Tag Archives: elephant poaching

Kenya’s biggest elephant killed by poachers

By Paula Kahumbu

Satao, the world's biggest elephant, with his family in the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Photograph: © Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone 2014

Satao, the world’s biggest elephant, with his family in the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Photograph: © Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone 2014

It is 4 am and I have been sitting at my computer for hours. I just can’t sleep after hearing the terrible news that Satao, the world’s biggest elephant, is dead

Satao lived in Tsavo East National park in southeast Kenya and was celebrated as one of the last surviving great tuskers, bearers of genes that produce bull elephants with huge tusks reaching down to the ground. This news follows hard on the heels of the slaughter of another legendary tusker, Mountain Bull, deep inside the forests of Mt. Kenya .

Of all the elephants that have died in Kenya, these deaths are the hardest to bear. The grief in Kenya at the slaughter of our iconic elephants is translating into floods of tears, emotional poems, and outrage on Twitter and Facebook.

I had suspected for days that Satao was dead. The rumours were too many and they came from too many different people for them not to be true. Bad news travels fast in Kenya. Moreover, like everyone who had ever heard of Satao, I was already concerned for his safety.

I first learned about Satao through an emotional and beautifully written blog post by Mark Deeble, who described him as being so intelligent that he knew he needed to protect his enormous tusks by intentionally hiding in bushes so they couldn’t be seen. At the end of the post Mark wrote:

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.

Then in early March, during the great elephant census, we heard that the poachers had got to him. Mike Chase from Elephants without Borders reported seeing two seeping wounds on Satao’s flank. Veterinarians rushed to the scene and confirmed that these were arrow wounds.

It’s hard to imagine what was going through the minds of the poachers on the day that they approached this mountain of an elephant and shot at him with crude bows and poisoned arrows. It must have been terrifying and yet the sight of his massive gleaming tusks probably left them salivating with greed.


For days Satao must have endured excruciating pain from the festering wounds. But he recovered and we all heaved a sigh of relief when it was reported that his wounds were healing on their own. The Facebook post by Save the Elephants about his recovery attracted more 200 “get well soon” comments.

Then in the first week of June Richard Moller, Executive Director of The Tsavo Trust, found a massive elephant carcass in a swamp. “I knew instinctively in my gut that this was Satao, but there was a tiny chance that I was wrong. I had to verify it before we go public,” Richard told me.

The Tsavo Trust runs an inspirational campaign to bring attention to Kenya’s last great tuskers . Their work brings huge joy and celebration every time an elephant with tusks sweeping to the ground is found.

When I heard that Satao may have been killed, I posted a message on Facebook. I said I hoped that the rumours were wrong and that Satao was safe. I had to hastily remove the post after Richard explained: “We don’t want to alarm people if there’s even a 1% chance that Satao is still alive”.

For days Richard and (Kenyan Wildlife Service) KWS rangers visited the carcass. It was certainly a giant tusker, but it was hard to tell if this was Satao, as the face was mutilated face and the tusks gone. They flew over the park and searched for Satao, hoping against all odds that he was still alive.

Then finally, yesterday on 12 June, Richard admitted to me that his first gut feeling had been right:

Today I had to write my official report to KWS and confirm to them that Satao is dead. It was the hardest report that I have ever written, I couldn’t see past a wall of tears.

In voice choked with grief he begged me not to post anything on this blog until KWS had officially broken the news.


From a biodiversity perspective, tuskers are rare specimens, the pinnacle of their species. Photograph: © Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone 2014

From a biodiversity perspective, tuskers are rare specimens, the pinnacle of their species. Photograph: © Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone 2014


It is not only the rangers in Tsavo or those who knew Satao who are sorrowful, all of Kenya is in a state of deep grief. Satao was not just a Kenyan icon, he was a global treasure. He was of such a phenomenal size that we knew poachers would want him, and no effort was spared to protect him. He had 24/7 protection from KWS and conservation organizations. Even as we mourn Satao’s passing, Kenyan’s are asking: what went wrong?

