In recent weeks, Kenyans have mourned the loss of a national treasure — a magnificent bull elephant named Satao. Satao was a “tusker,” famous for his gigantic, gorgeous tusks, gleaming hulks of elegant ivory that nearly touched the ground and made him instantly identifiable to the watchful eye. The elephant met his demise on May 30, brought low by ivory poachers.


The poachers felled the giant, one of the largest in the world, by poison dart. They waited for him to die a painful death on the dusty plain before literally cutting off his face to harvest his ivory (fair warning: the linked picture is quite disturbing). Satao’s carcass was positively identified by wildlife organization, The Tsavo Trust, two weeks later and news of his death was broadcast to shocked conservationists the world over.


Satao’s distressing end brutally illustrates an unblinking reality: Elephants are dying in large numbers all across the continent of Africa, slaughtered by ivory poachers for their tusks. Over 20,000 elephants were killed in 2013, the vast majority of them in the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While international outcry and increased outside pressure has generated tougher oversight and some success in curbing poaching rates, many local elephant populations remain on the brink of extinction.


The demand for ivory in Asian countries remains high, generating alarming incentives with prices topping $1,500 per pound. Criminal organizations and terrorist groups, including Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army and the shameful Somalian extremist cell, Al-Shabab, engage in poaching activities to fund their operations, selling illegal ivory on the black markets of Asia and Africa. Poaching is famously hard to combat, with the hundreds upon thousands of square acres of African plain presenting a daunting task for any patrol. Spreading public awareness and outrage coupled with negative impacts on tourism will hopefully increase the pressure on African governments to step up prevention efforts, but it may be too little, too late for some elephant populations.


The effects of ivory harvesting are appalling, but it remains to be seen whether the world has the willpower needed to provide declining elephant populations with adequate protection. If not, Kenya’s verdant plains may soon be rendered barren of its most awe-inspiring inhabitant.


What do you think of the near extinction in the name of poaching? Is ivory really worth taking lives to this extent? Let’s talk here, or find me on Twitter @aa_murph