Tag Archives: ex-poachers

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.


Dr. Paula Kahumbu’s Article in the USA On The Crisis Facing Elephants And WildlifeDirect’s Campaign HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS

Dr. Paula Kahumbu is in the USA at the Chautauqua Institution where she will be talking about the crisis facing elephants, and WildlifeDirect’s campaign HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS.

Here is what she has already published in the Chautauquan Daily.


Africa is facing an unprecedented crisis of elephant poaching that threatens to wipe out the species in a decade. As poachers gun down elephant matriarchs, and destroy their families, buyers of ivory in countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand purchase exquisite ivory carvings of their gods, and believe that they are somehow worshiping God. Don’t they know that their consumer habits are killing nature? Don’t they know that Nature is God?

The situation in China is particularly hazardous. The domestic markets for ivory in China are legal and sanctioned by the government, which denies the link between the illegal trade and the illegal killing of elephants. Yet studies conducted by National Geographic, IFAW, the EIA, Save the Elephants and others reveal that over 86 percent of ivory being sold in shops in China is from illegal sources. The Chinese government says Africa is to blame and demands that African nations crack down on poaching.

Well, this is what is happening in Africa.

All across Africa, every single day and night, teams of rangers go on patrol to protect our extraordinary wildlife heritage. They are quiet, mostly invisible and often unrecognized. They walk or drive though rough terrain, witness incredible wildlife spectacles and experience the wilderness areas like none of us. They climb mountains, cross rivers, and sleep in the bush. From time to time they make contact with their enemies. Contact — it’s the sanitized way of describing violent interactions between security forces and poachers. It is usually swift, terrifying, noisy and bloody. In the past month several poachers have been shot and killed, and so have several rangers.

The traditional method of catching poachers is to simply look for them, but that is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. Only it’s not a needle but a bomb that rangers might find.

Anti-poaching work is dangerous, difficult and is often an unrewarding and thankless job. I joined a patrol in the Masai Mara with the Mara Triangle rangers a few years ago. My place was somewhere near the back of a line of rangers. We walked carefully, eyes peeled and ears cocked. From time to time someone would see something or catch a smell or a sound. The line would freeze, silent messages would be communicated down the chain through hand motions. We would all hold our breaths, crouch slowly, our green uniforms dissolving into the vegetation until the signal to move on is given. We marched for hours before we came upon the first poachers camp. It was the smell of stale smoke that gave it away. Rangers fanned out, someone felt the coals in the fire — cold. They searched the bushes and found an aluminum pan, scraps of ugali clung to the sides. We all smelled it — fresh. This was only a few hours old but the poachers had fled. In whispers the rangers explained how they could read the scene: these poachers had camped here for some time, as there was evidence of tiny pieces of dried meat that had been hung in the bushes, and spilled sugar.

But on this day they had left in a hurry leaving behind a few items including the sufuria. The poachers camp was deep in the reserve, and they had remained undetected for days. They were risking attack from wild animals like lions, elephant and buffalo as well as rangers. They numbered only 4 or 5 men and had used the camp as a base. They moved only at night. To avoid detection they had not built any kind of shelter, but were sleeping under the stars. It must have been miserable, cold and wet.

We collected the pot and moved on, hugging the river line as we moved. It was hot and our clothes were soaked in sweat. The main line of rangers moved carefully, one or two men searched the thickets just out of eyesight. These guys would spot any danger first. The rangers told me that they had to be careful as the poachers were experts — they knew every dimple and bush on the land. They could easily attack a patrol. Suddenly the radio exploded into loud crackling, and with a wave from the corporal at the front, the entire team took off into the bush at a fast run, guns cocked. I chased after them until we arrived out of breath at the rendezvous point where four other rangers stood over the body of a bleeding lioness.

