Elephants in Peril

In February of 2020 the Kenya Wildlife Service announced the death of Big Tim, the world’s most famous elephant.  He died naturally but unexpectedly, and elephant lovers everywhere were stunned by the news.  A dominating presence in southern Kenya, his great beating heart represented the living pulse of Amboseli National Park.   No visit to the region could be counted a complete success without a sighting of Big Tim.  He was universally mourned – revered in death as he was in life – and he will be remembered for generations.

Tim made his home near Mount Kilimanjaro, just north of the Tanzanian border.  He seemed to move slowly across the plain but with a genuine sense of purpose.  He covered some territory in his time, so it’s certain that he crossed into Tanzania on many occasions as he made his rounds to the marsh, through the woodlands and across the savanna.  

Tim was a remarkable elephant in many ways.  At the time of his passing he may have been the largest land animal in the world.  He towered over the other elephants in the reserve and his tusks nearly scraped the ground with each gigantic stride.  Tim was also distinguished by his easygoing temperament.  Like all bulls of breeding age, he was supercharged with testosterone during his periods of musth, which is the male elephant equivalent of estrus.  Most bulls in this condition are easily agitated, unpredictable and, at times, flat out dangerous.  Not Big Tim.  He was laid back and imperturbable even in times of wildly surging hormones.  A friend of mine once referred to him as “one cool cat.”   That description was impeccable – it captured the spirit of the animal with elegance and precision.

Big Tim of Amboseli

I’ve always felt a strong connection to Big Tim.  I saw him on almost every visit to Amboseli, and spent many hours in his company over the years.  In September of 2016 I wrote a blog post about him for the African Wildlife Foundation ( https://www.awf.org/blog/big-tim-and-state-his-species ).   In that article I referred to him as “the benevolent, slow-moving preserver of the peace at Amboseli.”  When he died of natural causes four years later the Kenya Wildlife Service plucked my words from the AWF website and recycled them in their press releases to news agencies around the world.   Now any time some curious soul does an internet search of Big Tim it’s probable that they’ll find my description in their results.  Attribution concerns aside, it means a hell of a lot to me to have my words associated with my favorite African animal on something like a permanent basis.

In recent months the elephant lovers of the world have been shocked by the news that a few of Kenya’s big tuskers (like Tim) have wandered across an invisible boundary and entered a hunting preserve in northern Tanzania.  Five of them have now paid for that navigational error with their lives, leaving the world’s population of super tuskers in single digits.  Conservationists and lovers of elephants are maddened by this turn of events.  Our passions are ignited and we feel the immediate urge to do something, to lash out, to act – but therein lies the frustration.  We’re dealing with governments, bureaucracies and economic interests, all of which constitute a formidable bulwark between us, the outraged, and those who hold the power to bring a halt to this insanity.

There is a chasm of consciousness between those who would shoot an elephant and those who would labor to keep them safe.  The elephant hunters would claim that we just don’t understand natural law and the primordial impulse that can only be addressed by killing.  And we would answer “no, by God, we do not.”  No rational person could ever comprehend the mindless destruction of nature’s most iconic creations.  These are animals that, by right of size and majesty, should fear nothing.  They own the landscape and they are not a source of food for any of Africa’s renowned predators.  They should thrive, and their numbers should grow as long as there’s sufficient food to sustain them.  It is unholy and unnatural that a single human being armed with a high-powered rifle should be the sole architect of their destruction.  The obscenity is compounded by the fact that these great tuskers – who entered the world with a hard fall to the ground directly from the womb, pulled on mother’s teat when they could barely stand, struggled to keep pace with the family as it worked its way to the waterhole, survived droughts and floods, trekked thousands of miles across the plain, grew to maturity and ultimately sired new generations of elephants – existed in peace and safety for a full half century before being caught in the crosshairs by a high velocity round.  