It may take days for the KWS to provide more details about this terrible news. The country’s authorities are loath to admit the scale of the current crisis.

According to the latest figures published by KWS, 97 elephants have been poached in Kenya so far this year . Nobody in Kenya believes this figure, which suggests that less than one percent of the national elephant population have fallen to poachers’ guns.

The official figures do not tally with the many reports of elephant killings in and around the Masai Mara, Samburu, Loita Hills, Marsabit, Tsavo, Mount Kenya, Aberdares, Shimba Hills and the north eastern coastal forests.

I estimate, from the reports I have seen, that the elephant poaching in Kenya is at least 10 times the official figures, but it is impossible to verify this as the KWS jealously guards the elephant mortality database.

A few brave people within the system describe a systematic cover up of the real figures. To many of us Kenyans, this problem is even more serious than the poaching. Our wildlife services are like the drug addicts who are the most difficult to help, those in denial that there is a problem to be fixed.

Those at the helm who craft the KWS’s communications seem blissfully unaware of the damage caused to Kenya’s reputation by the lack of transparency and accountability around poaching figures.

Kenyans are angry and confused. Elephants do not belong to KWS but to the people of Kenya. Elephants are an important national asset that make a significant contribution to Kenya’s GDP through tourism. It is therefore in the national interest that the correct figures are shared with the public.

It is also confusing for donors. KWS is fighting furiously for funds to strengthen anti-poaching efforts, and massive ivory seizures also continue to snatch headlines, but according to official figures and statements, there is no elephant poaching crisis.

The appalling news of Satao’s death comes at a time when Kenya is preparing to showcase our conservation successes at the UNEP Governing Assembly which starts on 24 June. Instead Kenyan delegates will bear the heavy burden of conveying the news of the passing of this gentle, intelligent and compassionate giant.

I call on Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, to set the tone for the Governing Assembly by starting with a minute’s silence: so that delegates can reflect on their duty of care towards our fellow beings, and in memory of Satao, Mountain Bull, and all the others who have died before them.


Africa’s elephants in trouble

“Africa and Asian elephants are in for tough times ahead” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants. After the ivory sales last year, elephant poaching has increased. Many conservationists believe it is being fueled by the demand in Eastern countries – yet nobody dares to say this. The money raised from the sales of ivory was supposed to go into elephant conservation. Some people who dare to call themselves conservationists argued that the ban on ivory was wrong, the burn was wasteful, and that the sale of ivory was the best way to generate funds and support for elephant conservation.  Well, how come elephants are worse off today than they were before the sales?

And, how come ivory is now selling at US$ 1,888/kg in Vietnam? Isn’t it obvious that the one off sale has stimulated demand and prices are rising? Now even the IUCN is saying that elephantas are in trouble …but they are confining their concerns to Asian elephants …why??

It’s now apparent that the four southern African countries that sold their ivory to China and Japan were duped – their stock piles fetched prices in the range of 100 – 120$/kg! The real value of ivory in eastern markets is at least ten times this. Southern African countries were cheated by the East – but I’m not feeling sorry for them!

Even more worrying however that the CITES conference that approved the one off sale did so on condition of a 9 year moratorium. Kenya led that campaign and the conference adopted it. But they made a MASSIVE BLUNDER. The wording of the agreement only binds the countries that sold their stocks. It does not include countries like Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia that have massive (and some illegally acquired) stockpiles . With renewed demand in Asia, these countries are likely to demand for sales of their stockpiles too at the next CITES conference.

Iain Douglas–Hamilton and I discussed this problem with his researchers at his house last night. He showed me the maps of elephant killings in Kenya in 2008 – the image is frightening. the country is covered in dots- each one representing a dead elephant. He says it isn’t as bad as it was in the 1960,s but I reminded him that back then we had ten times as many elephants. Based on genetic evidence from tusks, Sam Wasser believes that the proportion of elephants we are losing today is far greater than any time in history.

