National Geographic Daily News
Photo of Satao the elephant.

Satao was killed by poachers in May near Tsavo National Park, Kenya. Unlike another great tusker named Ahmed, Satao did not have presidential protection.

Photograph by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, www.markdeeble.wordpress.com

John Heminway

for National Geographic

Published June 19, 2014

The killing in late May of the great tusker Satao, in Kenya's Tsavo National Park, was another blunt reminder that no elephant in Africa is safe. A poacher's poisoned arrow felled him, and his death was presumed to have been long and painful.

Satao was thought to be the largest-tusked elephant surviving in Africa. While he lived, he was a talisman of a wild land; in death, another tragic example of conservation's failure.

Satao's life and legend recalls those of Ahmed, an emblematic elephant known to many during the 1960s and 1970s. Ahmed inhabited the forests of Marsabit National Reserve, on a mountain rising out of the scrublands of northern Kenya. His tusks were presumed to be the longest and heaviest in Africa.

With the perplexing wisdom of elephants, two small bull elephants stayed by his side at all times, as if to protect him and his treasure. These two were locally known as askaris, guards, and they behaved accordingly, charging aggressors while the old gentleman ghosted back into heavy bush, concealing his colossal tusks.

Legends surrounded Ahmed. One was that his tusks were so long that he could go up a hill only by walking backwards. No one ever proved this tall tale, but images were taken of him resting his head on his tusks.

In 1970, Ahmed starred in three films almost simultaneously. The ABC series The American Sportsman featured director John Huston in "The Search for Ahmed." An NBC film with George Plimpton followed, as well as a French documentary highlighting the work of Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

Ahmed benefited from all the attention, especially when the media blitz led to a 1970 letter-writing campaign by schoolchildren to Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, asking him to protect this treasure.

It took little time for the president to declare Ahmed a living monument and provide him with presidential protection: five armed game rangers whose job was to ensure security surveillance around the clock.

Those were dangerous times, like today, with elephant poaching on the rise throughout Kenya. Ahmed and his loyal attendants would have been easy targets for poachers. Personal protection was an effective deterrent.

The security plan indeed worked. Ahmed was able to live a charmed life, finally succumbing to natural causes four years later. He was found lying not flat on his side (as is the case with so many poaching victims) but in peaceful repose against a tree.

From his tusks, each one weighing nearly 150 pounds, a game warden calculated his age at 65. During his autopsy, antique Martini-Henry rifle bullets were whittled out of his body, suggesting that his life had been at risk ever since his birth in 1919.

Photo of Ahmed the elephant in Marsabit Kenya.
Ahmed (shown here in 1963) lived a long life in Marsabit National Reserve after being granted protection by Kenya's President Jomo Kenyatta in 1970.
Photograph by Furlong Photography, Alamy

Learning From the Past

Today, a fiberglass replica of Ahmed is displayed on the grounds of the Nairobi National Museum. Inside the museum, his skeleton, and those great tusks, remain under guard. Children still come to say hello.

Contrast the example Jomo Kenyatta set against the silence of his son Uhuru. The current president missed the chance to provide protection for Satao, send a forceful message to poachers, and gain the respect of all in the conservation community. If Uhuru had displayed the wisdom and prescience of his father, it is quite possible Satao would be alive today.

We can say that Tsavo National Park, with its dwindling herds of elephants, is a land of lost opportunities.

There is still hope.

A number of other large tuskers still roam the Commiphora bush of Tsavo. But none are safe against poachers, who, having encountered little opposition with Satao, will almost certainly continue to kill with impunity.

President Kenyatta should learn from his father's example, by immediately conferring presidential protection on all great elephants at risk, beginning with those in Tsavo.

An armed ranger patrol, with the president's authority, should be deployed to fight the poaching scourge by keeping a 24-hour surveillance of large-tusked bulls and cows. Such resolve at that high level would demonstrate the administration's vow to protect tourism for all time.

It would also send a signal that poaching is both a wildlife crime and a violation of human rights—a crime against all Kenyans, since it will one day deprive them of their iconic national symbol. Without elephants, Kenya would suffer in unthinkable ways, economically and spiritually.

