had tried to get photographs sent to identify the bull, but we need not have worried.  Before we’d even turned off the engine, Mzee Musili was at our side, and smiling, to tell us that he’d seen Chota at dawn – up to his old trick of emptying the shower bucket.

My relief that he hadn’t been killed was immediate and considerable, but quickly tempered by a feeling of guilt – for my relief was selfish. I’d not wanted the elephant that had been killed, to be one that I knew.


Instead, an unknown bull had died. He was just as important – all he lacked was a name.



The death of that bull went unremarked and unannounced in the press. It happened in the same week that ‘Save the Elephants’ released the news of the death of ‘Mountain Bull‘ – the famous elephant who was felled by a poacher’s poisoned spear on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Unlike ‘Mountain Bull’, our unknown bull had no history with humans, no name, no satellite collar – he hadn’t been the subject of press articles and tv programs. He wasn’t an ambassador for elephants or an elephant poster boy – just a normal elephant, living his life, until felled by a burst of fire from an AK 47.


We wouldn’t have forgotten him – but his identity would have slowly ebbed away. We drove  out to his body again recently. Already, his bones had been spread around by hyaenas. The next time the river comes down in flood, the bones will be rolled downstream, buried under sand – or slowly eroded to become sand themselves. In a year, there’ll be nothing left to show he ever existed.


Bones of dead bull in river bed


His story would have ended there – but, two weeks later, police in Mombasa discovered 228 whole tusks and 74 pieces, in a car dealer’s warehouse.

As the story broke it seemed that the ivory came from DRC, and that Mombasa was merely the hub the smugglers used. Later, as speculation was replaced by fact, the ivory was reported to be Kenyan in origin – from the Boni forest and Tsavo. Much of it looked fresh and blood-stained. One of the tusks was probably from the bull that was shot in the riverbed, less than two weeks before.


There have been two low-level arrests – one, a storekeeper. Another man offered police a bribe of $50,000. The bribe was refused by a mid-ranking policeman and for days that is where the story hung. No other names – no arrest warrants. The police officer’s refusal to accept a bribe is almost unheard of – it seemed to be the only redeeming feature in a case that looked as if it would sink into a mire of misinformation, protection and cover-up.


Rather than be lauded for his honesty and integrity, the police officer and his colleagues were apparently reprimanded and relocated. The sequence of events is not new to anyone who lives here – we are used to obfuscation, for evidence to go missing, reports to vanish, witnesses to retract their statements – and sudden and unexplained enrichment.


I share Kenyans’ outrage at what has happened – and it is outrage that finally prevailed. Instead of quietening down, the clamour grew, and after several days, a warrant for the arrest of a prominent Mombasa tycoon was issued. The delay probably gave him time to get out of the country, but for the first time it sent a message to the criminal businesspeople and their political allies, that they are not above the law.


Kenya’s new Wildlife Act allows for stiff penalties for those convicted of involvement in elephant poaching. Apart from sentencing a few Chinese smugglers who were caught in transit, the courts have yet to hand down fines or jail sentences that are a deterrent to the ‘big’ men and women behind poaching. This is their opportunity. The criminal elite and their political allies have shown that they will readily sacrifice poachers and storekeepers, they are expendable, but they have yet to lose one of their own.


I feel this case is pivotal.


It could be the first, positive step in a move to ‘name and shame’ – to arrest, and convict the ‘untouchables’.

If nothing happens, the criminal elite will become bolder – knowing they can operate with impunity, and it will be ‘open season’ for elephants.


Kenyans are watching and waiting.


I hope the police and the courts do the right thing.


If they do, then the death of that nameless bull whose tusk was hacked from his face as he bled to death in the riverbed, will not have been in vain.



© 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.

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Satao – a legend

Satao - legend just title

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.

Satao - dead and splayed

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.

I wept.



© 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.