She was already dead, and I felt sick. My mind was racing. Who would shoot a lion? What did they want?  A few minutes of crime scene investigation revealed that what could have easily been mistaken for a bullet wound to the neck was actually a natural death. A warthog resting in the hole nearby was the culprit – and its broken tooth lying nearby gave it away. To prove the point to me one ranger poked a stick into the hole and the angry warthog erupted furiously from its den like an explosion, sending all of us scattering for our lives. The rangers burst into loud laughs, then gathered around the dead lioness and lit those strong local cigarettes and retold the story as they puffed. On that trip the rangers earned my full respect.

Most of the time anti-poaching forces are better equipped and trained than poachers and can confidently out-do them. William Kimosop in Baringo Kerio Valley says his rangers are all locally recruited and many are former poachers. This gives poachers an opportunity to be reformed and to make an honest living. William invests time in developing a friendship with ex-poachers, and invites them to join him on anti-poaching patrols. He says he acknowledges their vast knowledge and experience, and this recognition plays a key role in shifting the relationship and creating the best conservationists. Being from the local community where everyone knows everyone means that Kimosop has the entire community as his eyes and ears. He cultivates this relationship by attending all village activities and events and by being there for the community through the good and the bad times.

Richard Bonham in Mbirikani and Kimana near Amboseli National Park agrees. “Some of Kenya’s most enthusiastic rangers are from the local community,” he said. “To them patrols are a way of life that they were born into. These rangers have grown up surrounded by wildlife, and for them, being a ranger is protecting their own asset. We incentivize successful patrols that lead to arrests through recognition and bonuses.”

But this model only seems to work where poaching isn’t worth the big money. In the middle of the rift valley and to the west of the Tugen Hills where Kimosop works lies the spectacular Kerio Valley where hard core bandits have started elephant poaching. Kimosop’s community rangers can’t compete against these hired guns. Here even the most wildlife-friendly individuals in the community can be seduced with payments for information about where the elephants are. Nobody wants to encounter these poachers. They comprise small teams of specialized and well-equipped men who know where to go, how to find elephants or rhinos, and how to avoid getting caught. They are well organized, operate strategically and are part of or are hired by criminal cartels. Through their networks they obtain illegal weapons and infiltrate wildlife enforcement arrangements in parks, reserves and conservancies. They earn more than a ranger and their equipment — illegal military grade guns, sights and night vision equipment — is far superior to even the best-equipped rangers in the country. Poachers in north Kenya are stealing equipment from the British Army training center.

Responding to this new kind of poachers requires a specialized response, and in northern Kenya the war has gone decidedly high tech with militarized forces, aircraft, drones, attack dogs, sniffer dogs and even DNA analysis of specimens. The success rate of arrests is high, but sadly it is not making the difference it could. Arrested suspects are taking advantage of weak legislation. They carry cash for bail, and even get legal representation. Magistrates regularly let these suspects out on bail and many are never seen again. Cases are regularly dismissed due to inadequate evidence or suspects plead guilty and are released on small cash fines.

Now Kenyans are taking the war against poachers to the judiciary. It is the prosecution of cases that is letting down Kenya’s wildlife. In their own blog, Richard Bonham of Big Life laments the delays in concluding the case of a poacher responsible for the killing of a famous Amboseli elephant named Kumqut. Arrested in September 2012, the suspect named Pekee was released on bail, and, though there have been four hearings, he has not been convicted. The conclusion of this case has been delayed again. Bonham is not at all certain that even if the court finds him guilty, that the man will receive a significant penalty. For now Pekee is out on the streets and he is likely to be organizing more poaching.

A quick survey of courts in the Mt Kenya area reveal that poachers and dealers charged with poaching or dealing  in wildlife trophies are fined as little as Ksh 2,500 or sentenced to serve probation or community service. At this rate, the enemy of conservation is the magistrates. In their defense, magistrates argue that most cases are poorly investigated and there are often problems with the handling of evidence, which works in favor of the suspect. KWS is also overwhelmed, with only three prosecutors and more than 2,000 cases to prosecute each year. It is no surprise that they can only handle a small fraction of the total cases.

The bulk of wildlife cases are prosecuted by the police who are not specialized on wildlife prosecutions. The average case takes several years, and, in that time, hearings are postponed, witnesses disappear, evidence gets lost and suspects on bail either disappear, or get caught involved in another crime and get released on bail yet again.

