Opinion: Killing of Great Tusker in Kenya Recalls Lesson From the Past


John Heminway, National Geographic

Date Published
The killing in late May of the great tusker Satao, in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, was another blunt reminder that no elephant in Africa is safe. A poacher’s poisoned arrow felled him, and his death was presumed to have been long and painful.
Satao was thought to be the largest-tusked elephant surviving in Africa. While he lived, he was a talisman of a wild land; in death, another tragic example of conservation’s failure.
Satao’s life and legend recalls those of Ahmed, an emblematic elephant known to many during the 1960s and 1970s. Ahmed inhabited the forests of Marsabit National Reserve, on a mountain rising out of the scrublands of northern Kenya. His tusks were presumed to be the longest and heaviest in Africa.
With the perplexing wisdom of elephants, two small bull elephants stayed by his side at all times, as if to protect him and his treasure. These two were locally known as askaris, guards, and they behaved accordingly, charging aggressors while the old gentleman ghosted back into heavy bush, concealing his colossal tusks.
Legends surrounded Ahmed. One was that his tusks were so long that he could go up a hill only by walking backwards. No one ever proved this tall tale, but images were taken of him resting his head on his tusks.
In 1970, Ahmed starred in three films almost simultaneously. The ABC series The American Sportsman featured director John Huston in “The Search for Ahmed.” An NBC film with George Plimpton followed, as well as a French documentary highlighting the work of Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
Ahmed benefited from all the attention, especially when the media blitz led to a 1970 letter-writing campaign by schoolchildren to Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, asking him to protect this treasure.
It took little time for the president to declare Ahmed a living monument and provide him with presidential protection: five armed game rangers whose job was to ensure security surveillance around the clock.
Those were dangerous times, like today, with elephant poaching on the rise throughout Kenya. Ahmed and his loyal attendants would have been easy targets for poachers. Personal protection was an effective deterrent.
The security plan indeed worked. Ahmed was able to live a charmed life, finally succumbing to natural causes four years later. He was found lying not flat on his side (as is the case with so many poaching victims) but in peaceful repose against a tree.
From his tusks, each one weighing nearly 150 pounds, a game warden calculated his age at 65. During his autopsy, antique Martini-Henry rifle bullets were whittled out of his body, suggesting that his life had been at risk ever since his birth in 1919.
Learning From the Past
Today, a fiberglass replica of Ahmed is displayed on the grounds of the Nairobi National Museum. Inside the museum, his skeleton, and those great tusks, remain under guard. Children still come to say hello.
Contrast the example Jomo Kenyatta set against the silence of his son Uhuru. The current president missed the chance to provide protection for Satao, send a forceful message to poachers, and gain the respect of all in the conservation community. If Uhuru had displayed the wisdom and prescience of his father, it is quite possible Satao would be alive today.
We can say that Tsavo National Park, with its dwindling herds of elephants, is a land of lost opportunities.
There is still hope.
A number of other large tuskers still roam the Commiphora bush of Tsavo. But none are safe against poachers, who, having encountered little opposition with Satao, will almost certainly continue to kill with impunity.
President Kenyatta should learn from his father’s example, by immediately conferring presidential protection on all great elephants at risk, beginning with those in Tsavo.
An armed ranger patrol, with the president’s authority, should be deployed to fight the poaching scourge by keeping a 24-hour surveillance of large-tusked bulls and cows. Such resolve at that high level would demonstrate the administration’s vow to protect tourism for all time.
It would also send a signal that poaching is both a wildlife crime and a violation of human rights—a crime against all Kenyans, since it will one day deprive them of their iconic national symbol. Without elephants, Kenya would suffer in unthinkable ways, economically and spiritually.
Now is the time for President Kenyatta to act. Just imagine all the schoolchildren’s letters he would receive, with thanks from around the world.
In 1969 John Heminway was production manager and writer of “The Search for Ahmed,” with John Huston. His most recent film was Battle for the Elephants, with Bryan Christy. Heminway is the chairman of WildlifeDirect.