One of Kenya's last great tusker elephants was reportedly shot and killed by poachers.
During a routine flyover on January 4 by the conservation group Tsavo Trust in southern Kenya, the body of a famous, roughly 50-year-old African elephant known as Satao II was discovered, though news of his death was only announced Monday. While the cause of death has not been confirmed, conservationists believe he was killed by a poisoned arrow while feeding in the eastern region of the park. The area is known as a "poaching hot spot."
African elephants are traditionally referred to as "tuskers" when their tusks grow so long they reach the ground. This makes them an especially attractive potential target for poachers, who attack elephants for their lucrative ivory. It's estimated that as few as 25 tuskers remain in all of Africa, and only 10 were observed by the Tsavo trust in January.
Satao II was found with his ivory intact, meaning poachers were not able to use it for illegal trading.
Each of his enormous tusks weighed 112 and 111 pounds.
Two weeks after Satao II's body was found, the Tsavo conservation team was able to apprehend two alleged poachers they believe were responsible for the deaths of Satao II and three other elephants that had recently been poached in the same area.
The two alleged poachers were found carrying an AK-47 firearm, 12 poisoned arrows, and three bows.
While the conservation group reported Satao II's death as a sobering loss for the park, they took some solace in knowing that his ivory could not be used to fuel illegal ivory markets.
"More importantly, this poaching gang that possibly tried to poach Satao II has been broken forever," the group said on their website.
The Tsavo Conservation Area spans over 16,000 square miles and comprises almost half of all conservation land in Kenya. The trust conducts daily flyovers that allow them to collect information about African elephants and black rhinos, a similarly at-risk mammal. In 2013 alone, the group made 142 poaching-related arrests.
Tuskers play a significant role in elephant society. Vicki Fishlock, the resident scientist at Amboseli Trust for Elephants, told National Geographic in 2015 that tuskers of this age and size are crucial.
"They have been parts of social networks for five or six decades and have accumulated social and ecological experience that younger animals learn from," she said.
The death of Satao II comes only three years after the death of his predecessor, Satao, whose death around age 50 represented a monumental loss for the park. The elder Satao (who inspired the name for Satao II but probably wasn't related to him) was also targeted for his large tusks but suffered a more gruesome end when his face was hacked off and his tusks were taken to be sold for ivory.
Poaching for the ivory trade is the biggest threat to African elephants, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as vulnerable. A Colorado State University study from 2014 found that African elephants are being poached at a rate faster than they can reproduce. At its peak in 2011, more than 40,000 elephants were poached in Africa.
Current populations are estimated to be as low as 415,000, a decline of more than 100,000 since 2007.
A number of steps have been taken to reduce the trade of ivory. CITES, an international agreement among governments focused on reducing the trade of threatened plants and animals, opposes the global ivory trade.
The U.S. is one of the largest markets for ivory, and in July 2016, enacted a near-total ban on all ivory-related commerce, a step up from what had previously amounted only to a ban on commercial imports. The ban was part of a 2013 executive order from then-President Obama to end wildlife trafficking, at the time calling it an "international crisis."
China, also a significant market for ivory, announced at the end of last year that it plans to shut down its ivory trade by the end of 2017.
Hong Kong remains the world's largest market for ivory but has pledged to phase out domestic trade by 2021.