Hope for elephants – one woman’s passion


There is a lot of news about elephants, and a lot of noise about them. I subscribe to forums, and newsletters from elephant-centric NGOs, and sometimes it can be hard to remain positive. Every day we get email alerts highlighting yet another atrocity. If elephants aren’t having their faces hacked off, or their babies kidnapped, then they are being shot from helicopter gun-ships, poisoned, or slowly fenced out of their former range. Bad news makes headlines and, to stand out, the headlines and images compete with each other to be the most graphic, the most violent. The clamour for our attention and our funds can be deafening.

By the end of 2014, I was starting to find it overwhelming. We were tired. Filming had been going well, but we’d been running at full-throttle for over two years – so we decided to take a rare break. It was a family decision – to leave behind the media, and the commercialisation of the holiday season, and go for a walk.

We’ve done it almost every year since our sons were small boys. It’s now over a decade that we’ve walked with Helen Dufresne, and her partner Pete Ilsley, in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District – with a train of camels, accompanied by her Samburu crew of elders and warriors. With each walk lasting a week or so, we have probably covered over a thousand kilometers.

There is no set route, just the daily routine – starting with the dawn coffee pot on the embers of the previous nights fire, and the knowledge that we’ll walk for the next six or eight hours until the camels, that carry the camp, catch up with us. Then there’s a search for good shade and a sandy lugga where we can dig for water, or a spring fed-pool where we can soak away the afternoon.

On those first walks we never saw elephants north of the Milgis lugga – they had been first hunted, and then poached out of the Ndotos over twenty years previously. A generation of Samburu had grown up without them. Old traditions remained, such as using dry elephant dung to make the first fire in a new homestead, but they were forced to travel thirty miles to find it.

Along with the elephants went the waterholes they kept open, and the paths that they made. Once the elephant paths disappeared, the herders were unable to walk their livestock to grazing  on the mountains, so they started fires to clear the bush. It was the first step along a path whose enevitable conclusion would be deforestation, erosion, dry watercourses,…

Helen sensed the decline. She had the respect of the Samburu community – earned by living alongside them, sharing droughts, rains, learning, helping…  She held meetings, but the community now lived apart from what they saw as ‘Helen’s elephants’. They feared them, they saw no reason to encourage them back. Without the support of the community, there was a limit to what Helen could do.

It was the death of a bull elephant that was the catalyst for change.

In 2004, we had been walking with Helen when we came across the tracks of a large bull in the lugga. We’d followed, picking up on her excitement that a lone bull had come into an area that had not seen elephants for decades. Our euphoria quickly changed to concern though, when it was apparent from the spoor, that the bull was dragging a leg. When we caught up with him, we found his femur smashed by a bullet. The area is so remote, that despite radio calls to vets and KWS, Helen was unable to get anyone up to treat him. The bull died two days later – in agony and alone – slumped in a grove of tamarisk. It was heartbreaking.

The thought that a trusting old bull, scouting territory that he’d last fled from as a calf, should come to such an end was the turning point for Helen – for he had not been poached, he been shot out of fear, by a herder. The death galvanised Helen and Pete to set up The Milgis Trust ( http://www.milgistrustkenya.com/ ). Their friend and conservationist, Halvor Astrup, promised funds, and made it possible. Their aim was simple – to promote the harmonious coexistence of elephants and pastoralist Samburu, and to encourage elephants back to their former stronghold.

Helen’s dream was that one day elephants would return to Mt Nyiru – the sacred mountain of the Samburu, a remote forested citadel that arises from the desert haze.

In the years that followed, the trust employed community scouts, built schools, put in boreholes, funded eye clinics…but behind it all, was the drive to welcome back the elephants. Elephants know where they are safe. Gradually, on our walks, we started seeing bulls, then eventually, cows with their families.


Now here we were ten years later, standing on the summit of Upé, looking down on the forested slopes – the beard moss-strewn cedars, the secret glades of cycads, with flitting sunbirds and tree ferns.