Who benefits from the destruction of these animals?  The hunters will, without fail, tell you that the money expended on the permits goes to advance the cause of conservation.  I have serious doubts about this.  Just one time I’d like to follow the cash trail from permit payment to its ultimate destination.  I don’t think anyone has ever pulled the string on this and trust me, they never will.  This racket is too lucrative to be investigated.  And what about the hunter himself?  Is there a rush of power that surges through the soul as the elephant collapses and the great heart ceases to beat?  If this is the case I’m certain the feeling must be fleeting.  And no other human senses it – not the guide, the tracker, the porters – nobody.  So is that half century of gray and wrinkled life worth the momentary rush felt by the squeezer of the trigger?  Hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot elephants, but there’s no glory in it.  The animals are slow prey and they leave pronounced and easily identifiable spoor.  Tracking them is not a challenge.  Anyone – literally anyone – could do it.  They also present absurdly large targets.  In fact, they are nigh on unmissable.  If you can hold a rifle you can score a hit.  So what’s the point?  Skeet shooting is more challenging.  There are no legitimate bragging rights to be derived from an elephant kill.  

African elephant numbers have declined at a heartbreaking rate over the centuries.  Experts estimate that the 16th century pre-colonization population exceeded 20 million and as recently as 1980 Africa was home to over a million elephants.  Today there are just over 400,000 of them spread over the entire continent.  Several conservation organizations, including the African Wildlife Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Amboseli Trust for Elephants and others are working overtime to ensure their safety and increase their populations.  And the individuals who tirelessly labor to preserve them are legion, far too numerous to count.  So many people work so hard on behalf of the species only to have its most impressive representatives murdered for the sake of individual ego.

Poaching may be a despicable crime, but in my opinion trophy hunting is morally worse.  The offenses are not equivalent.  The masterminds who control the poaching networks and receive the goods have no acceptable excuse, but they at least have a financial incentive.  Those few Africans who support them are usually motivated by poverty and utter desperation.  Their crime is driven not by greed but by necessity, and their participation is therefore more easily forgiven.  In contrast, the trophy hunter’s work is all for those few minutes of blatant ego inflation at the time of the kill.  It is the ugliest possible form of self-gratification.

So the effort to save the greatest of all land animals is in many ways a Sisyphean endeavor.  You can labor tirelessly and eventually make progress on the poaching front, but then the finest and most prolific of the breeding males is destroyed legally and without consequences.  I believe that the hunters, in the secret depths of their hearts, understand the horror of what they do.  The evidence of their awareness is in the dishonesty of their proclamations about “supporting conservation” and the euphemisms they employ when they talk about their work.  They never use the word “kill” – it’s too real and there’s too much integrity in it. They prefer the word “take” because it’s less harsh and threatening.  Cecil, the famous lion, was never killed.  He was “taken.”

Big Tim’s Friend and Successor

I now sit in Virginia, frustrated, outraged and frankly, somewhat fearful.  Big Tim’s great friend and worthy successor, the super tusker Craig, is wandering the grasslands of southern Kenya as I place these words on the page.  I hate to think what could happen to him if he crosses that invisible line into Tanzania.  Big Tim’s life story is well known, and Craig’s is becoming equally familiar.  But the rest of Africa’s elephants have a story too, and we must do whatever it takes to prevent those stories from having a tragic ending.

23 thoughts on “Elephants in Peril”

  1. This is a global tragedy! Hunters put the ‘con’ in conservation.
    “A universe is, indeed, to be pitied whose dominating inhabitants are so unconscious and so ethically embryonic that they make life a commodity, mercy a disease, and systematic massacre a pastime and a profession.”
    – J. Howard Moore

  2. Interesting and sad read, Billy. Trophy hunting is so wrong and disgusting.
    I appreciate
    your
    tireless work to save these magnificent creatures.

  3. Thank you, Billy for this thoughtful and stark representation of the natural lives and position of elephants and, in contrast, the unnatural, egotistical desires and behaviors of human fools, disturbing as it surely is. I [still] worry.

