Keep Tim Alive
An encounter with a wounded tusker reminds me that saving elephants is the only true measure of success of our campaigns
Photograph: John Heminway/WildlifeDirect
Amboseli, Kenya, 7 November 2014.
We are sitting in the beautiful Tortillis camp overlooking the wide savannah. Just as we are about to move on to another item on the agenda, Scott Asen, one of our newest board members, consults his phone and announces: “Tim just sent me a text. He’s waiting. I think we should go now.” Words said in jest that had a profound meaning for all of us present.
Tim is one of the world’s biggest tuskers and his home is Amboseli. Like other bull elephants he leads a nomadic life, roaming far and wide across the vast national park and beyond. We felt blessed that he had shown up on this particular day. After two days of hard work and important progress for elephant conservation we felt Tim was here to say “thank you”. But what we saw shocked us to the core. Tim had not come to say thank you, he was pleading with us: “Help me.”
The WildlifeDirect Board of 14 extraordinary men and women from USA, UK and Kenya had met less than 24 hours earlier with Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya, and with Judi Wakhungu, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Water and Natural Resources.
We presented the successes of the Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign, launched by WildlifeDirect a year ago, in bringing together Kenyans from all walks of life to stand up for elephants and wildlife, and lobbying governments worldwide to take action against the international crime cartels behind the poaching crisis that is threatening Africa’s elephants.
Then we heard about the ministry’s successes in passing new laws and strengthening the protection agencies, and about the many challenges remaining. And then at the most unexpected moment, the usually shy and withdrawn First Lady stepped up to agree to a raft of requests: for her to spearhead the replication of the campaign across Africa, and for Kenya’s elephants and rhinos to be declared national treasures.
She also supported our call for a Kenyan national Wildlife Festival to enlist all sectors of society in wildlife conservation efforts. Everything was going swimmingly, and then the First Lady turned to ask: “But why aren’t you guys working together?” I felt busted and immediately agreed to work with Judi to assemble an independent team of experts to conduct a national assessment of Kenya’s elephants and rhinos.
As we left the meeting The First Lady hugged me and said: “Don’t ever give up, you must fight on”. I left State House on a cloud, and things got better as the day progressed.
That evening we celebrated the achievements of the first year of the campaign with supporters and partners in government and beyond. Our Facebook page described the “colour and pomp, smiles and hugs” of the Hands Off Our Elephants first birthday party.
The US Ambassador Bob Godec brought some members of the audience to tears with a powerful speech from the heart. He said it was not just his job to help us save elephants, but also a deeply held personal conviction.
Our keynote speaker, the Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga, remembered the first day he ‘met’ me through what he described as the first of a series of “angry emails”. I had been going to court, and was appalled to see how ivory poachers and traffickers were being let off. The emails were to tell him just how diabolical it all was. He gave WildlifeDirect permission to continue our hard-hitting approach: “Don’t stop being angry.”
Fast forward, and the next evening we are all sitting atop of Land Rovers, off-road somewhere in Amboseli National Park. It is dense palm thicket and we can hear branches cracking. Tim is near. Then we see a monumental trunk above the palms, reaching high into the branches. It is only when we drive around to get a full view that we see the magnificence of his full body and his gigantic tusks.
It is 4.50 pm and the sun is gleaming on his ivory. An audible “aaaaaahhh” emanates from all of us. Tim is truly spectacular. Then Tim notices us and turns. It is as if he is hiding that which we find so beautiful, which too many Chinese are addicted to, and which translates to dollar signs for greedy poachers.
We sit quietly contemplating the giant Tim. I am acutely aware that it is very strange for this elephant I know so well to be so shy. He is usually proud and confident, and loves attention and cameras. And then the bombshell, as we see the sore his left flank, where blood and white clumps of puss are oozing out. This is why Tim is acting so strangely. He is in great pain.
Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign material was already calling to “Keep Tim Alive” before he was found injured in November 2014. Photograph: John Heminway/WildlifeDirect
Majestic Tim is injured. We can only speculate about recent events, that Tim has possibly been speared by someone from the local community. He may have threatened farmers, or perhaps a poacher was after him.
All of us sit in our own silence as we watch Tim for over an hour. Then Tim steps out in front of us and walks amongst us, but his walk is strained. I cannot describe the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feel so helpless, but also chastened. We have been celebrating the successes of our campaign, but what right do we have to celebrate when poaching and human-wildlife conflict still threaten elephants every day?
Within seconds the purpose of WildlifeDirect is suddenly vivid. Kenya has already lost two iconic tuskers, Satao and Mountain Bull, this year. Hands Off Our Elephants was already campaigning to Keep Tim Alive. Now he needs our help.
In minutes we have a plan to give the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) 25 thousand US dollars to to monitor and protect Tim 24/7. We call Julius Cheptei, the KWS Assistant Director, and he agrees to assign a vet to the case immediately.
As we leave Tim, the six other bulls that make up his escort are walking off towards the edge of the park. We follow them for a short while, and see they are heading towards some local settlements. I am not worried. It’s their normal routine and the communities here are usually very tolerant of elephants.
But Tim does not follow. He stays 200 meters behind and then peels off towards the centre of the swamp. He is not going to put himself at risk again.