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Adopted by an elephant

Chota looking coy crop

Last evening a lion wandered through camp at dusk – just yards from where we were finishing up work for the day. It skirted the fire, and walked calmly down the path, between the tents and out onto the floodplain to join its mate. We live with lions. They are a constant presence but we don’t often see them in camp during the day. They are normally crepuscular – walking around the periphery, brief silhouettes glimpsed through openings in the Dovyalis, as they skirt the floodplain. We hear them though – their nocturnal roars are the soundtrack to camp nights. When a pair are mating, the regular post-copulatory snarls can go on for days. They make it possible to track the couple’s progress through the night.

Leopard are here too, but we rarely see them. Recently, one killed a baboon in the grove of figs behind us. We never saw it, but we heard the pandemonium that the attack caused in the troop, and heard the crack of bones in the night. The next morning, Mzee Musili, camp cook and first to rise, found the drag mark it had left. Before feeding, leopards often partially pluck their prey. We discovered tufts of baboon hair, snagged on acacia thorns. We inhaled the musk-sweet baboon smell that lingered. We followed the tracks to where the leopard had climbed, with the carcass, into a Dobera tree next to Etienne’s tent. It had dropped down with it just before dawn, when Musili’s soft footfall, the fanning of the kitchen embers and the smell of brewing coffee, prompted it to move to where it could finish its meal in peace.

Besides the cats, we share the camp with an alphabet of animals – from agamas to zebras. Some, like the squirrels, are constant and chattering. Others, such as cobras, are shy and silent. It is elephants however, more than any other animal, that we are most aware of – they pass by on their way to the shade of fig trees. Sometimes they’ll linger and trunk-twist the Sporobolus grass that grows around camp. Occasionally young bulls venture closer – their nervousness temporarily subjugated by curiosity. They never stay long though and elephants, generally, rarely come right into camp.

Last week, that all changed. We were visited by a magnificent bull, who calmly and deliberately walked into camp and stood there looking around. He couldn’t have wished for a better entrance – everyone put down what they were doing and stood there in awe. Silence. As if assured of the impact he’d made, he started to feed. No one moved. Such was his presence, that it would have been difficult to look away had we wanted to.
It was a while before we started to move around, looking to record the moment. The bull stayed for an hour, and then melted back into the Dovyalis scrub from where he’d come.


Chota in camp - low angle

The next day he was back. The effect he had on us all was the same – we spoke in hushed tones, we smiled more and we couldn’t keep our eyes off him. Whatever we were doing, our gaze would slide over, or we’d find an excuse to walk to the kitchen, where he stood feeding quietly, next to the washing line.
The next day was the same. I wondered why he kept coming – the grass in camp was no better than that on the floodplain nearby, and it was nearly exhausted. There was clean water in the riverbed two hundred yards away – both were good reasons to stay in the area, but to come right into camp?

His behaviour was very different from any bull we’ve known. Bulls are normally more approachable than cows – some Tsavo bulls are happy within 5 -10m of a vehicle, but would flee from anyone on foot. Many more are nervous; some are aggressive; some are so wary that they run from a vehicle almost a kilometer away. Our camp bull, or ‘Chota’ as we came to call him, was happy with people only 5 -10m away, upwind, and on foot.

I didn’t think he came for food or water, instead it felt as if he just liked ‘hanging out’. If a elephant family came past, he’d wander out to greet them. Sometimes he’d go and feed alongside them, and then he’d drift back into camp. It might seem fanciful, but my impression was that he came for company. It felt almost as if he’d adopted us.
Interspecific relationships amongst ‘higher’ mammals are rare in the wild, but not unknown. I only have to think back to my childhood spent on the Fal Estuary in Cornwall, when I met a wild bottle-nose dolphin, known locally as ‘Donald’, who actively sought out human company. There have been others since.


Chota framed by tent

I wondered if perhaps Chota was one of the ‘ex-orphans’ that had been reared by the Sheldrick elephant orphanage. I didn’t think they went back that far, but I checked their records online – the first orphaned bulls raised in Tsavo were in 1987 – the likes of Olmeg, Taru, Ndume, and Dika – but, as elephant society demands, all left the orphanage when they were about ten years old, to join herds of wild young bulls. Most were last seen at least a decade ago.
Chota is in his prime, probably about 30 years old – if he’d been orphaned in 1987, he’d be 27 now … it would explain his ease around humans, but it would be remarkable if he had returned.

