One of Africa’s Last Great Tusker Elephants Was Killed by Poachers (Kenya)


Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic

Date Published

One of Kenya’s last great tusker elephants was reportedly shot and
killed by poachers.

During a routine flyover on January 4 by the conservation group Tsavo
Trust in southern Kenya, the body of a famous, roughly 50-year-old
African elephant known as Satao II was discovered, though news of his
death was only announced Monday. While the cause of death has not been
confirmed, conservationists believe he was killed by a poisoned arrow
while feeding in the eastern region of the park. The area is known as
a “poaching hot spot.”

African elephants are traditionally referred to as “tuskers” when
their tusks grow so long they reach the ground. This makes them an
especially attractive potential target for poachers, who attack
elephants for their lucrative ivory. It’s estimated that as few as 25
tuskers remain in all of Africa, and only 10 were observed by the
Tsavo trust in January.

Satao II was found with his ivory intact, meaning poachers were not
able to use it for illegal trading.

Each of his enormous tusks weighed 112 and 111 pounds.

Two weeks after Satao II’s body was found, the Tsavo conservation team
was able to apprehend two alleged poachers they believe were
responsible for the deaths of Satao II and three other elephants that
had recently been poached in the same area.

The two alleged poachers were found carrying an AK-47 firearm, 12
poisoned arrows, and three bows.

While the conservation group reported Satao II’s death as a sobering
loss for the park, they took some solace in knowing that his ivory
could not be used to fuel illegal ivory markets.

“More importantly, this poaching gang that possibly tried to poach
Satao II has been broken forever,” the group said on their website.

The Tsavo Conservation Area spans over 16,000 square miles and
comprises almost half of all conservation land in Kenya. The trust
conducts monthly flyovers that allow them to collect information about
African elephants and black rhinos, a similarly at-risk mammal. Since
2013, the group has made 142 poaching-related arrests.

Tuskers play a significant role in elephant society. Vicki Fishlock,
the resident scientist at Amboseli Trust for Elephants, told National
Geographic in 2015 that tuskers of this age and size are crucial.

“They have been parts of social networks for five or six decades and
have accumulated social and ecological experience that younger animals
learn from,” she said.

The death of Satao II comes only three years after the death of his
predecessor, Satao, whose death around age 50 represented a monumental
loss for the park. The elder Satao (who inspired the name for Satao II
but probably wasn’t related to him) was also targeted for his large
tusks but suffered a more gruesome end when his face was hacked off
and his tusks were taken to be sold for ivory.

Poaching for the ivory trade is the biggest threat to African
elephants, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature
lists as vulnerable. A Colorado State University study from 2014 found
that African elephants are being poached at a rate faster than they
can reproduce. At its peak in 2011, more than 40,000 elephants were
poached in Africa.

Current populations are estimated to be as low as 415,000, a decline
of more than 100,000 since 2007.

A number of steps have been taken to reduce the trade of ivory. CITES,
an international agreement among governments focused on reducing the
trade of threatened plants and animals, opposes the global ivory

The U.S. is one of the largest markets for ivory, and in July 2016,
enacted a near-total ban on all ivory-related commerce, a step up from
what had previously amounted only to a ban on commercial imports. The
ban was part of a 2013 executive order from then-President Obama to
end wildlife trafficking, at the time calling it an “international

China, also a significant market for ivory, announced at the end of
last year that it plans to shut down its ivory trade by the end of

Hong Kong remains the world’s largest market for ivory but has pledged
to phase out domestic trade by 2021.