It was a privilege to walk the wind-whipped spine of the Ndotos, and feel so mentally and physically removed from the rest of the world. A week in, we saw a distant plane – but it couldn’t pierce the bubble we walked in, for our attention immediately switched to a pair of fan-tailed ravens – delighting in their acrobatic barrel rolls and side-slips. Most days, after sunrise, these accompanying court jesters were momentarily displaced by their monarchs, a pair of Verreaux eagles who patrolled the ridge – stately, windward and shadow-sliding.

Little by little, like water trickling between stones, a sense of renewal seeped in – filling the voids created by ‘headlines’, ‘commentary’ and ‘issues’.  They’d been important, and would be again, but for a glorious ten days they were meaningless. Without thought and context, they simply ceased to exist.

Below us was the lugga where the bull had died. He’d not been forgotten. Some years ago, we’d walked past his pitted skull, sprigged with tamarisk – left as a sign of respect by passing warriors.

The difference now, was that the slopes beneath us were alive with elephants. Every day we were treated to tantalising glimpses of their grey backs sliding through the vegetation – then every now and again one would step out into a clearing and we’d smile.

Compared to their ‘flat earth’ Tsavo cousins, Ndoto elephants are mountaineers.

It was hard to imagine how they negotiated the steep hillsides. On gradients which required hand-holds, we’d suddenly come across an elephant path, which we would follow to the very top of the ridge. A decade before, we couldn’t have reached it without days of cutting.

As elephants have reopened paths, there has been less need for herders to burn, and mountain fires are now rare.

Helen estimates there are about six hundred elephants now, and the Milgis Trust scouts and her network of informers are so effective, that in recent years only a handful have been poached. It’s an achievement that is probably unequalled in Kenya.

Besides a pilot’s licence, Helen doesn’t have a qualification to her name. She doesn’t do publicity, nor does she take a shilling for administering the money she raises. She doesn’t attend fundraisers and cocktail parties – she simply gets on quietly, life-dedicated, with what she believes in.

That the elephants have returned should be tribute enough. What makes Helen light-up though, is when she describes how it’s happened with the encouragement and the blessing of the community. A new generation is growing up with elephants as neighbours. In conversation today, the Samburu refer to the elephants, not as ‘Helen’s elephants’, but as ‘our elephants’. Now, to bless the hearth of a new homestead, rather than walk thirty miles to find elephant dung, they simply look down at their feet.

Recently, a family of elephants returned to Mt Nyiru for the first time in decades. People were so excited that they turned out in their hundreds to see them, and the elephants became nervous and fled. Helen was thrilled that they had retraced their ancestral paths, but moreso that they hadn’t been chased away. As she said, “Elephants don’t forget, they’ll be back.”

We climbed down from the ridge on the eve of the new year – reluctant to leave the forest-shade cool for sunlit slopes, and re-engage with the world. We need not have worried.  Herb-fragrant meadows eased our passage and fan tailed ravens followed us down.

That night we camped next to an extraordinary gathering of rocks. I wrote recently about an elephant rubbing rock. It is single rock. That last night we camped in the Keno valley, where there was a herd of them.

They sit in a glade of acacia and figs, on a smooth granite dome. Nearby, a clear stream. They are not worn by water, for only their outer-flanks are burnished – rubbed smooth by elephants. The history they exude is almost intimidating. I found it hard to imagine the elephant gatherings that the rocks must have witnessed.

Elephants have found them again – there were footprints in the sand, dung beside the stream – the rocks shone from rubbing.


We sat amongst them as the sun set on the old year. I felt stronger and re-centered. I felt grateful that our sons, now 19 and 22 still chose to see in the new year with us, in this place, and this way.

The next day we’d disperse – back to Tsavo, to England… but for that moment, we were all together, and nothing else mattered.

The rocks remain. More elephants will find them this year, and re-establish an ancient relationship. That they have the opportunity, is testament to the work of a remarkable woman.

Thanks to Helen Dufresne, a small corner of Kenya is a better, more hopeful place.

I know of no greater accolade.




Photos: Freddy & Jacca Deeble

 © 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.

Posted in Northern Kenya | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Elephant Rock

Kopjes in the mist

There is a rock at the end of Kivuko kopje that has intrigued me ever since I first walked past it.