Almost all Tsavo bulls have had contact with poachers and bear the scars and arrow wounds to prove it. They’ve grown up in a culture of fear – a fear of our kind.
Traditionally, elephants here were hunted by Waliangulu – hunter-gatherers who used longbows to deliver poisoned arrows. Then came Europeans with guns – now they are poached by Somalis and Wakamba, using both.
The extraordinary thing about Chota is that he doesn’t have a mark on him. His flanks are clean, indicating that he’s never been close enough to poachers to take a poisoned arrow.

I don’t know what Chota’s story is, but I am intrigued. Is he an ex-orphan who, almost thirty years later, has returned to the area that he was raised in?
That would be remarkable – a real success story, and a lasting and living testament to the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

If not, he might just be that ‘one in a thousand’ – a wild Tsavo bull who has never encountered humans that have meant him harm. That would be extraordinary.

I will try and find out.



© 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.

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Haunted by a photograph


756 - blog


I came across a photograph recently that, every time I see it, causes an involuntary intake of breath, followed by a silent ‘wow!’. The first time it happened was twenty five years ago when I came across Peter Beard’s extraordinary ‘756’, a photograph of a huge number of elephants on the move – a ‘super-herd’. For me, it is one of those iconic images that after you have seen it, life never seems quite the same again – like Nick Ut’s photograph in Vietnam of Kim Phúk running naked down the road, to escape from burning napalm.

What drew me to ‘756’ was the ‘big picture’ it depicted – East Africa at its wildest and finest. A glimpse back into the Pleistocene … when huge herds of mammals roamed the land. I loved that I couldn’t see where the herd ended – how that is left to the viewer’s imagination. I wondered if I was alone in my reaction, perhaps my ‘over’-reaction to ‘756’, but whenever I’ve shown it to others, the response has always been the same – the acronym OMG, followed by, “that’s amazing!”

The experience was bittersweet though – for at the same time ‘756’  illustrated what had, so recently, been lost. We’d arrived in East Africa little more than a decade after the photograph was taken. In the time that elephants have existed, a decade is merely an eye-blink – but I knew we would never see elephants in those numbers. It made me feel very sad.


On seeing the image again recently, there was something about it that slightly disturbed me. I couldn’t tell what it was. Possibly, my perspective had changed. We now live in Tsavo. We are much more sensitized to elephants. We fly over the same waterholes and shake the same red dust from our sandals, as Beard did in the 70’s.

When we fly over Tsavo, we see nothing like ‘756’. Over the last few years, we have flown over tens of thousands of elephants, sometimes in large herds, but they’ve never had that ‘feel’ about them.

At first glance, ‘756’ was just as I remembered – hundreds of huge animals on a grand African canvas. Beautiful, epic and historic.

The closer I looked though, the more intrigued I became.

I’ve always assumed ‘756’ is an aerial photograph, but the elephants in it don’t appear to be reacting to a plane. Normally, if you fly above elephants like that, at least a few will turn around to see what the noise is. If none are reacting, it suggests that something else is more important.

We’ve seen herds of up to five hundred from the air, but they have always been much more spread out, with less sense of direction – less feeling of intent. There is something deliberate about the elephants’ movement in Beard’s remarkable image. It almost feels as if they are migrating. Swap elephant for wildebeest, and it could be Serengeti’s ‘Great Migration’.

Migrating elephants though, tend to follow traditional routes, along well-worn paths, ‘elephant paths’ – some of which are more like highways – parallel lanes, centuries old and worn deep into the soil. There are none in the photograph.

Whenever we’ve seen elephants congregate, it’s always been in the wet season, when food is abundant and the habitat can support a higher density of animals. It is when female herds come together into clans, and bulls join them – searching for any cows that might be in oestrus.

The herd in ‘756’ has none of the feel of those aggregations, when elephants tend to meander, on a broad front, feeding as they go. When a mating occurs, elephants nearby rush around in excitement. From the air it looks like little pockets of chaos, that form one moment, and disappear the next. In the photograph, there is none of this. There is no interaction – just a feeling of intent.


