We hadn’t known Phylo for very long. He had been using the reserve for the last year but was absent from the area for long periods. As a young male, he was in the stage of his life when he was solidifying his dispersal routes, exploring new territory as he separated from his family. In the past couple of months, we had seen him a bit more frequently, grazing calmly, sometimes alone but mostly among our resident families. He was a nice looking young bull, with unbroken tusks that would have grown beautifully had they been given the chance.
We arrived at Phylo’s carcass the morning of January 27, 2013, perhaps seven hours after he’d been killed under the full moon. [Read Blood Moon Rising, by Oria Douglas-Hamilton.] He was not hard to find—just off the main road in Buffalo Springs National Reserve. His face was hacked off in the typical fashion, with the pool of blood not yet soaked up by the earth. A piece of his penis sheath had been cut off as well.
The gunshots went to his head on either side, and the blood from those shots was so fresh it glistened in the morning sun. The bloody holes in his ears made a stark contrast to the healed hole we knew as his unique marker. We had used that healed wound to note his identity, our starting point from which to record and interpret the behaviors of a living, breathing animal.
We were soon met by Kenya Wildlife Service rangers, and we set to looking for the poachers’ tracks. Though the land cover made it difficult to find footprints, evidence of Phylo’s last moments was present. He was shot close to a dry riverbed known as White Luggah and then stumbled across the main road, where he left a trail of blood, shuffling his feet and struggling before falling on his right side. We could reconstruct this from his tracks through the grass, where he dragged his feet before succumbing to the gunshots. On the ground, he was shot in the head again from a few yards away.
Shifra Goldenberg is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University. She conducts research in Samburu National Reserve, where she investigates the effects of poaching and other disruption on the social structure and survival of young female elephants.