A Tribute to Tenebo the Elephant


Gini Cowell, National Geographic

Date Published

See link for photos of Tenebo.

Somewhere on the African continent one elephant falls victim to poaching every 15 minutes. Almost one-hundred elephants are poisoned, speared, or shot for the tusks they carry every day.

These are statistics and headlines, but the truth of the matter is that each one of the elephants slain and horrifically butchered were once majestic individuals, distinguishable by appearance as well as character.

The venation patterns on each ear of every elephant is as unique as the human fingerprint. An elephant’s tusks, face, and size allow experienced observers to almost instantly tell any elephant apart from others.

As your understanding of an elephant’s behavior grows, it is as if you are seeing it for the very first time—with new eyes. You start to appreciate these animals on an entirely new level, and you feel special because it’s like learning a new language or being integrated into a new and fascinating culture.

This is how I would describe the feeling I got when in September 2011 when I began monitoring elephants with the help of the Elephant Aware Masai Mara team and Elephant Voices.

Having grown up in the bush with elephants around, I developed a deep respect and care for them from an early age, as I did with all animals.

But that September I saw a bull elephant in his mid-40s who some of the Elephant Aware rangers were observing, and for me that was the beginning of the change.

He was right on the edge of our camp, and he was peacefully browsing on the fallen branch of an acacia tree with two other bulls.

We started seeing this particular bull frequently after that. Soon the team decided to call him “Tenebo”, or “Together” in the Maa language, because he seemed to be the leader among his fellow bulls—the one who brought them together.

After a while Tenebo became increasingly relaxed around me, and I grew attached to him in a way that is inevitable when you spend as much time as we do with elephants.

He Became My Friend

Each time I encountered Tenebo, I no longer saw just another majestic elephant. He had become a familiar face—a friend. I recognized him almost the moment I saw him, with his stumpy tusks—both shortened either by accident or perhaps in skirmishes with other bulls—and the notch in his left ear, and it wasn’t long before the rest of the team did too.

Four years ago, in the early hours of the morning of November 24, 2012, poachers killed Tenebo. Just the day before we had spent a beautiful afternoon with him and his friends, and I remember vividly how he’d walked within a few feet of the car and looked at us.

He wasn’t looking at the vehicle as a whole—he was regarding us separately. His soft, amber-gold eyes gazed at me, and it made me feel warm and privileged to be in his presence.

Despite the fact that he was a wild bull elephant twice the size of a Land Rover, Tenebo always had this calming influence, and he never once showed aggression toward us.

The reason I am writing about Tenebo again now is because I feel I owe it to him. He was the very first elephant to show me a different side to their personalities. He opened my eyes and changed my heart, and for that I am forever grateful to him.

For weeks and months we all monitored Tenebo intermittently, sometimes by tracking him and often through serendipitous encounters.

Our intention during the time was not to familiarize him with people but to try to map his movement patterns, to watch where he went, and if we saw him going into dangerous areas, to help protect him.

The trust Tenebo showed us was extraordinary, and at first we hesitated to embrace it for fear it would cause him to lower his guard toward any people he came across.

But we soon discovered that this was not the case. He and his clique of bulls could tell instantly if there was a foreign vehicle in the vicinity, and they would move away in most cases.

We never went too close to him, however, and it was always through his own choice that he approached us.

I Couldn’t Stop My Tears

Because Tenebo was large-bodied, the people who killed him mistakenly believed he had prized tusks. Only after slaughtering him did they realized their error and fled without even taking the remains of his tusks.

He was ambushed and attacked just before dawn on the edge of a grassy plain. Our team was called to the scene immediately by one of our ranger units who had discovered him on an early morning foot patrol.

The local Kenya Wildlife Service unit joined the search for the killers, following their motorbike tracks away from the area. It was obvious that they’d made off in a hurry because of the exposed location.

When I first saw Tenebo lying there, mutilated and bloodied, he was unrecognizable. His trunk had been cut off and cast aside several feet away. We were able to identify him only by his tusks and the iconic u-shaped notch on his left ear lobe.

When it was impossible any longer to deny that this was Tenebo, I couldn’t stop my tears.

Some of us remained with Tenebo while his tusks were removed, an unbearable sight in itself, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

Meanwhile the poachers who killed Tenebo had a head start and crossed the border into Tanzania before they could be caught. Authorities there were informed and were to continue the search within their jurisdiction. They later caught up with and apprehended the leader of the gang.

The terrible story of Tenebo has been shared before, by me and others, but at the fourth anniversary of his death, I felt it was important that he be remembered.

Tenebo was an elephant we grew to understand and love. Perhaps some will call it anthropocentric, but in truth this tribute is to all elephants who have lost their lives to poachers and the insatiable demand for their ivory.

The horrifying manner with which they killed Tenebo represents the face of poaching. His loss depicts the gruesome plight elephants across the continent are struggling to escape from.

We Must Unite to Save His Species

Tenebo was not different from his fellow elephants as much in appearance as in personality. As his name suggests, he was a leader who brought his kind together, and now it is time for us to do the same. We must unite to save his species.

Tenebo strengthened our motivation to keep fighting. He changed our perspective on the situation. He reinforced our commitment to the cause.

His loss will never be forgotten, and it is my hope that his story will serve as a reminder of why elephants need saving and will impassion more people to join the movement to help elephants have a future.

Gini Cowell was born and raised in Kenya and works with the Elephant Project in Siana, Masai Mara, helping to protect elephants and all wildlife. She has studied elephant behavior in the field since 2011 under the mentorship of Joyce Poole.