When I looked closely, many of the elephants seem to have rounded foreheads, characteristic of bulls. It would be tempting to think it is a bull herd – but extraordinary if it was. Bull herds rarely number more than fifty in Tsavo. In the time we’ve been here, we have never seen more than thirty bulls together.

I started looking for females. The easiest way to tell a cow from the air, is if she is trailed by a calf. They almost always are, especially if they are on the move.

Most cows we see, have at least one calf in tow, sometimes two. It struck me then, just how few calves there are in ‘756’.

These days, the threat of poaching is never far from our minds. Many large mammals tend to bunch up if they feel threatened. We’ve seen huge pods of hundreds of hippos, huddled together in the middle of a lake – for protection against poachers. Within the structure of a family, elephants will do the same. Cows form a protective cluster around their calves – a circle of protection, like a Boer ‘laager’, facing out towards danger. I wondered if this enormous herd had been fleeing from poachers, bunched together for protection – it would be horrifying if it had.

Poaching wouldn’t explain the lack of calves though, for poachers prefer to target bulls – they carry the largest and most valuable tusks. If poaching was the cause there should be fewer bulls.

What possible reason could there be for so few calves? It seemed that the lack of calves held the clue to the mystery.  Today, calves make up to a quarter of the individuals in every herd we see.

Perhaps the lack of them explained my sense of unease that the image provoked.


Sitting outside the tent that evening in the pink after-glow of a scorching day, I watched a male red-billed hornbill fly past with the last insect of the day for his family. It’s his second brood in just three months – every day he has to catch enough insects for himself, his mate and three chicks. The only other time I’ve heard of hornbills raising families back-to-back, was in the early sixties when prolonged rains followed a severe drought.




Seven letters that make a full stop of a word – a word that brought images flooding back. I remembered the drought we’d witnessed in Amboseli, in 2009, on the first shoot we’d done for our current film. Three years of very poor rains that had produced the worst drought for decades.

As one dry month followed another, a slow-motion tragedy unfolded. As the vegetation was grazed down to dust, wildebeest and zebra starved – and then died in their thousands. Elephant families stood listless; their trunks drooped on the ground; they chewed on dead wood and thorns; the calves became thinner and weaker. They were the first to die. They were terrible times.

Could drought possibly explain the make-up of the herd in ‘756’?

Without access to Peter’s book,’The End of the Game’, all I knew was that he’d had taken the picture in the mid ‘70s, in the greater Tsavo ecosystem.


I turned to elephant researcher, Barbara McKnight, who has been monitoring Tsavo’s elephants for decades. I didn’t have to look far, as her website page on the history of Tsavo (http://www.tsavoelephants.org/history) states:

In the late 1960s, there were approximately 35,000 elephants in the Tsavo region. This population has suffered two population crashes

The first was the drought in the early 1970s when an estimated 6,000 individuals died and over the next 4 years, with low rainfall and lack of vegetation, weakened females and young elephants died.”


I looked at ‘756’ again, and estimated it contained between four and five hundred elephants – of which only a handful were calves. There should have been over a hundred. The full horror of what I was looking at slowly sank in. This wasn’t a photograph of good times when food was abundant, it was a photograph of terrible times, when elephants were starving and most of their calves had died.


For years, that photograph has haunted me. I am still haunted by it, but for an entirely different reason.

I had been devastated at the thought that we’d never see that scene again.  I know now, that I would be devastated if we did.


© 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.




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Elephants – why bother?


Elephant baby at waterhole


A few months ago, at a dinner in New York, an aquaintance got into a conversation where a guest asked, “Why all the fuss about elephants – they mean nothing to me personally. Why should I bother whether or not they go extinct?”

The comment, and the attitude it reflected, has concerned me ever since. I don’t know if it was made out ignorance, arrogance, an attempt to provoke, or the desire for genuine knowledge. I prefer to think it is the latter.

So I asked myself, why should they bother? What should elephants mean to someone who has never had the good fortune to meet them?

