One of Africa’s last ‘great tuskers’, elephants with ivory weighing over 100lbs, has been poisoned to death by poachers in Kenya after years of adapting his behaviour to hide himself from humans.
The bull, named Satao and likely born in the late 1960s, succumbed to wounds from poison darts in a remote corner of Tsavo National Park where he had migrated to find fresh water after recent storms.
His carcass yesterday lay with its face and great tusks hacked off, four legs splayed where he fell with his last breath, left only for the vultures and the scavengers.
Conservationists told how he moved from bush to bush always keeping his ivory hidden amongst the foliage.
“I’m convinced he did that to hide his tusks from humans, he had an awareness that they were a danger to him,” said Mark Deeble, a British documentary filmmaker who has spent long periods of time filming Satao.
The elephant’s killing is the latest in a massive surge of poaching of the mammals for their ivory across Africa.
Richard Moller, of The Tsavo Trust, who had been monitoring Satao for several months confirmed that the elephant found dead on May 30 was indeed Satao, whom he called “an icon”.
“There is no doubt that Satao is dead, killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries,” Mr Moller said.
“A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.”
A soaring demand for ivory in a number of Asian nations has seen poaching reach levels that were last seen in the 1980s before the ivory trade was banned.
“The loss of such an iconic elephant is the most visible and heart-rending tip of this iceberg, this tragedy that is unfolding across the continent,” added Frank Pope of Save The Elephants in Nairobi.
The street value of elephant ivory is now greater than gold, running to tens of thousands of pounds per tusk. Organised criminals are increasingly running poaching gangs and networks, officials have said.
More than 20,000 African elephants were slaughtered in 2013, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has documented the killing of 97 elephants so far this year, but experts dispute the official figures.
Dr Paula Kahumbu, who leads the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign, wrote that – based on the reports she has seen – “elephant poaching in Kenya is at least 10 times the official figures”.
In March this year, renowned conservationist Richard Leakey described poaching in Kenya as a “national disaster” and that poachers were operating with “outrageous impunity”.
“They could not operate with the impunity we are seeing if you did not have some form of protection from law enforcement agencies,” he said, likening the crisis to the mass poaching of the late 1980s.
Mr Leakey disputes official statistics that claim that the number of elephants that have been killed has declined. KWS recorded that 302 elephants were poached in 2013 down from 384 the previous year, of a total estimated population of 38,000 in Kenya.
Earlier this month, police seized more than 200 elephant tusks in a warehouse in the port city of Mombasa, weighing over 4,400lb.
Two men have been charged in connection with the haul.
Nelson Marwa, Mombasa county commissioner, said that the ivory find was linked to terrorism and drug barons in the city.
Mr Leakey cited the Indian Ocean port as a “staging post” for ivory smuggled from countries across the region.
Until recently, poachers in Kenya faced lenient sentences and few were successfully prosecuted.
A study by WildlifeDirect, a Nairobi-based charity that Dr Kahumbu heads, found that over the past five years just four per cent of those convicted of wildlife crimes in 18 of the country’s courts were sent to jail.
There is hope that tough new legislation passed earlier this year will lead to higher conviction rates and tougher sentences.
“Satao was probably one of half a dozen of Kenya’s great tuskers, possibly the largest,” said Mr Deeble, who flew over the elephant’s carcass on Friday.
“It’s a devastating situation. Kenya’s last great tuskers need presidential protection. If Satao’s death can galvanise the focus on what’s actually happening here in terms of poaching, then he won’t have died in vain.”