Farewell Bonsai


By Desmond Kukubo, Conservation Education Officer

Date Published

I was on my first trip to the Save The Elephants research camp in Samburu when we got the bad news about Bonsai. I’d only recently started as STE’s new Conservation Education Officer. Until travelling to Samburu I had been busy getting to grips with the role in Nairobi after a lean and mean handover from my predecessor, Vella Kwamboka, who is now pursuing an MSc in the US.

Save the Elephants had known Bonsai for ten years but two and a half years ago the team began tracking her movements with a GPS collar to better understand her life and the decisions she makes. She was a 30-year-old mature female elephant belonging to a dominant family unit in Samburu known as the Hardwoods that has 20 mature individuals and 4 calves. Two years ago Ebony, the herd’s 40 year-old matriarch, was shot by poachers. Her young and inexperienced daughters Bonsai and Rosewood were left to lead the family.

Bonsai’s movements – revealed by her tracks on our custom-made Google Earth module – showed that she preferred to remain within the relative safety of the reserve, but that she has traveled as far as Imenti forest over the years. Her family sometimes splits up, with some following her and some following Rosewood, and sometimes they teamed up with other families for safety. Bonsai was doing well as a mother and had a healthy three year old calf and was possibly expecting another.

On my last day at camp I went out on an evening survey drive and we came across the Hardwoods. I was amazed at the size of these beautiful creatures, and counted myself lucky to be see one of our collared elephants on my first trip to Samburu. Her family was not far behind her, browsing, grazing and interacting with each other. Just as we were about to move on one of the family members crossed the dirt road right in front of our stationary vehicle. This was unexpected and I found myself clutching onto the seat belt as if it would help. I’d known they were magnificent creatures, but up close and in the flesh they are truly awe-inspiring.

Late in the evening on the 8th of June, gunshots rang out across Buffalo Springs Reserve, across the river from the research camp. Our team received an alert from Larsen’s Camp and sent an alarm to Kenya Wildlife Service. Her movements show that she was 1.5km south of Larsen’s Camp when she was hit, and then moved fast. By 2am she had stopped moving. The bush was thick and the rangers were forced to move cautiously in the darkness, but eventually they stumbled upon Bonsai, slowly bleeding away. She died shortly after their arrival. Her killers did not get hold of her less-than-impressive tusks – either they’d lost her or had been scared off by the arrival of the rangers. It is with great sadness that this family has had to experience another monumental loss and her calf will struggle to survive without her.

There’s been a heartfelt reaction to Bonsai’s death among the global community of elephant friends who we reach through our Facebook page. One of them, artist Annie Seddon, decided to dedicate her painting ‘Maternal Elephant’ in Bonsai’s memory.