The scientist in me was the first to answer, for diversity in ecosystems reflects a more vibrant, interesting, and robust life-support system for the planet. Elephants play an important role. They are key-stone species, terrestrial-ecosystem architects, and gardeners without parallel.

In tropical rain forests elephants spread seeds up to fifty kilometers from where they ate them. The seeds of a particular species of Balanites tree are dispersed only by elephants. It is simple – no elephants, no trees. We still don’t know how important that tree is, but we do know that similar trees, whose seeds are spread by elephants, support hundreds of different species of animals and plants.

We spent two years making a film about an extraordinary African tree called a sycomore fig (The Queen of Trees: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy86ak2fQJM ). It is an ecosystem of a tree. There are animals whose lives so depend on the tree that they cannot exist without it, and vice versa. In the two years we spent filming, we barely scratched the surface of the web of interconnectivity that the tree was central to. The sycomore fig is vital to animals ranging from ants to elephants. It is important in ways that, when we started the journey of making the film, we could barely imagine. I think that if we looked closely at most living things, we’d find much the same.

Once you start to look at elephants in a wide-eyed and curious way, even their simple act of sheltering from the midday sun in the shade of a tree becomes an act of gardening – for that is where their dung ends up. Compost delivered straight to the tree.  Compared to their forest-dwelling cousins, savannah elephants are more akin to tree surgeons and landscape gardeners. It makes what they do even more obvious. Overall, their effect is the same – to increase biodiversity, from mites up to mammals. It is the ‘utility’ argument – the concept of ‘usefulness’ – first to the ecosystem, but eventually to us all


A philosopher might add that there is a strong moral argument that we simply don’t have the right to push another species into the abyss of extinction. We are the most powerful species on the planet. In my view, it is incumbent on us not to abuse that power. I’d go further, and suggest it be used, not just for our good, but for common good. A common and equal ‘right to exist’ for all species sounds quite straight forward, but we find it easier to apply it to elephants than bacteria – partly, I think, because we are fundamentally anthropocentric. We tend to admire qualities in other species that we recognize in ourselves. We home-in on shared attributes. It makes it easier for us to relate to them. As a result, we empathize more with gorillas than guppies.

Sometimes just a simple, shared attribute is enough – I suspect many of us think more kindly of owls than other raptors – probably because their eyes, like ours, face forwards. A bottle-nosed dolphin has prodigious intelligence, but, despite this, I think we’d be less kindly disposed towards it, if the genetic lottery hadn’t set its jaw in a permanent ‘smile’. When most of us think of a penguin, we are more likely to visualize a shuffling, portly, maitre’d, than a highly-adapted, counter-shaded, marine predator.

Elephants are lucky – for they share more attributes with us than most animals. We can ignore their un-human appearance in favour of their consciousness, their extraordinary communication, good memory,  similar lifespan, strong sense of family, their ability to plan into the future, and their uncanny awareness of death.


A cultural historian might think that our anonymous diner in New York would be more impressed by the elephant’s contribution to human culture – from Hindu deity Ganesh, via Salvador Dali’s surreal stork-legged elephants, to Disney’s ‘Dumbo’. It is the sort of theme that might inspire an exhibition at the Guggenheim, and appeal more to an urban mind. Artists, spanning the millennia, from cave painters to Banksy have felt the need to represent elephants, and they have ranged from being the inspiration for Warhol to war machine.

However we rationalize the importance of elephants, I think it provides only part of the answer. To really appreciate elephants you have to experience them.

I would invite our anonymous diner to sit with me in a land-rover next to a waterhole at dusk, as families of elephants came to drink, and play, and greet each other. Only then would would our dinner guest start to get to ‘know’ them.

They would feel the rumbles, smile at the squeals of delight as calves jostled in the shallows, and laugh out loud at a baby elephant’s loss of control of its trunk. I’d point out the subtle shifts in body language as herds came and went – those that waited, those that greeted or waded straight in. We’d notice family traits – how some prefer to coil their trunks and rest them on their tusks. We’d watch their differing reactions to our presence. Some would ignore us. Some, if the wind changed and blew our scent towards them, would form a nervous protective circle round their calves – trunks held high like snorkels. Ears out, heads up, eyes wide and fearful. We’d share the horror of witnessing fresh arrow wounds on the flanks of those with the largest tusks. We’d also share the delight of witnessing how other animals benefitted from the elephants’ presence: the low-flying dung-beetles skimming the grass, and egrets that darted between their legs, plucking flies from the air.