Three years ago, we refurbished an abandoned cattle camp at Kivuko as a base for filming. We cut an airstrip and put up thatched shelters for tents. The area is classic elephant country – thick bush, scattered waterholes, and the occasional granite hill (kopje) – each a perfect poacher’s lookout. For most of the year it silver-grey shimmers in the heat.

From the air, the kopje emerges from a rolling sea of Commiphora like a whale’s back. I’ve always imagined it as a leviathan traveling south, leaving eddies in its wake, grass rippling down its flanks – stopping still for a moment on the surface, before it sounds again.

Each time we fly in, I am slightly taken aback to see it’s still there.

Compared to the kopje, the boulder that rises just a few feet from the ground at the southern end is insignificant – it is part of the kopje, yet somehow apart from it.

Each time I’ve passed it though, my step has slowed. Sometimes, in silent appreciation, I stretch my hand out and run my fingers over its contours. It has an uncanny power to attract. For the past four years, a pair of Von der Deckens hornbills has nested in a Commiphora just yards away. Doves like to rest there. More often than not, in walking past, I’ve put up a mixed flock of Namaqua and Mourning doves.

Thousands of years under a tropical sun has produced classic onion-skin erosion. The incremental accumulation of millions of tiny expansion-contraction cycles periodically causes the surface granite to crack away and reveal another layer. A Russian-Doll exposé of the earth’s igneous crust. It has not happened recently though, evidenced by the boulder’s smooth surface.

It’s a warm-coloured granite, not silver-flaked like Cornish cliffs – but with hints of soft ochre, black-stained with lichen, tight-crystalled – waterproof. The cliff above it is similar, but white-streaked with ‘hyracium’ – centuries-old accumulations of uric acid from rock hyrax latrines.

The boulder has no deep fissures that hyrax could shelter in, its contours are too exposed to their predators.

Instead, it is burnished like no other rock on the kopje.

It has a patina that cries out to be touched. Its brilliance is enhanced by veins of pale quartz that meander from the surface to carry light down to its interior, and give it a smoky, translucent quality.

Its polish follows the contours – more on the peaks, less in the valleys – as far from a milled granite counter-top as it is possible to imagine. When we fly into Kivuko, if altitude and sun are aligned, its beacon-glint can be seen from miles away.

rubbing rock

I thought I knew what had caused it, but my suspicions weren’t confirmed until early one morning in the wet season, a few months after we’d started filming. Elephants had passed by in the night – we’d heard them rumbling at the waterhole. They provided the base track to a cacophany of frogs, from bubbling Kassinas, to trilling Banded Rubber frogs.

After drinking and ‘mudding’, the elephants had visited the rock – at its base were puddled footprints. Its normal glint was hidden by a crust of ochre mud – evidence that the rock was an elephant ‘rubbing rock’.

Over thousands of years it has been polished by elephants, stopping and stooping to rub. I had wondered why that rock in particular?

We often see elephants scratching themselves, particularly after a visit to a waterhole. They have favoured scratching posts. Around Kivuko, they prefer dead Spinosa trees – the wood of the stumps is hard and brittle. Initially, its jagged edges attract the interest of elephants – but within a few years it becomes sanded and polished – but by then it’s become a habit.
Perhaps it was the same for the rock, but played out over millennia.

Perhaps it was down to opportunity and statistics – the number of elephants that passed, and the rock’s key position. Tsavo elephants would rather walk around a hill than over it. From the air, we often see elephant paths converge at the apex of a kopje, and fan out again afterwards. Any rock at the end of a kopje sees a lot of passing traffic.

Perhaps it was a combination of ‘intangibles’ that interacted to create its appeal.

There seemed to be no way of knowing, and I’d left it at that.



I’d not been to Kivuko for over a year, but I was reminded of it recently when we returned to film for a few days. I’d walked past the ‘rubbing rock’ just after dark, deep in thought, but had been pulled up short by a sudden change in temperature. The rock was radiating heat – the stored heat of the day, that could be felt more than a meter away.

I stopped and backed up against it, reveling in the heat.