I met Iain about 30 year ago when as a young volunteer recruited to measure Kenya’s ivory stockpile. It as a morbid job but we had to know what was happening. We weighed and measured every single tusk and estimated the age of the elephant that had died. We processed 30 tons of ivory in 2 days. The information showed us that poachers were going for younger and younger animals. At that point, I had never seen an elephant in the wild, but I was so disgusted with the killings and disillusioned about the future of elephants that I turned down a project on ele’s and went on to study primates. Later I did study elephants for my PhD, when the ivory ban was working and guns had fallen silent.

Ivory wildlifedirect

These are the 30 tons of ivory that I measured in 1989. Kenya’s president burned the lot and the world praised him for it.

Sadly, those guns are back in action and Africa’s elephants are once again at risk because we were persuaded by greedy people to run a risky experiment.

It feels like the precautionary principle has gone extinct.  If we aren’t careful, we will soon be seeing the nightmarish scenes of hacked off faces of elephants that dominated the conservation news in the 1980’s.

Iain asked me ‘what are we going to do about it?” and I looked at him blankly, I didn’t have an answer.

What would you have replied – what can we do?

Guilty: Ivory smugglers in Kenya, more than 50 elephants dead

Ivory smuggling Kenya

Two men were arrested on the 25th April for carrying 703 kg (1,550 lb) of elephant ivory in southern Kenya. They were traveling by vehicle in Tanzania when they were ambushed by wildlife scouts from the Amboseli-Tsavo Game Scouts Association. They fled across the Kenyan border, and were caught and arrested by authorities tipped off by the scouts.

Ivory seizure Kenya

This is biggest seizure in recent times in Kenya and the ivory is valued at around 59-60 million Kenyan shillings ($750,000). The men, whose identities have not been released, appeared in a Kajiado court on Monday morning where they plead guilty. The men  face up to a year in jail.

The haul of 33 whole tusks and 57 pieces, weighing over 700kg, is believed to represent over 50 individual elephants.

The Amboseli elephants are not anonymous animals, after more than 40 years of research each elephant is individually known. The field team now fear that “some of the tusks could belong to the splendid bull Ganesh or Echo’s son, Ely, or the impressive long-tusked Theodora from the TD family that has been spending more time in Kimana than Amboseli over the last decade”.

Who killed them and how? One person claims that these elephants could be the victims of Furadan poisoning. This is one of several indicators that ivory trade is on the rise as is elephant poaching in Kenya, Asia and Congo. Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Trust for Elephant have been reporting alarming increases in poaching in the Amboseli ecosystem. We believe that this is all in response to the lifting of the ban on trade in ivory, and the one off sale that took place in Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia in November last year.

Harvey Croze of ATE writes that “it appears that our concerns have been vindicated when Cynthia reported in February on increased poaching for ivory in Amboseli. Perhaps now authorities will take seriously the twin threat to Africa’s elephants: the one-off sale of ivory from southern African stockpiles to China, combined with the presence of Chinese roadgangs in the ecosystem”.

It is depressing that these two men face only a year in jail for one of the biggest seizures of ivory in Kenya. Their sentence will hardly dampen the demand or reduce the incentives for many who are greedy for ivory. We have it on good authority (from someone who wishes to remain anonymous), that the ivory was being transported in a vehicle owned by a powerful person. Until these bigger people are brought to justice, the poachers, and small time dealers will continue. The challenge is how to catch and prosecute these powerful, and politically connected big shots.

Four questions for you to think about

Kenya currently holds over 35 tons of ivory in her strong rooms – for some this represents fantastic commercial value, to us they represent death and destruction.

Q1. Do you think it is time we revive the ban on trade in ivory?

Q2. Do you think we should aggressively resume pursuing the perpetrators of this cruel trade?

Q3. Will you help us to raise awareness and demand for better protection for all elephants?

Q4. What should Kenya do with the 35 tons of stockpiled ivory?

Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Ivory sales to begin over next 2 weeks

This is from the official CITES webstie Geneva, 24 October 2008 – it makes me feel ill

The Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Mr Willem Wijnstekers, will visit Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe during the next two weeks to supervise closely the ivory sales that the member States of the Convention agreed to in June 2007, in The Hague.

