An Elephant Researcher Mourns An Elephant Lost to Poachers

Jake Wall is a research scientist with Save the Elephants. As part of his work, he followed the travels of one particular male elephant called "Mountain Bull." But that research ended abruptly last month when Mountain Bull was slaughtered by poachers.

Wall has written a moving tribute to Mountain Bull, which he's allowed me to share here.

A Tribute to Mountain Bull

Mountain Bull was killed by poachers last week. The poachers used poison tipped spears. Although we will never know what his last hours were like, we can assume they were spent in agony – a mix of pain and rage, giving way to a horrific death as he bled being chased through the forest. Knowing their own lives were on the line, the poachers unceremoniously hacked away his face with crude rusty pangas (machetes), trying to quickly remove every last fragment of tusk that extends deep into an elephant's skull.

Mountain Bull's tusks had already been partially sawed off by the Lewa Conservancy in 2012 in an effort to protect him and deter poachers from killing him. They removed as much ivory as they could without damaging the nerve. Tusks are teeth - and anyone who has ever had a root canal can sympathize. But this did not deter the poachers last week. The price of ivory is soaring now, and there is such a demand from Asian markets that the poachers killed him anyway, to get the few kilos he was already indignantly left with. It is likely that the eventual buyer of the useless ivory trinkets that were once his magnificent tusks will never understand what an incredible personality Mountain Bull was. About 42 years old, he was just coming into his prime as a bull, about to reach the pinnacle of passing on his genes. Very few bulls are left that make it to that age nowadays and Mountain Bull was one of the biggest in the Mount Kenya forest.

In 2006 Mountain Bull was fitted with a GPS tracking collar by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton – director of Save the Elephants– and by Ian Craig, now director of the Northern Rangelands Trust and then director of Lewa Conservancy. Reporting at hourly intervals via the local Safaricom cell tower, it revealed an incredible network of movement trails that encircled the north east quadrant of the Mount Kenya forest, sometimes extending far east into the Imenti forest reserve.

An Elephant Researcher Mourns An Elephant Lost to Poachers

More importantly, the data also showed that he occasionally streaked down from his lush, highland refuge into the dry savannahs of Lewa and Borana – a 12-15 kilometer hike I once performed to try and follow his footprints. To do this, he walked out of the main gate of the Imenti reserve on average around 9 pm. The gate is adorned with the skulls of two elephants and I always imagine what must have been going through his mind before leaving. He then proceeded down the main road passing right through a village before abandoning the road and crossing through the expansive wheat fields belonging to Marania farm. From there he continued down the volcanic slopes and onto the Cape-to-Cairo highway, and finally, just before dawn, entered through a single small gate that led him into the Ngare Ndare forest. Ever the rebel, he sometimes opened the locked gate with his trunk and would craftily duck down and shuffle through to avoid getting shocked by the dangling electric wires meant to keep elephants out. Other times, he bull-dozed his way through, taking the jolt as the price to pay for the promise of food and sex. Once down onto the savannah he was free to roam and mingle with females, and look for minerals and plants beyond those available in his montane diet. A few days, weeks or even months later, and with no discernible statistical pattern he would make the return journey, understandably a few hours more slowly as he gained 450 meters in elevation to return to the cool forest.

An Elephant Researcher Mourns An Elephant Lost to Poachers

Above: Mountain Bull gets re-collared in 2011.

Over the last 8 years, we have fitted and refitted Mountain Bull with four tracking collars. In that time he has performed his up/down mountain movements a whopping 63 times. In 2010, Kisima farm erected an electric fence to protect crops and Mountain Bull suddenly became very unpopular as his peregrinations took him through the fence with little concern for farming finances. A chance viewing of a map of his movements by Richard Branson led to some financial support to the Mount Kenya Trust to initiate the building of a special elephant corridor on the margins of Marania and Kisima farms along an unused ravine.

We were interested to see whether he would change his behaviour and shift his normal route across the wheat fields to start using the new corridor when it opened on Jan 1, 2011. Other elephants took to it immediately despite the highway underpass that could have been a serious deterrent to movement. But elephants are wiley and in fact, 'Tony', another bull elephant collared in the area went through the underpass within 24 hours of its opening. It took Mountain Bull another 5 months before he tried out the new route. In the end, our data shows that he did start to use the corridor and would likely have been one if its biggest advocates had he not been killed.

It was comforting to know that he was performing his iconic night-time streaking movements up and down the mountain. It gave one the feeling that everything was right in the world and that an important ecological system was still functioning the way it should; his dung dispersing seeds and his genes being spread far and wide even at the expense of some fencing. The connectivity between the forest and the savannah was an important safety net for drought years and we never feared he would be without water because he could always return to the mountain. His final trip up the mountain was on April 22 just before his collar fell silent and we received the news of his death.

We will miss Mountain Bull. Receiving the Geofence email alarms triggered by our tracking server when he crossed out of the Imenti forest to begin his adventurous trek always led to excitement and the utterance of a silent prayer that he would make the trip alright. Camera trap data, and the sets of big muddy footprints left in the dark have revealed that he was often not alone on his trips and might have been accompanied by other bulls. DNA might eventually help us determine how many offspring he sired during his time on the savannah and in the forest.

We hope that he has passed on his knowledge and that if we can only stem the current senseless killing for ivory, a new generation of elephants will follow in his footsteps. His loss for the sake of a few trinkets to be made from his tusks has brought a sad end to the marvelous presence, biology and ecology that he embodied.

Images via Jake Wall, used with permission; header image via Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons