In African elephants, unlike their Asian counterparts, both males and females grow tusks. In both genders they can grow to equal lengths, those of males are only thicker. People say that you can tell an elephant’s age by the size of its tusks, for they grow throughout their life. And indeed, old elephants used to have tusks of two or even three metres, but nowadays more and more elephants of all ages walk around with very small, or no tusks at all. Even big, old elephant bulls can have just short nubs, or none. This decrease in length is due to poachers: for hundreds of years they have specifically killed elephants with big tusks and continue to do so today – each year between 30- and 40 thousand elephants are killed in Africa for their ivory. Only elephants with really short tusks are left alone. And since tusk length is a genetic trait, more and more elephants are born with little or no tusks.
However, every once in a while a bull elephant is born who sports extra long tusks, and grows to an enormous size – the elephant in the drawing is one of those. In English such elephants are called ‘tuskers’. An elephant is officially a tusker when his tusks weigh more than 45.5 kg (100lbs) each, and some males hauled some 130 kilograms of ivory around. In the world famous Kruger National Park of South Africa once lived seven enormous tuskers, who were collectively called the Magnificent Seven. One of the males, Mafunyane, had tusks so long they constantly touched the ground, causing the tips to be sharpened to a chisel-edge. Due to heavy poaching, African tuskers have become extremely rare, and probably no more than 40 of them are left.
Satao was one of the biggest. His home were the outstretched savannahs of national park Tsavo East in southern Kenya. He was enormous, his tusks so large that even seasoned elephant researchers gasped for air when they saw him. Satao had learned that humans were dangerous, that poachers meant death, and so he had become elusive. Poachers often wait for elephants near water holes because they know elephants need to drink regularly. Satao knew that they knew. He made sure his behaviour was unpredictable, careful not to build up a pattern the poachers could follow. He would show up at one pool a couple of times, suddenly appear somewhere else and then disappear for several months at a time. It was what kept him alive. Mark Deeble, a photographer, is one of the few who has seen Satao alive. He too waited for the massive bull near a water hole – and he waited for weeks, until finally Satao showed. When Satao headed for the water, mark noticed something: instead of walking straight for the pool, the bull zigzagged almost a full kilometre, constantly throwing his trunk in the air to smell for any poachers, before hiding only his head in a bush. Mark didn’t understand why the elephant was doing such a poor job at concealing himself – until he realised Satao wasn’t trying to hide himself, but only his tusks. It was incredibly smart of Satao to understand that his tusks could get him in trouble, but also incredibly sad.
For years Satao managed to keep himself safe, but in February this year he was seen with two poison arrows in his side. He had been shot by poachers. Rangers and the park’s vet were quickly on the scene to assess the damage and see how Satao was holding up. Anaesthetising an elephant as large as Sato is very dangerous: he could easily overheat in the African sun, and getting back up with tusks as large as his is very difficult. However, despite the two arrows the elephant seemed to be doing well, and the decision was made to let him recover by himself. It was a good decision because Satao pulled through and got better on his own accord.
Three months later, May this year, and Satao’s luck had run out. Park rangers found his body, the iconic tusks long hacked off and gone, with only his ears left to prove it was indeed Satao, the great tusker who took his last breath here. It is said that the preservation of the last great tuskers is so important because only they still have the genes for enormous tusks, and only they can prevent all elephants in Africa having to go without. In his fifty years, Satao has sired many sons and daughters. Hopefully some of them have their father’s tusks, hopefully in 20 years a few of his sons will have grown into Tsavo’s new tuskers, and hopefully the world will have become a safer place for elephants by that time.