  4. If humans are allowed to kill animals at will with no consequences, I feel there is a need for some drastic steps to be taken to completely stop trophy hunting. The human legal system is flawed and discriminatory; it protects only humans. I know many will say an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. If a hunter can afford $60K for a trophy hunt, can’t he afford to pay to get bail and walk free? The only option I see, for a trophy hunter, a choice between his own life or hunting an animal for 60K. should not be a very difficult one.

  5. Great words Billy. You express all of our frustrations well. It seems no matter how many posts, emails to officials, petitions, and twitter storms are sent, we are utterly powerless to stop the nightmare unfolding before us now. It’s a shame how easily and completely money and ego can corrupt the soul of a human. And elephants have to pay for this corruption with their lives. Meanwhile, most people are too busy with there lives to make a stand even if they agree it is wrong.

  6. Patricia Garley Pita Louise

    What an amazing fact filled article
    I adore these magnificent creatures and again it will be supposed humans who kill them into extinction. Bloody killing machines. I can’t imagine ever getting a thrill from murdering another living breathing creature
    Thank you for writing this.

  7. Those who say trophy hunting helps conservation could actually – properly – help conservation by paying their tens of thousands of dollars direct to the Tanzanian government without killing an elephant. This would really be helping conservation!

  8. Thank you for the essay on the hunting dilemma, and the threat to our Amboseli Bulls.
    I hate the idea of colaring all the bulls. But am envisaging Bulls with loud pink earrings(tags) with WiFi or Bluetooth connections.

    Would a client shoot such an animal, I wonder?? It would give time to increase dialogue with all the authorities concerned?

    I remember all the talk, concern & anger and concern when The big Bull Mohamed was (illegally?) shot, when he moved off, out of the safety of Tsavo. Think it was in the’70s. Hunters & Wardens alike were loud in their disgust.

    I’m hoping that your blog is to be read far and wide, and that sharing the link is in order? (,I can’t copy/paste, as I don’t actually know… Who the author is, I need to delve a bit deeper!

    You write poignantly and in an engaging way. Thank you.
    (Thanks to Piers Simpkin for sending me the link)

    Regards
    Odile

  9. This is the absolute truth. When these people kill all the animals I hope they realize what is going to happen to the world. Notice I said KILL not take.
    There has to be a way to stop this
    KILLING

  10. Beautifully expressed. Nevertheless, crime is crime and we must continue to badger the governments which morally abdicate to greed and criminal psychopathy.

  11. This is so upsetting, words fail me…
    I have sat and witnessed the majestic beauty of these animals…
    I was graced to be in their presence and allowed to share a moment with them..this will forever shape my life and soul….
    Shame on anyone who thinks they have the right to take a soul from this earth…
    You should be ashamed of yourself and your actions…
    Let’s pray for more informed and and better educated individuals…
    Please dear lord protect our beautiful souls of the animal kingdom…
    Give them safety and passion as we move through there world💕

  12. I personally would love to see a movement to decline safari trips to Tanzania until this problem is sorted out

  13. Wonderful article, thank you. I would say most US citizens do not condone this killing. While we can’t but urge other governments to stop this, US citizens CAN create a law to prohibit this. Recently introduced in the US Congress, the ProTECT Act. Amends the Endangered Species Act to profit importing endangered or threatened species trophies INTO the US. Will you call your elected US House of Representative and tell them to support this legislation?

  14. Psychologists believe that trophy hunters have the same psyche as serial killers, who often take pieces of their victims as trophies.
    Your observations about the “con” are correct. In Zimbabwe the entire hunting industry is a massive lie when it comes to conservation. Safari operators have bank accounts overseas, so zero funds return to Zimbabwe. The only money for the local community is in the form of tips from the hunters when they skin and chop off the tropies for the hunter. And they often are given the discarded meat to use. Most safari operators operate with members of our mafia-style government as partners, so there is no reason to stick to the laws, i.e shooting female leopards, hunting outside designated areas. It is a disgusting, cruel and dreadful industry.

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