Resting trunks


More than anything, I would like to take our guest out walking – armed only with our wits – in a wilderness that is still the kingdom of the elephants. There, they could feel, perhaps for the first time in their lives, just how insignificant humans can be. It might show them, that to be anthropocentric, is not the only way to view the world – and how to step outside the protective bubble we surround ourselves with, can make us feel so much more alive. They’d feel part of the natural world, not apart from it.

Above all else, I hope they would see that elephants are the rightful and dominant force in their ecosystem, and conclude that we have no right to take that away.

I’ll probably never get the chance to meet that dinner guest, or sit with them at a waterhole – our outlooks and our lives are thousands of miles apart. Very few of us will ever have the privilege of experiencing elephants in the wild, and that’s why we are making a film about them – to attempt to convey the wonder we feel, when in their presence. It can never be the same as experiencing them first hand, but, by making the film and telling their story, we hope to share our passion, convey the wonder, and perhaps inspire people enough to make them care – and answer for themselves, the question, “Elephants – why bother?”



© 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.

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A day shared with elephants




When Vicky and I first arrived in East Africa we had a lot to learn. We’d spent thousands of hours filming underwater, but very few on land, and none in Africa – we were, quite literally,  wet behind the ears. We were plunged into Serengeti. It was total immersion – with shiny new film cameras bolted to our Suzuki 4WD and a book in each hand: Cynthia Moss’s excellent ‘Portraits in the Wild’ and ‘Footprints and Tracks’, by an author, whose name I can’t remember. The former was invaluable, the latter next to useless. It would probably have enabled me to distinguish a rhino footprint from a dik-dik’s but as rhino were ecologically extinct by then, it wasn’t a skill I needed. My biggest frustration with it was that it made no mention of how to identify a large snake track that I’d spotted just a week after arrival . Elephants had crossed the path, and the fine dust they had left in their wake had taken the imprint of the giant reptile. One evening, I mentioned my frustration with the book to a gathering of scientists, and the intensity of mirth and glee it caused stays with me to this day. What I’d mistaken for a giant snake track, turned out to be the scuff mark left by a elephant’s penis as it swung from side to side while its owner dragged it through the dust.

I was reminded of it this week, when I came across similar tracks on a muddy flay. Twenty five years ago I would have said it looked as if an army of giant snakes had been in pursuit of a herd of elephants; today, it confirmed that the ‘mating pandemonium’ I’d just heard, lay up ahead.


We’ve had an extraordinary wet season in Tsavo. The short rains have merged with the long rains without the usual interlude of a three month dry season. It has been fascinating to see how animals have reacted.

In December, a pair of red-billed hornbills nested in the trunk of a Dobera tree outside our tent. They usually nest once a year if the rains are good. They raised three youngsters, which broke out and fledged a week or so ago. The male and female courted briefly for a morning and immediately she sealed herself back inside again. She’s molted her new feathers, and laid another clutch of eggs.

Grey tree frogs normally have an orgy after heavy rainfall – they did, but there has been no let-up, no time to recuperate. They have carried on mating sporadically but the frogs are now spent. They are shriveled wrecks. Now when it rains they can barely muster the energy to call to each other, let alone get together.


Food for elephants is everywhere and its abundance has allowed them to form large loose-knit herds – sometimes hundreds strong. Family herds have joined together and they are followed by bulls. When a bull finds a cow in oestrus, pandemonium breaks out. The squeals and bellows get everyone going – large bulls rush in to try and break up the mating pair, younger bulls mount each other, and cows run around trumpeting, trying not to lose their calves in the melee. The testosterone is almost palpable – it is as if you could strain it from the air and bottle it.

