Image: Great tusker, Wide Satao (centre), with other bulls in Tsavo East National Park © Christine Mwende / Tsavo Trust
Last December, Kenya lost an iconic great tusker called Wide Satao. Wide Satao died of natural causes that were most likely accelerated by the extended drought that ravaged through the Tsavo ecosystem last year. Wide Satao’s death was felt by many including Save the Elephant’s Research and Science Manager in Tsavo, Dr Lydia Tiller. Dr Tiller first met the well-known and much-loved elephant in 2018. Here she writes about the extraordinary life of the old bull and why protecting the great tuskers continues to be a key priority.
By Lydia Tiller.
“The Tsavo landscape feels empty. I miss Wide Satao’s presence and how he would let us sit and observe him from a safe distance in our research vehicle. No aggression towards us, always calm.
It has been over two months since Wide Satao died of natural causes and yet, it feels like just yesterday.
In 2018, Save the Elephants, Tsavo Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service collared Wide Satao to increase our knowledge about great tusker movement patterns and behaviour, and to enhance his protection. This operation, where we also collared 19 other elephants across the Tsavo ecosystem, was the first time I met Wide Satao”.
Wide Satao – a leader
Wide Satao was a leader. We always observed him with other bull elephants, leading the way. We often talk about elephant matriarchs leading their family groups and bulls being more solitary and less social but we are learning more and more about bull elephants and finding that they are incredibly social, and also have complex social networks just like females.
Before Wide Satao died, he was surrounded by bulls. When he collapsed and could not get up, those elephants did not leave his side. The vet team had to chase them away in order to treat Wide Satao yet the elephants lingered nearby. I am sure they were listening to what was going on and their presence gave Wide Satao much comfort.
Wide Satao – a Survivor
Wide Satao survived two poaching crises in Kenya; when he was a youngster in the 70s and 80s and again from 2009 to 2014. Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have long term memories. Wide Satao probably remembers all these tragic events where he most likely witnessed family members and friends being killed.
Great tuskers are a target for poachers meaning they are constantly at risk. In his adult life, Wide Satao survived multiple human attacks. When we collared Wide Satao in 2018, the vet was able to treat an arrow wound that he had on his side. A year or so later, STE’s WildTracks App showed that Wide Satao had streaked (moved more than 2.5km per hour) from a very risky area outside Tsavo East National Park and back into the park. This unusual behaviour prompted a Tsavo Trust team to check up on him, and subsequently found that he had been shot with an arrow. Luckily, a vet unit was alerted and he received immediate medical attention. Wide Satao was a testament to the strength and courage of elephants.
Wide Satao’s last moments
Before Wide Satao died, Save the Elephants received immobility alerts from his tracking collar. A team from Tsavo Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was deployed to his location and upon their arrival at the remote scene, they found that Wide Satao had collapsed. The team tried multiple times to get him up on his feet but sadly, as he was very weak, he was unable to stand on his own. A few hours later, Wide Satao tragically passed away.
The future of great tuskers
There are few places in the world where great tuskers, like Wide Satao, still exist so it was truly a privilege to have spent time with him. In Tsavo, where Wide Satao was from, there are only around nine super tuskers (an elephant with tusks so long that they reach the ground) left, and approximately 27 emerging tuskers (young males with the potential to be the next great tuskers). Luckily, Tsavo Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service monitor all the great tuskers in Tsavo providing crucial protection for these beautiful giants and enabling us to learn more about them.
Wide Satao was a magnificent elephant. Not only did he have his Great Tusker stature, with huge tusks weighing over 50kg each, but he was a survivor, a mentor to other elephants and a gentle giant. He was an irreplaceable symbol of Kenya’s unique natural heritage. Personally, his death really impacted me as I was one of the fortunate people to have known this iconic tusker. I really will miss Wide Satao, but I know he will live on in the genes of other elephants across Tsavo.
RIP beautiful Wide Satao.