Satao – the legacy
If they live long enough, their tusks will grow and they’ll earn the accolade ‘big tusker’ (for a bull this reflects tusks over 45kg). For now, they are doing the essential work of passing on the ‘big tusk’ genes.
Satao – cu
In the long term, I suspect that the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes depends more on what is happening at the population level, rather than at the individual – and there, the outlook is less encouraging.
Tsavo’s elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks for hundreds of years. Swahili merchants, Arab traders, colonial hunters, now poachers – the onslaught has ramped up in the last few years. They have all targeted elephants with the largest tusks – it’s a strong selection pressure, and the result is the evolution of elephants with smaller tusks. Today, Africa’s elephants have tusks half the size of their forebears.
The same pressure is probably driving up the proportion of tusk-less elephants.
Tusks are not essential, but there is no doubt they make life easier. I once saw Satao asleep, leaning slightly forward, his huge tusks propping up his head. Besides being used as a headrest, we’ve seen them used as weapons, or for digging up tubers, prising bark from trees, or excavating for minerals and water. Bulls don’t need tusks to mate, or for cows to find them attractive – sheer physical size is more important. A huge, tusk-less Tsavo bull named ‘Thunder’ is testament to that. Like a small percentage of the population, he is genetically tusk-less.
In China and Uganda, poaching has caused a gene responsible for tusk-lessness to spread. I think it is very likely that the same is happening in Tsavo and that the proportion of tusk-less elephants is increasing.
If poaching continues, it seems inevitable that we will continue to see a gradual decline in tusk size, and fewer elephants with tusks.
So what of Satao’s fellow big tuskers – the surviving incumbents…?
I think they are very important. We should be cautious of assuming, however, that their protection is all that is needed to ensure the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes.
As a group, they are the finest bulls left in Africa – the last of an unbroken line of magnificent ‘big tuskers’, that has trodden Tsavo’s red soil for thousands of years.
They are the current poster boys for their species, and a visible rallying point. The international outcry that followed the death of Satao, is testament to this.
Their potential for generating tourist dollars for National Parks is unrivaled.
Above all else, in a world of shifting baselines, they show Tsavo as it was – and what it could be again.