South Africa’s Kruger Park Loses its First Elephant; Kenya Loses an Icon

The carcass of 46-year-old elephant Mountain Bull was found in the Mount Kenya Forest with visible spear wounds and its tusks missing. (Photograph courtesy Lewa Wildlife Conservancy)

In recent years, Kruger, the jewel in the crown of South Africa’s national park system, has lost many rhinos to poachers, but its elephants have remained safe.

Until now. For the first time in a decade, a bull elephant in the park has fallen to poachers, who hacked off his tusks.

“This poaching incident really shocked us,” said Reymond Thakhuli, acting head of communications at South African National Parks (SANParks). “It says that we need to be prepared for anything.”

According to Thakhuli, investigators deduced that the elephant was shot and killed around May 1. Four sets of footprints were found in the area, indicating that the killers fled into Mozambique.

Kruger’s Rhinos Targeted

Securing the border between Mozambique and South Africa has proved to be hugely problematic, and in Kruger rhinos have been heavily targeted, mostly out of neighboring Mozambique.

According to Save the Rhino, 1,004 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2013, and some 375 already this year.

Warnings have been sounded that Kruger’s elephants would be next. According to Fiona Macleod, a South African journalist and editor at Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism, there were indications at least a year ago that the elephants of Kruger were vulnerable. (See her April 2013 article, “Poachers set sights on Kruger Ivory.”)

“We started getting the warning signs because there had been elephant poaching incidents in the Mozambique side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park,” Macleod said.

Her article quotes one Mozambican conservationist as saying, “We are losing elephants at the rate of three to four a day in Niassa [Reserve, on the border with Tanzania] and all the tuskers are gone. Now the poachers are heading south to smaller reserves in Mozambique and to the Limpopo and Kruger national parks.”

A 2012 census found about 16,900 elephants in Kruger.

Uphill Fight

On April 17, Mozambique and South Africa signed an accord in Kruger to combat rhino poaching. Although Mozambique is working harder to manage the situation, Macleod says South Africa’s inability to prevent the incursions has led to despondency.

“The military is now trying to prevent poaching, but they are overwhelmed. The rhino poaching its just getting worse every year,“ Macleod said. “The general perception in South Africa is that they don’t see an end in sight.”

Some 400 armed rangers patrol Kruger, whose border with Mozambique extends about 280 miles. Thakhuli said that South African National Defense Force (SANDF) patrols the border, working in tandem with the park rangers.

When asked what the park’s response will be now that the first elephant has been poached in a decade, Thakhuli said that beyond being able to explain that the strategy in Kruger is “holistic,” he can’t provide specifics.

“The poachers pay attention. They get information. They are listening to the radio. They are watching television. So it is difficult for me to explicitly give you information. These poachers are very sophisticated.”

“We are saddened by this latest incident but are confident that the dedication and efforts of our rangers and our partners in the security sector will eventually prevail over this malady,” said Abe Sibiya, the acting head of SANParks.

There have been no arrests so far.

Mountain Bull during his prime. The famous elephant was one of northern Kenya's most recognizable animals and has captured the imagination of many. (Photograph courtesy LEWA Wildlife Conservancy)
Mountain Bull during his prime. The famous elephant was one of northern Kenya’s most recognizable animals and has captured the imagination of many. (Photograph courtesy Lewa Wildlife Conservancy)

Meanwhile in Northern Kenya…

Conservationists in Kenya are mourning the death of an iconic elephant known as Mountain Bull.

According to a release by Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, “No other animal has had greater impact on wildlife conservation in northern Kenya than Mountain Bull.”

Mountain Bull’s dead body was found on the afternoon of May 15. The carcass had spear wounds, and the tusks were missing. It’s believed that Mountain Bull had been poached eight days before.

The Lewa release notes that Mountain Bull was “the enigmatic elephant whose dedication to using the traditional elephant migration routes in northern Kenya… led to numerous conservation initiatives.”

One of those initiatives was the “pioneering” Lewa/Ngare Ndare Forest/Mount Kenya elephant corridor, a travel route between the forests of Mount Kenya and the savannas of Lewa and Samburu plains. This corridor has opened up the traditional migration route for more than 2,000 African elephants that had previously been blocked by human development in the Mount Kenya forest.

The 46-year-old elephant had been fitted with a GPS-GSM collar by Save the Elephants, but a few days ago, Lewa’s cofounder, Ian Craig, noticed that the elephant had not moved from his last reported position at Mount Kenya.

This raised urgent concern,  and Lewa and the Mount Kenya Trust launched the a search, which ended with the tragic discovery.

Many have been affected by Mountain Bull’s death.

“Mountain Bull’s death is a great loss to the conservation fraternity,” Lewa’s CEO, Mike Watson, said. “He…left many inspired by his bravery and resilience.”

“Mountain Bull is a legend and a champion for his species,” said the natural history filmmaker Sir David Attenborough. “It is a tragedy he had to die out of man’s greed.”

Wildlife

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Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.