On the margins of the four ivory auctions, Mr Wijnstekers will also hold talks with Chinese and Japanese authorities, as well as traders, about the details of further supervisory activities of the Secretariat upon arrival of the ivory in those countries and thereafter.

The proceeds of the sales must be used exclusively for elephant conservation and community development programmes within or adjacent to the elephant range. The revenues are expected to boost the countries’ capacity to conserve biodiversity, strengthen enforcement controls and contribute to the livelihoods of the rural people in southern Africa. All this without affecting negatively African and Asian elephant populations.

Background information

Under an agreement reached in The Hague in 2007, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were authorized to make a single sale of a total of 108 tons of government-owned ivory. The following quantities of raw ivory registered by 31 January 2007 have been approved for sale: Botswana: 43,682.91 kg, Namibia: 9,209.68 kg, South Africa: 51,121.8 kg, and Zimbabwe: 3,755.55 kg.

Elephant populations of the four countries are in Appendix II of CITES, which means that, even though they are not necessarily now threatened with extinction, the trade in their products is strictly regulated. Recent studies concluded that over 312,000 elephants live in these four countries and that their number has increased in recent years.

The CITES Standing Committee, which oversees the implementation of CITES between the major conferences, gave the go-ahead to the one-off sale of ivory last July by approving China as the second importing country. Japan had been approved earlier.

Each sale is to consist of a single shipment per destination and may only go to China and Japan, whose internal controls on ivory sales comply with the required verification standards established by CITES for this one-off sale.

Between March and April 2008, the CITES Secretariat conducted missions to these four countries and verified that the declared ivory stocks had been properly registered by 31 January 2007; consisted solely of ivory of legal origin (excluding seized ivory and ivory of unknown origin); and had been marked according to CITES requirements. They also verified that their weights were in accordance with the relevant records. This involved the checking and comparison of computerized databases and thousands of paper records, as well as the physical inspection and examination of hundreds of randomly-selected tusks and ivory pieces. In each case, the findings of the audits were satisfactory.

The CITES Secretariat is monitoring the Chinese and Japanese domestic trade controls to ensure that unscrupulous traders do not take this opportunity to sell ivory of illegal origin.

The 2007 African agreement stipulates that after these shipments have been completed, no new proposals for further sales from the four countries concerned are to be considered by CITES during a resting period of nine years that will commence as soon as the new sales have been completed.

Killing elephants to kill people

I’ve just had a conversation with Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants which I would  like to share.

Like me, Iain feels that we need to do much more to raise awareness about the impact of the legal sales of ivory (which will take place later this month) on the  illegal ivory trade and the rate of elephant poaching in Africa. I have a soft spot for Iain, he introduced me to elephants years ago at the height of the poaching in Kenya, I’ve been in love with them ever since. He reminded me of our efforts to prevent CITES from re-establishing the ivory trade in the 1990’s, and he expressed great anxiety at the recent decision to allow the one off sale to China and Japan which is due to happen from the 28th of October.

Some people think we are too emotional in Kenya which has always taken a principled position on the ivory debate. We hold that the legal trade anywhere has always contributed to illegal trade, and therefore poaching. The Kenya Wildlife Service has already announced that Kenya is experiencing a surge in poaching around the places where Chinese companies are conducting roadworks. Esmond Bradley-Martin and Lucy Vigne who are the only people doing detailed field studies of ivory trade have reported in SWARA magazine of the East African Wildlife Society, that they found significant amounts of ivory in markets in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, just north of Kenya. Much of this ivory is coming from Kenya.

They are selling chopsticks Paula, who do you think is buying chopstics?”  he asked me. For no good reason I felt guilty! How come the culprits don’t feel guilty?

Though he had no hard figures, Iain confirmed that northern Kenya is feeling the brunt of the Ethiopia ivory trade. He told me that he is seeing an increase in the proportion of illegally killed elephants around his study area in Samburu in northern Kenya.

It’s not just Kenya and Ethiopia though. Earlier this year, the Economist reported that Elephants in the Congo are helpless. The report suggested that the price of ivory is increasing and so is the incentive to kill elephants everywhere in Africa, but especially in lawless places.