Courageous journalist Kibiwott  Koross of The Star newspaper revealed the names of key ivory dealers in the Samburu area and brought to Kenya’s attention the failure of the judicial system. He hoped that the outcome of his story titled “The Untouchables” would lead to immediate investigations and arrests. Ironically, all of the men he named are still on the streets, and it is Kibiwott who is in hiding. According to one senior wildlife enforcement officer who wishes to remain anonymous, “The situation is very bad and it is getting worse. Our mistake was to ignore the signs years ago. We could have stopped them when the poachers were just a handful of guys. Now, most of the incidents involve inside jobs in both the government and private sector. It’s now getting out of hand and we cannot afford to let the situation get completely out of control.”

The impunity of wildlife crime in Kenya is a problem that cannot go unchallenged. The tourism industry is now threatened, as is the future of Kenya’s tourism economy. The challenge has led to many positive advances. Today there is much greater collaboration between KWS and private conservation organizations including data sharing and support in anti-poaching efforts though there is consensus that much more could be done. KWS has reinforced the anti-poaching patrols and created a special unit to deal with it. In response to the pressure, the government is releasing additional funds to hire 1,000 more men, purchase more high tech equipment and aircraft.

But without a law that bites, it’s worse than futile. Increasingly frequently anti-poaching forces simply gun down suspected poachers rather than conduct arrests. But it’s the demand in Asia that is driving the problem, and the Chinese and Vietnamese ivory smugglers who are winning. All those caught in Kenya have been making off on guilty pleas with the full knowledge that the penalty is a minor fine.

At the recently concluded Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, Kenya was held to task for failing to enact relevant legislation that would discourage poaching. Indeed, the failure of Kenyan courts to prosecute wildlife criminals robustly is probably driving the extraordinary impunity in this sector. It’s not just that the Wildlife Act penalties are out of date with the value of the crimes, but even this is not being applied effectively. Court cases in Nanyuki Nyeri, Narok, Voi, and other towns reveal that most wildlife cases are poorly prosecuted, and 90 percent of suspects make a guilty plea and are released with a penalty of a minor fine. The Kenyan government has finally agreed to elevate the seriousness of wildlife crimes and employ the full range of criminal offences that could apply; this includes the Organized Crime Act, the Proceeds of Organized Crime Act, and the Corruption and Economic Crimes Act. Conviction under any of these pieces of legislation would mean 13 years in jail at a minimum. Eliminating just one of these middle men could cut off the supply chain from hundreds of poachers and cripple the criminal networks.

While Kenya is waking up to the scale of the crisis and is proposing new legal measures to halt the poaching, many know that the war cannot be won unless we address the problem at source. The escalating demand for ivory and rhino horn in Asian countries has driven up the prices making poaching and trafficking of these products a lucrative business. Ultimately we need to persuade the demand countries in Asia, especially China, Thailand and the Philippines, to reduce or eliminate the demand in their countries. It is their lust for ivory that threatens a global heritage and the economies of Africa.

Despite all the bad news, the Kenyan government is waking up. The First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta has joined WildlifeDirect’s campaign Hands Off Our Elephants as the champion of the cause. Seen to many as Kenya’s Michelle Obama, Mrs. Kenyatta is intelligent, elegant and courageous. She is hugely loved by the nation. Her involvement is backed by others including Kenyan elite runners, athletes and sports men and women, art and fashion celebrities, musicians and super models, government institutions, corporations like Kenya Airways, community and political leaders and the general public. Our message to China is that we are taking responsibility, we are cracking down on poachers and dealers, and they will go to jail. But we want buyers of ivory to get their hands off our elephants. Until China takes responsibility for its role in driving up the demand, the price of ivory will continue to rise and the worlds elephants will remain at risk of extinction.

The original link of the column above is: http://chqdaily.com/2013/07/01/morning-lecture-guest-column-saving-elephants-conservation-dilemmas/