On Friday, February 22, we spent a couple of hours with a teenage male elephant named Little Fellow, in a conservancy outside the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Little Fellow was a good-looking young bull with splayed tusks and ear lobes that curled out. We estimated that he was about 16 years old, just reaching puberty.
But Little Fellow would not live long enough to pass his genes on to the next generation.
Over a period of six weeks he had been treated several times by the Kenya Wildlife Service veterinarian for a spear wound. The beep-beep-beep of a metal detector indicated that part of the spearhead was still lodged in his left front leg.
His injured leg was twice the size it should be. One look at it was enough to know that he wouldn’t pull through, despite the vet’s heroic efforts and the vigils of those, both elephant and human, who came to comfort him.
Pus oozed from the gaping wound. Septicemia had set in, and the infection was coursing through his body.
Little Fellow could no longer walk. With tremendous effort, he could muster a sort of hop, dragging his enormous leg with him. He rested often, his trunk draped over a fork in a tree, seeking momentary relief from the suffering.
He knew he couldn’t lie down again—he’d learned that when he was immobilized for treatment and was unable to get back up without assistance from ropes attached to a vehicle.
Despite exhaustion and agony, Little Fellow was fighting for his life with dignity and purpose, staying near water, good pasture, and shade—within yards of the safety of the Conservancy Manager’s house.
He wasn’t the first male we knew who had come to die here. Lekuta, a mature elephant twice speared for his tusks and treated many times for the wounds, had also died close to Manager’s house. His bones lay scattered nearby, and elephant dung strewn among them was testimony that he had not been forgotten.
On Monday, February 25, Little Fellow died. Like Lekuta, he will not be forgotten by the people or the elephants who have cared about him.
The Urgency is Real
Born in the late 1990s, Little Fellow entered a world that was pretty safe for elephants. But today, 24 years on, it certainly isn’t. The ongoing slaughter is threatening the survival of the species, as well as tourism, economies, and stability in many African countries.
Little Fellow knew nothing about CITES CoP16, the meeting currently taking place in Bangkok, Thailand. He knew nothing of the many documents, arguments, and words that CITES attendees and experts have spent on elephants.
CITES is the organization whose mandate is to ensure that species are not endangered by international trade. It is the only instrument the world has to set boundaries on the exploitation of species and to decide upon global action when one is under siege.
The CITES delegations know nothing about Little Fellow. But they do know about the shocking number of at least 25,000 elephants killed last year for their tusks.
Based on what we know and what we hear, the actual number may be as high as 50,000. That’s ten percent of all the remaining elephants in Africa—a terrible and terrifying reduction in a single year.
We believe that the controversial CITES-approved one-off sales of ivory to China and Japan have contributed to the current mass killings of elephants by stimulating a huge increase in the demand for ivory.
We can only hope that Little Fellow didn’t die in vain. We can only hope that this time CITES and its member states will put elephants above trade and profit and stem the ongoing massacre.
We’re not in Bangkok. But from Kenya we’re following closely how CITES confronts the current crisis. Thailand’s Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, set the right tone when opening CoP16 on Sunday, March 3, by promising to ban Thailand’s internal ivory trade. We hope she has inspired other state leaders as well. If similar action is followed in China, the lives of tens of thousands of elephants could be spared.
We wish all the delegations a successful conference, and we urge that sound science, not politics and horse-trading, be allowed to prevail.