By all accounts, Satao was among the most impressive animals on Earth, both for his sheer physical beauty, and for his remarkable ability to survive through decades of ivory poaching. At around age 50, the towering bull elephant had been considered by some to be the largest and oldest left in Africa, his massive tusks having grown long enough to reach the ground, sturdy and strong like the roots of an ancient tree.
But despite the pricelessness of his living form, humbling, no doubt to even the most calloused observer, Satao has succumbd to the same brutality which has already claimed the lives of untold scores of his kind.
On May 30th, conservationists at Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, where Satao had called home for the last few years, discovered the remains of that iconic elephant -- his face and tusks hacked off, his once-powerful body left to wither and rot, discarded as refuse.
"There is no doubt that he is dead, killed by an ivory poacher's poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries," writes Richard Moller of The Tsavo Trust. "A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece."
Poaching is now so frequent that it's become all but impossible to report on cases in isolation -- with an estimated 30,000 elephants killed each year in Africa, it would take a new story about every 15 minutes to keep up.
But Satao's tale is different. When he was born in the late 1960s, there were more than 275,000 elephants in Kenya. Today, that number stands at around 38,000 -- and it's falling fast. Mark Deeble, a nature documentarian who turned his lens towards Satao in recent years says that the elder elephant had survived by growing wise to the threats he saw, like knowing to stand behind bushes when people were near.
"I'm convinced he did that to hide his tusks from humans, he had an awareness that they were a danger to him. Satao was probably one of half a dozen of Kenya's great tuskers, possibly the largest." Deeble said.
Given current poaching trends, fueled by the illicit trade in wildlife parts, experts believe that elephants in Africa could go extinct in a little over a decade. If that is indeed the case, an elephant as magnificent has Satao might never be seen again. Period.
Deeble hopes that the trivial motivations of greed which led to Satao's death, and which are leading to the death of an entire species, can be overshadowed in this moment of loss by a stronger desire to keep others like him alive.
"If Satao's death can galvanize the focus on what's actually happening here in terms of poaching, then he won't have died in vain," he says.
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