- All Mountain Bull and his family had were just smooth tusks that, besides being their defences against man, were also man’s biggest attraction to their herds, but tusks do not deflect bullets, or a poisoned spear.
Naughty, adventurous, sensitive and loyal; these are unlikely adjectives to use when referring to an animal, but for Kenya’s most famous — some would say infamous — elephant, that word-painting effort is scant.
For the lucky few who had the honour of meeting Mountain Bull, a massive elephant that patrolled Laikipia and Meru with elephantine gusto and pride, words, no matter how colourful, will always do a great disservice to the seven-tonne beast that became the face of Kenya’s conservation efforts.
Today, however, Mountain Bull is no more. He was aged 46 when a poacher’s spear felled him mid last month deep inside Mt Kenya Forest, becoming yet another tragic example of what happens when human greed meets the defenceless wild.
Mike Watson, the Chief Executive of the Lewa Conservancy, is a devastated man. He has known Mountain Bull for a long time, and he knows that, with his death, the plains here would be the poorer.
“He was a remarkable animal,” says Watson. “A remarkable animal that taught the human kind a lot…. It was difficult not to become attached to him.”
And many at the 62,000-acre conservancy did indeed get attached to Mountain Bull. Adan Thapicha, a ranger here, was so fond of the animal that, when he received news of its demise, memories of their interactions, fights and battles came flooding, reducing him to such an emotional wreck that he could not hold back his tears.
He had thought that the worst was behind Mountain Bull, that, even though humans had encroached on the animal’s habitat, there was no ready danger to it.
For decades, the stubborn elephant had refused to change the migratory route introduced to it all those years ago, and even though that bullheadedness had rubbed many the wrong way, Mountain Bull had survived their wrath and somehow managed to traverse the expansive plains at the foot of the majestic Mt Kenya.
A nocturnal creature, he often barged through high-voltage fences and braved gunshots to reach the dense forests on the Meru side of the mountain, his path often carved through farmlands.
His fellow elephants, with time, found this journey too treacherous to maintain and carved alternative paths to their Canaan, but Mountain Bull remained obdurately focused on the paths of his ancestors, his complete and wholehearted obeisance to the migratory patterns of those who had gone before him earning him the attention of the country’s zoologists and conservationists.
“Mountain Bull’s hobby was breaking electric fences,” says John Pameri, a security officer at Lewa.
Barging through an electric fence, however, does not make a lot of sense, because the reason that fence is electrified in the first place is to shock the ignorance out of the animal.
But Mountain Bull found a way of beating the clever human beings at their own game when he discovered that he could use his non-conducting, keratinous tusks to beat the system.
“He would roll his trunks close to his mouth,” explains Mr Pameri, “all the while very careful not to let it come into contact with the wires.”
Watson philosophises: “I think he decided he was not going to make way for human beings to create more barriers in a land that was rightfully animals. Regardless of what was in front of him, he was not going to change his path.”
EARLIER ATTEMPT ON HIS LIFE
He had survived an attempt on his life before, probably for his tusks, that left eight bullets lodged in his body. Soon after, he took time off his wild antics to recuperate from the injuries, but he came out of the experience with a steely resolve to defend his home and heritage.
However, fight as he may, it was clear that he was losing the battle to humans, who were endowed with smarter brains that could fashion weapons to augment their tiny and feeble bodies.
The baboons colonised the kopjes of Meru and Laikipia, using them as hiding places from the outstretched hands of scavenging humans, but all Mountain Bull and his family had were just smooth tusks that, other than being their defences against man, were also that man’s biggest attraction to their herds.
But tusks do not deflect bullets, so conservationists stepped in to save him and his ilk. They built a specially designed underpass for the animals on the Nanyuki-Meru road to reduce conflict with humans — cameras fitted on the underpass would later show Mountain Bull leading other elephants through the safe passage — and then, in 2012, decided to make the massive jumbo less attractive to the human eye by sawing off a third of its tusks.
It worked; in two ways. First, no poacher thought the animal was worth a bullet or spear, and that de-horning made the bull rudderless when it came to barging through fences. He was, therefore, effortlessly confined inside the conservancy.
Everyone seems to have relaxed; the bull was safe and dull, they thought. It turns out they were wrong. Sometime in 2006, Save the Elephant, a conservation organisation that focuses on elephants, had fitted a GPS-GSM collar on Mountain Bull to track his hyperactivity using satellite technology.
That piece of technology was the one that, mid last month, alerted Lewa co-founder Ian Craig to the possibility that Mountain Bull was in trouble.
When the tracking device went immobile for eight days on their screens, Craig felt a tight knot in his stomach. A sense of foreboding engulfed him, the thought of losing this most famous resident too hard to bear.