1. two bullets on a poached Elephant’s skin, one unspent round used as an example provided by a KWS ranger for the photo and one recovered from the Elephant in autopsy
This is a personal account of an Elephant that was poached while
I was living with Talis in Waso, and the search for her orphaned calf.
We heard from one of our wildlife monitors that an Elephant had been poached near the Sieku valley. Our monitors are trained to check for breast milk that would indicate that her calf may be too young to survive alone with the herd.
We arrived and were shown the body of the mother. She was lying under a tree next to a gulley and her body had already had signs of hyena trying to feed on her the night before.
There’s a terrible pointlessness to the body of a poached Elephant, it is a plain and simple tragedy.
We left her and crept up into the hills where the rest of the herd was with her orphan. The problem with an orphan is that if it still needs to suckle it is almost a certainty that no other females in the herd will let it. The calf will get weaker and weaker and eventually will dehydrate and fall behind the herd.
If she looked like she was beginning to struggle we would normally organise for her to be transported to the David Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage where we know she would be perfectly taken care of until old enough to go back into the wild.
With an orphaned baby elephant every hour counts and the quicker we can help them the better their chances of survival. The Trust works closely with Sheldrick’s who will send a plane and assistance to safely transport baby Elephant.
We take our wildlife monitors and community elders to Nairobi to see the incredible work of the orphanage, with keepers spending 24hrs a day with a baby. For many Samburu witnessing a baby elephant being fed so many gallons of milk a day, bathing and caring for it, is so foreign and yet so right for their culture.
3. the orphan with her herd
This baby was at a borderline age so we decided to post someone to follow her and report, see if she was still suckling, make sure she was getting enough water and safe from predators.
We returned to the carcass where the Kenya Wildlife Service had come to remove the tusks so the poachers couldn’t profit from the exercise. I stood around and watched them hack the tusks off this poor mother and thought about how desperately sad it was.
At that time (March 2011) compared to previous years there had been an incredible resurgence in poaching in the area due to the massive increase in demand for ivory in Asia. We were all shocked at how bad it had gotten so quickly. Since that point the PIKE level (Percentage of Illegally Killed Elephants) has risen to 61%, the highest ever recorded in Samburuland*.
4. searching for the orphan
The population in this area is Africa’s second largest and the illegal poaching is now widely considered to be unmanageable. We are now realistically facing the end of wild African Elephant within a few short years. This is a man-made environmental disaster that, as a society, we thought we were beating so thoroughly that we lost interest in it.
5. the poached mother 3 days later. in the background a Samburu moran stays his distance
At the site of the mother’s body Talis and the other Samburu present stood at a far distance. Elephant are sacred to the Samburu and to touch a dead one is a curse on your clan, so the morani wouldn’t come closer than ten metres if they could help it.
Samburu Trustee and honorary Kenyan Wildlife Warden Colin Francombe sharpened his knife before searching through the Elephant’s shoulder in the hope of finding the bullet. I had seen him find a round this way before and it could give us vital clues to the weapon used.
Colin is a devoted conservationist and an encyclopedia of Northern Kenya. He has lived amongst the Samburu for 50 years and sits as a respected elder in Laikipia. When the Kenyan government made the radical statement of burning a cache of poached ivory in 1989 Colin was called upon to build the bonfire.
6. Colin Francombe constructing the ivory bonfire in 1989
He explained to me that this mother had died in a very common way for poachers. They put a bullet into their shoulder with an inexpensive round and begin to track it. The wound will begin to infect within a couple of days and the Elephant will begin to slow, some days later it will lie down for the last time. There is no doubt about the excruciatingly painful nature of this death.
The fee for a poacher to perform this is terribly low compared to the eventual black market rate of the ivory, yet undeniably attractive for someone facing Kenya’s high rates of unemployment.
Colin opened the belly of the mother so that the ecosystem could benefit from her loss before she began to rot, and we left the site at dusk. Three days later we heard that we had lost the trace of our orphan and we sent out the word in the hopes that we would come across her again.
Elephant are sacred to the Samburu and vital to the survival of the ecosystem. There are so many intricate symbiotic aspects to their two societies**, so for the Trust any Elephant in distress is a priority. We wanted to find this baby and make sure she was ok, and for over a week we had no word.
We will continue this story in a few weeks time with the story of the lost orphan. In the meantime the Trust is currently working on a new strategy for this growing emergency, so we ask that everyone share this post and stay tuned to see how you can help.
7. the mother laying next to the gulley
NEXT WEEK: LPAYANI – THE ELDERS
*The proportion of illegally killed elephants (PIKE rate) in 2011 (61% across the entire Samburu/Laikipia MIKE site) is the highest reported since the Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program began in 2002. The population of 7200 elephant in the Laikipia/Samburu area can sustain a 30-40% PIKE rate. Above this percentage the population cannot sustain it and will decrease significantly.
**we will cover the fascinating links between the Samburu and Elephant in a future Chapter.
All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.
1,2,3,4,5,7: S. Kenyon.
6: J. Francombe.