That moment of relaxing, with the heat at my back, unlocked a memory. It transported me back to being a small boy at boarding school on Dartmoor – of leaning against a heavy cast-iron radiator. Even on winter days it was turned off in the afternoon, but the residual heat lasted until after dormitory lights-out. In those days, the privilege of leaning against the radiator was subject to an arcane schoolboy hierarchy. Forty years later, as I looked out over the moonlit landscape towards Mt. Kasigau, I smiled at the thought.

I wondered if the possibility of a warm back-rub on a cool evening was what made it so attractive to elephants. I checked the rocks around – none was as warm as the ‘rubbing rock’.

The next day, I had to pass the rock countless times and I noticed that the rock received more sun than others. In its exposed position at the southern end, it was lit from dawn until dusk. It explained why it was warmer.

That evening the clouds started to build and we decided to head back to Tsavo. As we flew past our old camp, a small patch of light touched the southern end of the kopje and the ‘rubbing rock’ glinted briefly.

As I set course for Voi, I reflected I’d probably never really know exactly what made the rock so attractive to elephants – but I felt that I might have added another piece to the jigsaw.

I suspect that animals appreciate natural radiators. The heat emanating from the rock for an hour or two after sunset, had stopped me and caused me to linger.

It might well do the same for an elephant – after all, we are not so very different.


© 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.

Posted in Tsavo | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments



(Ambo)ele image


Once every few years a group of Tsavo eles journeys to Amboseli. Recently, we did the same. We flew into the late afternoon sun, away from the ochre dusts, towards Kilimanjaro. Ever since I was a child in Cornwall, I have loved traveling west – it’s always felt like going home, with the added gift of another minute or two of light at the end of the day.

This was no different – we flew past the cliffs of Kichwa Tembo, tracking the Tsavo river. We passed over an old friend of a fig tree we had filmed for ‘The Queen of Trees’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy86ak2fQJM). We were well above bird watching height, but I knew the shapes streaming from its canopy would be green pigeons – just as I knew their presence meant the tree must be fruiting.

Then on to Mzima – in the late light, the water looked dark and mysterious – it still held secrets, but there was not a hippo in sight. Before the last drought, there had been sixty. They’d been our noisy neighbours for almost five years – now they are gone, and the ecosystem their dung supported, has largely collapsed.  When we’d last been there, we’d found that the hippos were starving – but because they weren’t dying in the water, the first deaths went unnoticed. Emergency supplemental feeding, a ‘care package’ of alfalfa and hay, prooved too little, too late. Today, Mzima is a silent spring.

When we lived there, I’d have laughed at the suggestion that, within a decade, the film we’d made would become an historical document. Even now, I find it hard to believe.

Mzima B+W

We flew on, chasing the light, with the green-soft curves of the Chyulu Hills on one side and the foothills of Kilimanjaro on the other. It felt as if we’d entered a broad valley – at its apex was Amboseli.  We could see it from thirty miles away – the wind whipping up the dust on the dry lake bed made it look like the land was on fire.

Even from the air, Amboseli’s elephants felt different to Tsavo’s. As we came in to land, families, heading for higher ground for the night, didn’t glance up or change pace – they walked in calm, orderly lines. On the ground, the difference was more marked. The elephants didn’t move from beside the track, as we passed. Throughout their lives, they’ve been habituated to researchers and tourists – they have personal histories and names. There is so little poaching, that inside the park they know they are safe, and respond by being approachable and trusting.

Having been around Tsavo’s feisty elephants for the last few years, a trip to Amboseli felt like visiting a finishing school. The elephants are genteel, the pace relaxed, movements considered and minimal. If caught by surprise, rather than charge, they will step out of your way – almost apologetically.

My first impression was that the elephants looked ‘clean’, but it took me until the next day to realize why. It wasn’t the washed ‘clean’ that hours in the swamp produces, it was that their flanks had no wounds. In Tsavo, many elephants have abscesses as a result of poisoned arrows. In Amboseli, I’ve not seen one.

Despite it being the end of the dry season, the elephants looked well, the babies playful and plump. The last time I’d been there was at the height of the 2009 drought – the worst since 1961. The elephants were emaciated, dull-eyed and listless – their trunks dragged in the dust. That year, almost all the babies had died.

