The slaughter of ‘Kenya’s biggest elephant’ and the decimation of an entire species


Satao, Kenya’s biggest elephant, was shot by poisoned arrows and killed by poachers on May 30, 2014. (Richard Moller/TSAVO TRUST)

Mark Deeble remembers the first time he saw Satao. It was another suffocating day for the filmmaker in the southern Kenyan national park of Tsavo. For years, he had searched for one of the fabled beasts — the “ivory tusker” elephants with tusks so large they lay on the dirt before their mighty girth. For years he had seen nothing. But on this day, according to this beautifully-written blog post, he crouched inside a metal “box” beside a waterhole, waiting for a behemoth that perhaps existed nowhere but in his imagination.

It came to him like a vision. “I thought the sun had reflected off the windshield of a distant vehicle,” Deeble wrote. “But there were no tracks close by. Whatever it was disappeared, then glinted once more. … I came to the slow realization that what I was looking at was sunlight reflecting off an elephant’s tusks. Gradually, their owner materialized through the shimmering heat. A mirage from the Taru desert — a magnificent, dusty behemoth.”

Its name was Satao. His tusks were so big that “even elephant experts of 40 years standing, have had an audible intake of breath” when they saw Deeble’s pictures. But rather than exultant in his size, Satao seemed skittish. He hid his husks, hanging them low, sniffing the air for the poachers that prowled the park like wolves.

“I think the old bull knows that poachers want his tusks,” Deeble surmised. “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.”

Satao was found dead this month inside a swamp. National wildlife services discovered his mangled corpse, and at first didn’t know if it was him: his face was mutilated and his tusks gone. But then this weekend came the announcement. Satao, which the Guardian and Outside Magazine called the “world’s biggest elephant,” was dead.

“It was the hardest report that I have ever written,” Richard Moller, Executive Director of the Tsavo Trust, told the Guardian. He was the one who found Satao’s body. “I couldn’t see past a wall of tears,” he said.

Satao was an indisputably mammoth creature, but if there’s such a thing bigger than he, it’s the broader issue of elephant poaching across sub-Saharan Africa. It spans the globe — from destroyed ivory piles in France, to suitcases stuffed with bloody ivory at Chinese airports, to mourning Kenyans having difficulty dealing with the loss of Satao. Images of Satao’s grisly remains have saturated Twitter and Facebook. “Poor #Satao had long tusks of ivory he’d try to hide from humans, but cruel #poachers found him in the end,” wrote one person.


Satao. (Richard Moller/TSAVO TRUST)

Poachers have found countless other elephants in the end, as well. Earlier this month another legendary tusker, this one named Mountain Bill, was killed by a poacher’s spear inside mount Kenya Forest. “He was a remarkable animal,” a local conservationist explained to the Daily Nation. “A remarkable animal that taught humankind a lot.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s just as bad. In one park there, nearly 70 elephants were slaughtered in the last two months by poachers who hunt with helicopters — and finish the job with chainsaws. The park says they’ve lost 4 percent of their elephants in just a few weeks, which account for just a small percentage of the 20,000 elephants that poachers killed in 2013.

Though that number appears shockingly high, it’s actually lower than the years before it, according to this report by the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The level of killing has stabilized, the Geneva-based organization reported, but at an “alarmingly high” point.

Another elephant group said more than 22,000 elephants were actually killed in 2013, and that if trends don’t reverse, the population will shrink by one-fifth within a decade.

The resiliency of the ivory trade is remarkable. Similar to the blood diamonds or Congo minerals, ivory poses a new commodity clash in the African continent, with many trying to enter the lucrative industry while the getting’s good. Poachers range from members of national militaries to poor farmers looking to score a buck.

And most of it is heading one place, a region that reignited a global market that for decades lay dormant: China, the New York Times estimates, accounts for as much as 70 percent of the illegal trade, its demand just one more manifestation of its surge in wealth and growing economic interest in Africa.

“China is the epicenter of demand,” Robert Hormats, a senior State Department official, told the Times. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”

China operates 150 legal, government-licensed ivory shops, the BBC reported. And those are just the shops on the books. If the recent seizures of ivory are any indication, the ivory black market heading to China may be much bigger. Hong Kong destroyed 28 tons of seized ivory in January, and the mainland destroyed another six tons. The moves were intended to show that China was getting tough on the trade, but it does not appear the trade has slowed.

This month, Chinese authorities discovered 32 suitcases stuffed with ivory, a haul valued at $1 million. And, according to the South China Morning Post, the bones were “covered in large quantities of dried blood.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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