Like many scientists, we believe that forest elephant populations are declining rapidly due to rising demand from China. Dr Sam Wasser from Washington University suggests that the rate of off take may be the highest on record. He too believes that the ivory sale this month is prompting more poaching in central and eastern Africa, as criminals will mix illicit ivory with the legal ivory to avoid detection.

Shame on CITES

The scientific community should be ashamed for ignoring the warning signs and agreeing to the ivory sales under the pretext that the funds raised would help elephants.

The idea that the sale of ivory will help elephant conservation by ploughing funds back just doesn’t make sense to me. If we agree with that argument, then should we commercialize the highly lucrative child pornography industry to make money to protect children? No? I didn’t think so.

TRAFFIC, the IUCN body that monitors trade in wildlife said that the Congo is “haemorrhaging elephants”.  In Virunga National Park 24 elephants have been poached so far this year. That’s 12% of the parks entire population gone in one year! Virunga had 2,900 elephants when Congo became independent in 1960, 400 in 2006, and has fewer than 200 today. At this rate there will be none left in just a few  years time.

The politics of conservation disgust me 🙁

Why has CITES given China the green light to buy ivory despite facts about the lack of controls in China, against the backdrop of escalating poaching? How come the IUCN has just down graded elephants in the red data list suggesting that they are in fact better off than before.

Killing elephants to kill people
Who is doing the poaching? It’s no secret that  ivory is financing wars in Africa. The poachers are mostly militias who sell the ivory to middlemen and then to Chinese staff working for infrastructure projects such as road building and logging who then smuggle it to China. According to The UK Independent, elephants are being killed by the FDLR militia, comprising members of the former Rwandan Interahamwe, the Congolese military, the local Mai-Mai militia, as well as villagers. In Sudan it’s the Janjaweed.

Sudan in particular is a major transit point for shipments to China and the world’s largest center of illegal ivory trade is in Omdurman near Khartoum.

Elephant Poaching leaves long term scars on families

Some people like Sam Wasser think that elephant poaching is at an all time high and if he is right, then this could spell serious problems for elephants across Africa. Already restricted to less than 30% of their original habitat, populations of these socially complex  animals area already severely affected by poaching. Like humans, and any long lived species, elephant society is designed to learn and adapt over generations. Interrupting this knowledge and gene transfer can have serious effects. Indeed, many cases of human -elephant conflict arise because disrupted herds are not as ‘wise’ as those that have been left alone.  Leadership can be messed up leading to rogue behaviour, knowledge of resources and migration routes lost, and impacts on habitats in ‘safe places’ can be devastating. Elephants are also very emotional and aware of death, they spend ages sniffing the bones of the dead. Joyce Poole who writes for elephantvoices blog is an expert on elephant behaviour and has found that the traumatic effects of losing individuals can felt for decades especially when adolescents are affected. Working in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, Charles Foley has also documented how the loss of a matriarch has direct effects  the survival of other individuals in the family, especially during tough years.

We need new thinking to save elephants.

We can’t just let the economics of trade or the political correctness of culture understanding (eg. ivory chopsticks and Chinese traditional medicine) drive the worlds largest land mammal to extinction. We will be forced to use plastic chopsticks by then anyway, why not start now and save our elephants? We need to give elephants rights, the right to exist, the right to not be hunted, the right to keep their own tusks. We need to accept that animal species should not have to pay for their way or right to survive.  We need to accept that not everything has a cash value – after all, isn’t our love affair with money the reason why we are in so much financial trouble right now?

Ebay have made a good start, but I wish we could do more. But What? What do you think we can do to put elephant conservation back on track?

Can elephants survive China in Africa?

Elephants generally evoke strong reactions from anyone who has to deal with them. Long term studies on a number of populations of elephant have taught us so much about the species by Cynthia Moss, Katy Payne, Joyce Poole, Ian Douglas-Hamilton and others have revealed how they are similar to people in terms of their social structure, and how intelligent they are. This knowledge has contributed significantly to our ability to empathize with the individual animals. But does this help us manage elephants?