Now is the time for President Kenyatta to act. Just imagine all the schoolchildren's letters he would receive, with thanks from around the world.

In 1969 John Heminway was production manager and writer of "The Search for Ahmed," with John Huston. His most recent film was Battle for the Elephants, with Bryan Christy. Heminway is the chairman of WildlifeDirect.

34 comments
Esmeraldo  Solemnidad Bustillo
Esmeraldo Solemnidad Bustillo

The human specie is the worse beast that ever roamed the planet. From the time humans were able to used their intellect to developed tools and weapons, he divested the earth and the splendors of its natural resources to extinction. 


The sad and tragic story of Satao is not just the story of one elephant. It is the sad and tragic lost of the essence of humanity.  It is not just the inability of one President, but it is the inability of all of us, who just sat comfortably and pretended that tragic consequences for the animals in the wild is never for real. 


It is not just the lost for Kenya either. It is the story of for ever lost humanity, and the sad and tragic lost for rest of the world. 

Karin Berkholtz
Karin Berkholtz

Mana sirds sap. Each time we kill a magnificent creature is lost through violence humanity loses some of its essence. 

ANNE DILLON
ANNE DILLON

Thank you, John Heminway, for your tireless work in trying to protect and preserve these iconic treasures and for writing so eloquently and clearly about what MUST come to pass if they are to be saved.

Tory Braden
Tory Braden

How hideous to say a failure of conservation - it is a failure on China's part to take responsibility for their major part in the holocaust. Zhao Shucong could close down those state sanctioned carving factories now and it is imperative that this be done.  No carvers - no place for the bloody tusks to be bought. No carvers - nothing to sell or buy retail. When the carving stops, the poaching will too.

Michael C.
Michael C.

As Ted Nuge says "Shoot to KILL POACHERS! come down harder on them.  My sentiments exactly,  as for President Kenyatta and his Govt why don't the stop polishing seats by sitting all day and do something constructive.  Firstly, seeing a  "Fiberglass" replica of Ahmed in the Nairobi National Museum really does not do much for me.  I want my children and their children to see these Great Animals FREE where they should be and not have part of them in shops.  Please, please, do something about the situation otherwise the only way we will see them is on a "David Attenbourough programs"

Ted Nuge
Ted Nuge

Shoot to kill poachers!  And burn shops that sell ivory in China and elsewhere!

William K.
William K.

     It is people with large amounts of money who want ivory that encourages the poacher to do what he does in these cases. Sadly if their is a will there is a way. It sickens me to see the way these great animals are being slaughtered just for their ivory and leaving the remains just as waste with no regard for thee conservation of the species being considered. This is definitely one of those cases that you have to treat the cause because trying to treat the symptoms only will be like trying to chase the wind.

Laurel DeStefano
Laurel DeStefano

Wow what an amazing story. I pray the elephants stay safe.

K.A.Bopaiah Bopaiah
K.A.Bopaiah Bopaiah

Sad......lost a magnificent animal to poachers. Hunt those useless people down. The killing stops when the buying stops... It's the buyers to be blamed to

Sean Nolan
Sean Nolan

I have a horrible feeling that, the present level of poaching and political corruption could lead to the extinction of Elephants within the next 20 years. Elephants and Rhinos wear the cause of this on their faces. A total worldwide ban on Ivory and horn is the best weapon we have to prevent this. Current stocks of seized Ivory should be destroyed, and maximum penalties mandatory on anyone involved in the trade !

Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

indeed another example of conservation's failure

Tanmay Sharma
Tanmay Sharma

The article sends a strong voice to the Kenyan government that poaching of wildlife must be stopped and it’s a crime. The government must act against the illegal poachers or else it will one day lose their iconic national symbol.

Miguel Belloso Bueno
Miguel Belloso Bueno

dejemos tranquilos a los elefantes tienen derecho a vivir hay sitio para todos

Sue Taylor
Sue Taylor

corrupt goverbments and china raping the world, deal with them first.


