Memories of Satao: One Year Later

Photograph of Satao on March 8, 2014, just a few months before his death-- Richard Moller, Tsavo Trust

Photograph of Satao on March 8, 2014, just a few months before his death-- Richard Moller, Tsavo Trust

In March 2014, Satao, an iconic bull elephant with 100 lb. tusks that practically scraped the rust-red earth, was spotted during the Great Elephant Census aerial surveys over Tsavo National Park. He appeared to be wounded. Since there are only 12 tuskers living in Kenya's greater Tsavo Conservation Area, and through the efforts of the Big Tusker Project (formerly the Large Elephant Monitoring Project), it is possible to identify and monitor these icons. The Great Elephant Census video team, along with film partners Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone of The Elephant Movie, joined with park officials to track Satao and check the status of his wound. A poisoned arrow had grazed Satao's hide, but he shook it off and required no treatment. The filmmakers took some video and left as Satao lumbered away into the park. That was the last time he was seen alive.

Satao had become a familiar face to those living and working in the 22,000 sq. km. Tsavo Conservation Area. Tsavo Trust considered him a creature of habit who didn't move more than 15 kilometers from the Satao Camp site that christened him with his name. He was estimated to be between 45 and 50 years old, but since the Tsavo Trust could retrieve his teeth after his death, they've narrowed that age to between 48 and 50, one of the oldest in the project. While he would occasionally mingle with other herds at watering holes and travel with his posse of smaller bull elephants known as askari, Satao was frequently seen alone. A stoic image of the "loner bull" and a reminder of what a great elephant could become if left alone for half a century.

Satao was certainly a creature of habit, and he was also aware of the presence of humans, an obvious repercussion of human-elephant conflict as conservation parks push up against human growth. Richard Moller of the Big Tusker Project noted that, "He was trusting of humans, to the extent that I think he knew the sound of my car and I could get particularly close to him. His trust was his final downfall." 

This behavior served as a warning; poachers knew of Satao, and Satao's behavior indicated he knew of poachers. He would often hide his ivory behind a bush or behind the askaris that traveled with him, as though he knew that humans were after it.  Moller believes that poachers loitering just past the Park boundary noticed him, and formulated a plan. A tusker with ivory of that size would be worth the risk of breaching the Park's electric fences under the cover of nightfall. 

Image used with permission from Tsavo Trust. 

During Satao's last two months alive, as poachers plotted to take him down, conservation filmmaker Mark Deeble and the Great Elephant Census production team caught some of the last footage of Satao. On May 30th, Satao was shot with a poisoned arrow. The arrow penetrated deep into his hide and eventually wore him down. His face was hacked off by poachers, and his carcass was left rotting in a clearing and was found covered in carrion feces. It took weeks to positively identify Satao's remains.

Mark Deeble is still in Tsavo, still filming and collecting the stories of Tsavo's iconic elephants to share with the world through his project, The Elephant Movie. As the one-year anniversary of Satao's death approaches, Mark visited the site of Satao's remains and posted a moving blog about his experience. With permission from Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone we are including an excerpt, but for anyone who loves elephants and knew of the iconic Satao, please go to Mark's Wordpress and read the entire article. 

"It was late in the afternoon and I had to get back before dark, but I was loathe to leave. It started to rain. I hunkered down beneath the Boscia bush and remembered Satao.
The rain eased and I stood and stretched. I could hear distant goats – I couldn’t help but feel that humanity was pushing in on elephants. Beyond the fence had once been some of the best elephant country in Africa, but we’d not seen a single elephant out there in the three years we’d flown it, only the smudge of illegal charcoal kilns, as every year there were fewer trees.
As the sun tried to push through the clouds, and I looked around and prepared to leave, a pair of butterflies alighted – their folded lime-white underwings somehow perfect against the dark stain that had once been Africa’s most magnificent elephant. As they uncurled their probosces and started to suck minerals, I thought of how Satao was returning to the ecosystem that produced him – sip by tiny sip." -Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone

Satao left an indelible imprint on all that he encountered. People like Richard Moller, Mark Deeble, and Vicky Stone, who remain in Tsavo working tirelessly to share the stories of Tsavo's elephants. The Great Elephant Census flies on, over 50% complete, with hopes to gain an accurate pan-African count that can help guide NGOs and governments toward meaningful elephant conservation strategies. 

While it is a terrible tragedy that a tusker was killed, we take comfort knowing that his genes can be found in many young elephants throughout the park. If his children are able to grow up, perhaps, with the help of antipoaching initiatives and anti-ivory legislation born from the data shared by the Great Elephant Census and the awareness spread by The Elephant Movie, we will see Satao reflected in a new generation of elephants. Perhaps some of the anonymous elephants counted during the Census are the progeny of Satao, and perhaps a future film, "The Sons of Satao", will share the story of this great tusker's legacy. 

You can donate to Tsavo Trust to help the Big Tusker Project.

To find out more about The Elephant Movie, you can read Mark's blog or follow them on Facebook for updates. 

Follow the conversation about Satao on Twitter with the hashtag #RememberSatao

The Great Elephant Census would like to express their gratitude to Richard Moller from Tsavo Trust and Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone from The Elephant Movie for their help with this blog.