I woke to the sound of heavy breathing – and lay still. Next came grass-ripping, followed by the sound of sliding cloth – first loud and rough, then soft and slick. I knew that the grass-ripping would be Chota, our ‘camp elephant’, feeding close to our tent. The other sound puzzled me. I kept my eyes closed, delighting in the mystery of what it could be. I knew he was feeding within a few feet, but there was something else going on. The noise came again. I gave up. I opened my eyes. Chota’s huge bulk blocked the moon, and cast a shadow over the bed. He was up against the tent, much closer than usual – pulling grass from beneath the flysheet – where daytime shade and the occasional drizzle-drip has kept it slightly greener. With each trunkful, he’d raise his head – as he did, his tusk tips would press into the tent and slide upwards – first over the rough canvas, then hang momentarily on a seam and slip across the mosquito net window. The next time he did it, I gently extended my right hand and the tip of his tusk brushed my fingertips.
After feeding, he walked a few meters away and stood – four-square and sleeping. The moon set and he dissolved into the dark – only his loose-lipped farts let us know he was there. When we woke, he was gone.
On Saturday morning we left camp – we’d planned a day or two away. That evening, just after sunset, there was a burst of gun fire a short distance upstream and a bull elephant collapsed and bled out in the riverbed. We didn’t hear about it until dawn the next day. The shots were heard from a tented camp, and by people camping close-by. They contacted Kenya Wildlife Service – their headquarters are only ten minutes away. They responded rapidly, but by the time rangers arrived, the poachers had hacked out one tusk and fled. The rangers removed the other. Later that night, hyenas chewed the ears, and the bull became immediately unrecognizable – faceless – just another statistic in a developing genocide.
I could imagine the scene – a mature bull elephant, digging for water in the moonlight – surrounded by females and calves. Within seconds, the tranquility shattered; within hours, the bull reduced to a one-line entry in a KWS manifest, a bloodied and numbered tusk in a strongroom, and another – probably already strapped on a motor-bike, en route to Mombasa.
I looked at my right hand – a similar hand had pulled the trigger and wielded the axe – quite likely while the bull was still alive. I dreaded the thought that the bull might have been Chota.
We flew in the next day and circled the carcass – four hyenas loped away – even from the air we could see how distended their bellies were. I was shocked at how close to the tented camp the shooting had been. Only a short distance away was the campsite. The poachers had been brazen.
I thought back to the Saturday morning. As we’d driven back into camp a family of elephants had spooked – hundreds of meters away and upwind. They’d screamed and run. We’d had lions all around camp the night before, and I assumed they’d chanced upon them – but we later remarked on how they’d carried on running. Their fear was contagious, and for the next few hours, elephants all around were noisy and nervous. I wonder now, whether it hadn’t been lions, but poachers that had spooked the herd.
We landed and set off for camp – prepared for the worst. While away, we had tried to get photographs sent to identify the bull, but we need not have worried. Before we’d even turned off the engine, Mzee Musili was at our side, and smiling, to tell us that he’d seen Chota at dawn – up to his old trick of emptying the shower bucket.
My relief that he hadn’t been killed was immediate and considerable, but quickly tempered by a feeling of guilt – for my relief was selfish. I’d not wanted the elephant that had been killed, to be one that I knew.
Instead, an unknown bull had died. He was just as important – all he lacked was a name.
The death of that bull went unremarked and unannounced in the press. It happened in the same week that ‘Save the Elephants’ released the news of the death of ‘Mountain Bull‘ – the famous elephant who was felled by a poacher’s poisoned spear on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Unlike ‘Mountain Bull’, our unknown bull had no history with humans, no name, no satellite collar – he hadn’t been the subject of press articles and tv programs. He wasn’t an ambassador for elephants or an elephant poster boy – just a normal elephant, living his life, until felled by a burst of fire from an AK 47.
We wouldn’t have forgotten him – but his identity would have slowly ebbed away. We drove out to his body again recently. Already, his bones had been spread around by hyaenas. The next time the river comes down in flood, the bones will be rolled downstream, buried under sand – or slowly eroded to become sand themselves. In a year, there’ll be nothing left to show he ever existed.
His story would have ended there – but, two weeks later, police in Mombasa discovered 228 whole tusks and 74 pieces, in a car dealer’s warehouse.
As the story broke it seemed that the ivory came from DRC, and that Mombasa was merely the hub the smugglers used. Later, as speculation was replaced by fact, the ivory was reported to be Kenyan in origin – from the Boni forest and Tsavo. Much of it looked fresh and blood-stained. One of the tusks was probably from the bull that was shot in the riverbed, less than two weeks before.
There have been two low-level arrests – one, a storekeeper. Another man offered police a bribe of $50,000. The bribe was refused by a mid-ranking policeman and for days that is where the story hung. No other names – no arrest warrants. The police officer’s refusal to accept a bribe is almost unheard of – it seemed to be the only redeeming feature in a case that looked as if it would sink into a mire of misinformation, protection and cover-up.
Rather than be lauded for his honesty and integrity, the police officer and his colleagues were apparently reprimanded and relocated. The sequence of events is not new to anyone who lives here – we are used to obfuscation, for evidence to go missing, reports to vanish, witnesses to retract their statements – and sudden and unexplained enrichment.
I share Kenyans’ outrage at what has happened – and it is outrage that finally prevailed. Instead of quietening down, the clamour grew, and after several days, a warrant for the arrest of a prominent Mombasa tycoon was issued. The delay probably gave him time to get out of the country, but for the first time it sent a message to the criminal businesspeople and their political allies, that they are not above the law.
Kenya’s new Wildlife Act allows for stiff penalties for those convicted of involvement in elephant poaching. Apart from sentencing a few Chinese smugglers who were caught in transit, the courts have yet to hand down fines or jail sentences that are a deterrent to the ‘big’ men and women behind poaching. This is their opportunity. The criminal elite and their political allies have shown that they will readily sacrifice poachers and storekeepers, they are expendable, but they have yet to lose one of their own.
I feel this case is pivotal.
It could be the first, positive step in a move to ‘name and shame’ – to arrest, and convict the ‘untouchables’.
If nothing happens, the criminal elite will become bolder – knowing they can operate with impunity, and it will be ‘open season’ for elephants.
Kenyans are watching and waiting.
I hope the police and the courts do the right thing.
If they do, then the death of that nameless bull whose tusk was hacked from his face as he bled to death in the riverbed, will not have been in vain.