There are temporary waterholes scattered throughout the bush. The elephants aren’t tied to permanent sources of water as they are later in the year, so they can move where they want. Last week, they flowed through camp. The first we heard was a mating pandemonium in the fig trees behind us. As the morning warmed up, the elephants became quieter and drifted into camp. Soon every available tree shaded a family. One beautiful matriarch had such long tusks, that she rested them on the ground to support her head. Calves and adolescents lay down and slept at the feet of dozing females. Gentle snores set the the tempo for the day – even the white flitting of the butterflies seemed slower, as if overtaken by a glorious languor. For an hour or two, it was as if the entire world was at somnolent ease.

It felt right – humans and elephants sharing the cool green oases of shade that the trees provided. There were so many elephants that it was impossible to walk the length of camp or drive out. As we sat quietly eating beneath a tarpaulin slung between the branches, a bull calmly wandered to within a few yards – and we had to tap gently on the table to remind him we were there.

Later, as the shadows lengthened, we counted over two hundred elephants moving out onto the flood-plain to feed. We watched as they walked down into the river bed at dusk and started to dig in the damp sand, their forelegs penduluming backwards and forwards – more kicking than digging. There was no urgency to it. It was really a social gathering and their desire to drink cleaner water than the muddy waterholes provided.

digging in riverbed

The river had only recently stopped flowing, so the water wasn’t far beneath the surface. As they dug, the females would gently block the youngsters. They’d blow the first few dirty trunkfuls away and wait for clean water to fill the hole. They’d drink their fill, then step back to let the calves in. Inevitably the youngsters would collapse the sides and the process would be patiently repeated.

We left them when it became too dark to see and drove the short distance back to camp. We had no need to speak about the day. It is days like that, that give us hope – when for a few hours we forget the threat of poaching, the loss of habitat, the human-elephant conflict, the politics – and instead are given a privileged insight – a glimpse into what life for elephants can be like, and a glimpse of what life with elephants should be like.

The next morning, the elephants had gone. They’d moved on – their visit had been just a footstep on their endless journey of following the rain.



© 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.

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The butterfly and the elephant

Brown-veined white - B&W


Yesterday, in Tsavo, a topi ran across the track in front of me. I smiled, as it suddenly felt like a day in which anything might happen.

The topi is an antelope I’d never seen before in Tsavo. I’d normally associate it with Serengeti or the coastal plains at Amu. It ran across the track at a lazy gallop that reminded me of the loping gait of a hyena. It crossed in a pleasing blur of chestnut flanks driven by characteristic ‘bruised’ hindquarters – the hue of the swollen storm clouds that, lately, have built up each evening. It wasn’t being chased, the countryside was open – it was simply running.

One of the joys of making films the way we do, is that it rewards curiosity. I like to think that curiosity is a moral virtue although I suspect that the pleasure it can bring, smacks more of vice than virtue.

I wondered briefly where the topi had come from and where it was going, but chiefly I questioned why I’d not seen topi here before. I put it down to Tsavo’s original ‘Nyika’, the dense bush that would have been unsuitable for them. It covered much of Tsavo before the pressure of building elephant numbers in the 60’s destroyed many of the trees and opened up more of a mosaic of habitats. I suspect the topi is here now because of the changes to vegetation the elephants caused then. There was so much damage to the  habitat at the time that there were calls for the elephants to be culled – to ‘manage’ their population. Thankfully the warden, David Sheldrick, resisted – sensing that it was probably part of a decades-long cycle. In that era it was a brave decision.

To me, the sighting of the topi was an example of how the presence of elephants can increase biodiversity. It was also the catalyst to look around and wonder what else elephants had enabled in the Tsavo landscape.

I didn’t have to look very far, for as I watched elephants walk through stunted Boscia bushes on the plains, clouds of white butterflies would lift briefly from their shade and then settle. They were ‘brown-veined whites’, a description I’d always thought more appropriate for weathered ‘colonials’.