Martina Maolana
Martina Maolana

Ivory is just an unnecessary thing or decorations at home, they have no function at all.. But those people who bought ivory do not think about the situation now:( I was upset about those elephants They are all graceful and unique creatures in the wildlife:(

Tanya Sharpe
Tanya Sharpe

Poaching in general breaks my heart, all animals deserve to live out a wonderful life but are constantly being targeted for mans greed. All these special animals of this world need to be protected now then ever. We need more people to care about animals like they do humans and we may be able to balance earth. I wish I had millions to donate to help, we got to do something or we are not going to have these graceful creatures for much longer!!! As I put it Ivory is over rated, people don't need it. There is more things in life other than having materialistic items that mean nothing!!! Curiosity killed the cat, humans greed killed the earth.............

Kimberley Richardson
Kimberley Richardson

Perhaps like millions?, I am heartbroken. I don't know why Satao's murder has had such a profound effect upon me but it has spurred me to greater efforts on behalf of the elephants and rhinos. It occurs to me that we need an organization similar to Sea Shepherd. I wish billionaires such as Steve Bezos (Amazon), Bill Gates, Paul McCartney ... could be contacted. I would say "oh boy do I have a deal for you. How would YOU like to be the man (or woman) who is remembered for saving rhinos and elephants for the universe?". It's only money. Technology including drones and helicopters. More Rangers, better training. It CAN be done. People with political and financial power just need the will. Anybody wish to help me in starting Bush Shepherd?

Göran Jartin
Göran Jartin

Animals like thes should be considered part of our "world heritage", and be put under protection by UNESCO.

Liane Brewer
Liane Brewer

I agree with you whole heartedly. Measures should be taken immediatly to

protect these magnificant and vulneralbe creatures.  These elephants are the 

soul of south africa.

Jai Ram
Jai Ram

@camilla Le May


Signed on to this campaign. Wish you quick success in getting to 20K signatures.

Whenever I read about majestic, spellbinding animals being mindlessly slaughtered like this, I lose a little bit more faith in the notion that we humans are now a 'sentient'/ 'intelligent' species. All over the Earth, our species is busy destroying the environment for short term monetary considerations--not realizing that we are destroying ourselves in the long run. 

In India too, like in Africa, elephants are being mercilessly persecuted, hunted by poachers and losing their habitat to rampant, brazen encroachment. Since in Asian Elephant populations, only the males have tusks, the poaching of tuskers is leading to terribly skewed gender ratios. In some areas, there are reported to be just 1 tusker per 65 to 100 females. If this horrendous trend persists, there is a real risk the Indian elephant could be rendered functionally extinct, by disabling their natural breeding capacity in the wild.

The time to act is NOW. We need to realize, that animals like elephants preceded us onto this planet, and have as much right to living spaces, food, water and air as any of us. A world without elephants, tigers, rhinos, leopards, wild dogs, wild bovids, deer and antelope---would be such a very poor place, it just doesn't bear thinking about. 

There is a lovely old African proverb which goes:

"The earth is not ours; it is a treasure we hold in trust for future generations."

similar to a Native American Indian proverb:

"Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our children. "

It would seem, that ancient tribal cultures worldwide, were far more evolved and intelligent than 'modern', 'civilized' humans. We need to bring that sensibility and respect for nature, back into our collective conscience.

xiaoming zhang
xiaoming zhang

@Sue Taylor  I think someone intentionally deprive the life of animals is an unforgivable crime. I am Chinese and I admit there are some annoying behaviors in our country.I don not want to say much about this.I just wish this can be changed in the future. 

Bernard Rop
Bernard Rop

@Liane Brewer

True, the elephants in questions are from Kenya East Africa though, but as you said these creatures should be protected all over the world

Sue Taylor
Sue Taylor

@xiaoming zhang @Sue Taylor Sorry to offend, its governments that are allowing this all to happen. I know not everyone is evil and obviously you are not. I get rather angry when i read and see images. Thank you for your reply and i wish you well my friend.

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