In Kenya elephants are sometimes killed by the authorities if they are deemed problem animals and a threat to people. Last month, one elephant was saved by cell phone technology. Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the elephants was able convince authorities not to kill a problem bull because it’s radiocollar data revealed that Mountain Bull was not a habitual crop raider. Mountain Bull’s leather collar carries a cellphone that text-messages his GPS location every hour. If the team sees him headed for the fields again some night, they can probably call the Kenya Wildlife Service to avert any dangers to local communities.

Further south a debate is currently raging in Namibia about whether to hunt elephants or not. Voice of America has raised the alarm about trophy hunting of desert elephants in Kunene and Conservationists are seeking support and funds to pay for the trophy hunting permit to save a single desert elephant. Ethics and Animals report that ten women from all around the world will trek 120 km through Damaraland to raise money for the purchase of the remaining trophy hunting permit. Conservationists accuse the Namibian Government of ignorance – they believe that the 6 hunting permits per year will decimate this small and rare population.

But Dr Kieth-Legget who has been studying the Kunene population of desert elephants for the last ten years says “My understanding of the new quotas is that 6 bulls will be shot in the Kunene Region (eastern and western sections) over a 2 year period. While the elephant population of the region is capable of sustaining this level of off-take at the present time, the question remains as to whether they are able to sustain this level of off-take in the longer term, and I suggest that they are probably not. However, the MET has stated that this is a one-off quota and, while this is always subject to political will, the quota will probably not be repeated for several years so the longer-term sustainability of such an off-take rate does not need to be considered at present.”

Elephants are native to Angola; Benin; Botswana; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Chad; Congo; Congo, The Democratic Republic of the; Côte d’Ivoire; Equatorial Guinea; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Gabon; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Kenya; Liberia; Malawi; Mali; Mozambique; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Rwanda; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Somalia; South Africa; Sudan; Tanzania, United Republic of; Togo; Uganda; Zambia and Zimbabwe


They have been  have reintroduced into Swaziland.

Although elephant populations are stable or increasing in eastern and southern Africa, the trend is unknown in other regions and the IUCN says that overall there is insufficient information inform current trends at the continental level, it seems that elephant numbers have always been dictated by humans, as research reveals that elephants have gone through population booms and busts over the last few centuries. When populations increase they reach a threshold and then poaching escalates causing a population crash. The easy access to guns combined with habitat loss means that elephant populations cannot return to former ranges or densities and I fear that unless we can persuade governments to prioritise these spectacular animals, we will lose many more of our elephants and will one day end up with pockets of elephants in fenced enclosures. The increasing populations in Southern Africa have convinced some countries to support the exploitation of elephants for products like meat and ivory. By keeping the ivory trade alive however, we put vulnerable populations at risk, they could blink out. This has already happened in some places, elephants are extinct in Burundi; Gambia; Mauritania.

Despite what we know from the history of elephant exploitation, legal ivory trade has been re-opened which may be fueling the poaching of elephants in vulnerable locations like eastern DR Congo as reported on Gorilla.cd where there is evidence of increased elephant poaching in the Virunga National Park, and reports also suggest an increase in poaching and ivory seizures in Kenya, China and Zambia. Because many conservation agencies supported the decision for the reopening of ivory trade as a ‘pro development’ move, none of them seem willing to raise alarms again.

But it’s not just ivory trade, war and arms – it seems that the mix has just gotten deadlier with the influx of Chinese workers across Africa. In the first eight months of this year, 57 carcases have been found across Kenya with their tusks hacked out, 15 per cent more than the total for all of 2007. It  was the third annual increase in a row. This week the Telegraph reported what everyone has been thinking but too afraid to say … the carcasses seem to be eerily correlated with locations where Chinese workers are operating.  Since many Chinese firms in Africa are private and not state controlled, the Chinese government is unlikely to do anything about it. In the worlds of Ian Taylor “It is not China’s responsibility to “look out” for Africa’s interests”. He reminds us that “while China has an Africa policy, Africa does not have a China policy”.