Like the topi, the brown-veined white is a species that prefers grass-lands. The butterfly’s caterpillars feed on the Boscia bush, which is also eaten by elephants. I’d tried eating the leaves. They are astringent and brittle, laden with aromatic oils – well suited to retaining moisture in the dry season. I wondered if the seemingly unpalatable leaves transmitted their bitter taste to the caterpillars – maybe I should try one…

Perhaps their choice of food was less about palatability and more about building a chemical defence, as with Monarch butterfly caterpillars and milkweed. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever seen birds eating the caterpillars or butterflies – my only memory of ‘brown-veined white’ predation was limited to seeing driver ants hauling a butterfly carcass along a trail in Serengeti.

I liked the thought of the butterfly caterpillars competing with elephants for food though, and wondered if the connection led further and if it was something we might film. I find connections between species intriguing. Sometimes they are causal, sometimes more tangental –  this felt the latter. The process of making a film allows us to explore them. If they are strong enough, and fit well with the story, we can include them and share them. It is exciting.

A week before, a colleague who’d been logging the film footage had pointed out to me how so many of our shots contained the butterflies. They weren’t the subjects, or even incidental characters – but they drifted through in the background – like cherry blossom that gets carried through a park on a gust of wind.

It reminded me of a time I’d driven from Mombasa up to Tsavo at the beginning of filming, when I’d seen brown-veined whites in their millions. I’d been intrigued as there seemed to be purpose and direction to their movement. I stopped to check the wind. The butterflies flew against it – heading north east. I counted a sample and then drove through them for the next 100 miles. I estimated that almost a billion a day passed by on their move over Tsavo. It wasn’t a true migration, like wildebeest or elephant can make, as there was no round trip involved – it was the result of them having exhausted their food supply and so having to move on. I wondered what made them decide on the direction to take – were they reacting to  environmental cues? – the sight of distant storms, the infrasound of thunder… as elephants do to travel to where it’s rained to find a flush of new growth.


butterflies flying

The butterflies’ behaviour couldn’t have be learnt; their lifespan wasn’t long enough to make the journey more than once. Perhaps it was programed deep in their genes.

I didn’t give the caterpillar-elephant idea too much thought after that. The prospect of being able to film them both at the same food source seemed remote, and hugely challenging. Something about the butterflies had seemed familiar though – but the more I tried to pin it down, the further it slipped away.  Perhaps it wasn’t surprising. They are probably the commonest butterfly in Africa and I’d seen them everywhere, even at sea, out of sight of land.

Elephants passed by camp that night and the next morning the piles of dung they left became a banquet for the butterflies. Each would hover briefly, then land and uncoil its proboscis to suck moisture and salts. Brilliant ‘grass yellows’ and ‘brown-veined whites’ jockeyed for position – it was just what we needed to film. It showed how important elephants are to the ecosystem in a much more visual and elegant way.

butterfly cu


The more I thought about the butterflies, the more I noticed them. I started seeing them everywhere. At night I noticed them roosting just off the ground outside our tent, always returning to the same clump of grass. When I looked closely I thought there were two different species, but when I tried to identify them I found that I was seeing two different morphs of the same species – one a dry season form, the other the wet season form. As the days past and the wet season progressed, so one gradually replaced the other.

I’d forgotten all about the niggling familiarity until I chanced on the brown veined white’s latin name in a book – Belenois aurota.

Seeing it written, triggered a cascade of memories.

It took me back to my childhood bedroom in Cornwall, decades ago. To encourage my fascination with wildlife, my parents had given me a glass display case of butterflies and moths. It hung on the wall next to my bed. It was my pride and joy. In the centre of the case was a giant Atlas moth, and scattered around it, like planets circling the sun, were swallowtails, ‘birdwings’ and charaxes. In the lower right-hand corner was a group of three small butterflies – mounted vertically on a strip of polystyrene, glued onto blue baize. Consigned to the margin, they were the least glamorous specimens.

The pins that secured the bodies also held their name tags and I’d make a point of reading the latin names before going to sleep each night. The lowest of them all was a small white butterfly with dark veined wings, pinned through the underside. The typed card alongside it read: ‘Belenois aurota – wet season form’.

Over forty years later, we’d finally met again. It made me smile.



© 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.

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Satao: last of the great tuskers

Satao bull drinking

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.

Satao bull sunset

© 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.

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