Where have all the big boys gone? – Shermin de Silva


Shermin de Silva, Postdoctoral Researche

Date Published

“It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant. It is not brutal, it is not heroic, and certainly it is not easy; it is just one of those preposterous things that men do like putting a dam across a great river, one tenth of whose volume could engulf the whole of mankind without disturbing the domestic life of a single catfish.”

– Beryl Markham, West With The Night

The sight of an old bull elephant is something few of us have the privilege to experience. His features are broad and craggy, the outlines of his ears as frayed as the edge of a battle flag. Not as beautiful as the handsome younger fellows who strut around, but magnificent and grand nonetheless.

On my second day out in Samburu, we encountered a bull who had not been seen for at least two years. He had short, a-symmetric tusks and a great wide head with tattered ears. After some asking around, he turned out to be Napoleon – one of the few over forty in this population, and known for many years. One rainy day we came upon the sight of Napoleon in solemn company with not one, not two, but three other equally distinguished elders. They were Obama, Edison, and Kenyatta. I noticed they all had rather small or broken tusks. In the mix were two younger bulls. All were peacefully munching, and eventually moved off and trailed one another into the misty downpour. Why were they gathered together in this spot and why did they leave together? Mysterious.

I am thrilled whenever we see these old boys, not just due to their sheer bulk but mainly because such a venerable age is rare in this population. Sadly but unsurprisingly, males with big tusks are prime targets for poachers. Perhaps Napoleon had evaded them because his short tusks offered less payoff for the risk. But poaching has even extended to the females, with their more slender tusks.

My second week here we heard reports of a massive bull that had been killed. In their haste, the poachers had left part of the tusks still embedded in the skull, which had to be cut out and destroyed by Kenya Wildlife Services. In addition to the tusks, eerily, they had taken parts of his ears and genitalia.

We had the sad task of visiting another elephant carcass at a nearby conservancy, for a MIKE report (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants). MIKE documents both natural and human-caused deaths. The body had mostly decomposed, being at least a month since the animal died, though the stench was still pervasive. This smell of death is familiar to me, from Uda Walawe. While it was initially thought that this death was natural because the tusks had been found on it, closer inspection of the jaw and skull showed at least definite bullet hole and two other possible ones. We imagined that it must have been shot elsewhere and wandered into the protected area before dying. By the size of the skull and the structure of its teeth, it appeared to be a male only 12-14 years old. Perhaps it wasn’t even the main target.

Another female was shot up so badly she couldn’t walk. Her hind leg and shoulder on one side were shattered – if she were darted, she would fall and never get up. When the patrols and veterinarian found her she had to be put down. More recently, a recently a collared female was killed – a unique individual named Dvorjak who had modified her range to move from the Lewa Conservancy to the Samburu/Buffalo Springs area. On the same day three other poached carcasses were found – the body of a young female in her twenties, a young male in his teens, and a nine-year old. All lay facing the same direction, with the labyrinthine trails of hyenas cris-crossing about them. How many more hidden carcasses were there? Even the rangers were unnerved by this disturbing site.

In my mind I can’t help envisioning the last moments of these animals – that young male, shot in the head and face, bleeding to death, unable to eat, suffering before he died. Was he a bystander, as they gunned down someone else? The young female – I imagine they shot her first, and the others ran to her as she went down. Perhaps they were caught be surprise, perhaps they rallied in defense. They would die too. Brutal beyond words.

In Sri Lanka, where I work, a large shipment of ivory was confiscated last year. It was traced back to Kenya.

To our collective disgust, it has been reported that this confiscated ivory, these teeth of animals that died most horrific deaths, are to be distributed among Buddhist temples. Among them, the most sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, home of a tooth of the Buddha himself. What an obscene perversion of all that he stood for, the non-materialistic philosophy based on universal love endorsed by that great teacher! Ivory should NOT be temple décor and should be protested widely.

The buying and veneration of ivory needs to stop.

Back in the reserve, my spirits are lifted at the sight of every elder – matriarch and patriarch alike. Elders are venerable, among humans and elephants; they command respect. With the wet season, a few big bulls are wandering in that had not been seen in so many months – or indeed, ever before. In the midst of all these casualties, a few old timers and males in their prime have managed not only to survive, but expand their ground. There are new Old bulls in Samburu!

One of these is Leakey – a striking sight with his colossal head and formidable, oddly displaced tusks. His head alone seems to comprise half his weight, it was so massive. By its mere size, he had to be easily the oldest elephant I had ever seen in my life. He is quite a calm animal for all that, and this funny profile makes me chuckle. He seems to be filling a vacuum left by those claimed by the poachers.

The other day, we were also briefly charged by an animal whom Jerenimo could not immediately recognize. He was showing signs of musth, and towered at us for a split second like a mushroom cloud. Though we were quick to accelerate away, instead of sitting at a distance and watching sensibly, I was quite baffled when a second later I found dear Jeronimo was reversing us back at him. I was particularly impressed given that there are the mangled remains of a previous Toyota at the entrance to camp as a monument to the might of a mature bull in musth. But my faith in Jeronimo’s experience, and concentration on taking pictures of his ears for identification, dispelled any nervousness. Fortunately, the mystery bull chose to pace away from us.

Little baby boys are playing in the long wet grass. Some will grow up to be big boys. Some will live to be old boys. Long may such hulks continue to roam these woodlands.