Ironically, there was no shortage of water as the park’s famous springs never stopped flowing. Instead, Amboseli’s herbivores were dying of starvation. That September, I’d filmed the death of an elephant calf for the BBC. I had expected the rains to break shortly afterwards, but they never did. Within a few weeks, what had been a crisis developed into a catastrophe.

We decided to go back. I was shocked at the change. Animals were dying in their thousands. The stench pervaded the park. It was impossible to escape it, or wash it from my clothes. Skeletal wildebeest and zebra now stood foursquare and shaking – their withered muscles spasming – for if they ever lay down, they’d be unlikely to stand again. The full horror wasn’t apparent until, one evening shortly after arrival, I climbed onto the land-rover roof and counted over 500 carcasses within a mile.

In the days that followed, I saw life leave the eyes of zebra and wildebeest. But amidst all the death, I never once saw an animal fall, which made me wonder about those final moments.

starving wildebeest

Early one morning, I found a particularly emaciated wildebeest. I decided to stay with it. I thought I should film it collapse – it would be a moment, I felt, that encapsulated the three years of failed rains, and the terrible consequences for the grazers.

I thought it would be easy.

I followed the wildebeest at a distance for I didn’t want my presence to tip the balance against it.  After an hour I was amazed that it was still upright. It walked in a daze, as if it had retreated somewhere deep inside itself. Its hips were sharp and angular, its head looked disproportionately large, its eyelashes caked with fine dust. It occasionally stopped, head hanging, legs wobbling. It seemed to sleep, standing up. As it shook more, I’d start filming, but it never fell. Sometimes it would open its eyes wide, as if surprised at where it found itself.

At others, it would lurch forward as if going down, but the momentum would somehow get turned into a step, and then another…and it would start walking again. I followed it for hours. It never let up. By midday, I was hot and frustrated that it was taking so long. I’d planned to look for elephants. My time in the park was limited and I was questioning the wisdom of my decision. I considered changing subjects, but I thought the wildebeest was close to death and by now, it paid no attention to the vehicle, so I decided to stay with it.

As the day wore on though my feelings started to change. I still wanted to film its collapse, but I started to admire its tenacity. I still wanted it to end quickly, but now, it was as much for the wildebeest’s sake, as for mine.

There was no single point that the situation reversed, but ever so gradually, over the course of the afternoon I came to realize that what I wished for had changed. I no longer cared whether I’d film it, I just wanted that individual to survive. I’d followed it for almost twelve hours. I was hot and thirsty, and tired. It was nothing compared to how the wildebeest must have felt. Now, when it staggered and kept going, I gave a silent cheer. As the light faded, and it lurched off into the darkness and dust – I just hoped it would survive.

I learnt from that day – that instead of trying to impose my will, I should have observed and listened. More importantly, I learnt about determination and hope. I drove back to camp in awe of that wildebeest, and the power of its life-force – of its determination to stagger on, in the hope of finding a small patch of grass, that might sustain it a few more hours, another day…

dusty zebras

Today, in Amboseli, there are thousands of wildebeest and the population is recovering. I like to think the individual I followed five years ago, might be among them. They all look dusty-sleek, and there are hundreds of calves. They have the energy to canter, and head-twist their way across the plains.

Two years after the drought, there was an elephant baby-boom. The boomers are now mischievous, tail-pulling toddlers – shadowing their mothers on the daily trek to the swamp. Grass grows through old zebra skulls, and the herds walk past them as they file in to drink. There is little to remind us of how desperate it was – only five years ago.



Hippos B&W


Yesterday evening, as we flew back to Tsavo, I looked down on Mzima and saw a lone hippo leaving the water. It will take a long time for Mzima to recover. It might be decades before it returns to its full glory – as a fish-filled, hippo-aquarium.

I was encouraged by what I’d seen in Amboseli, for it reminded me that ecosystems have a huge capacity to heal and recover.

It will take time – but it gave me hope.





© 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.

Posted in Amboseli | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

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.



Posted in Tsavo | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 177 Comments