Mourning Mountain Bull: Poachers Slay Fabled Elephant in Kenya

Studying the animal’s migrations—and the human conflicts they caused—helped conservationists create a critical wildlife corridor.

Mourning Mountain Bull: Poachers Slay Fabled Elephant in Kenya

Mountain Bull in his prime. (Photo: Courtesy Wildlife Conservation Network)

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Mountain Bull, one of the most iconic and important elephants in all of Africa, has been slain by poachers in Kenya. The 46-year-old, six-ton elephant was killed on Mount Kenya by spears; a search team from the nearby Lewa Wildlife Conservancy found his body on May 15. His tusks, a third of which were removed in 2012 to make him less attractive to poachers, had been cut off.

Poachers are estimated to kill as many as 33,000 elephants every year for their valuable ivory. Much of that ivory, which funds terrorism and human trafficking, ends up in the hands of consumers in China, Japan, and the United States, according to a recent report from Born Free USA.

“Everyone on Lewa is shaken and upset about the loss of Mountain Bull,” said the conservancy’s Alexandra Ames Kornman. “His personality and charisma made him both infamous and beloved.” Mountain Bull had survived at least one previous poaching attempt, which left six bullets in his body.

Conservationists first realized that Mountain Bull may have been in trouble last week when the signals from the radio collar he has worn for the past eight years indicated he had stopped moving. Lewa estimates that the elephant was killed about eight days before its body was discovered.

Mountain Bull’s radio collar has been tracked for the past eight years by the nongovernmental organization Save the Elephants, said Frank Pope, the group’s chief operating officer. The elephant’s annual migrations took him from his feeding groups on the slope of Mount Kenya to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy so he could mate. “His route between the two took him past farmers’ fields, and his habit of breaking fences to reach their crops made him somewhat notorious,” Pope said.

This animal-human conflict created problems for Mountain Bull, but it also provided opportunities for conservationists to develop strategies to reduce those conflicts and protect both wildlife and local communities. Using Google Earth and satellite data from Mountain Bull’s migrations, conservationists in 2010 reestablished an elephant corridor between Mount Kenya, Lewa, and the Ngare Ndare Forest that had been blocked by human development. Work for the project included building an underpass so elephants could travel beneath a busy freeway. More than 2,000 elephants have since traveled that reopened migration path. The creation of the corridor also helped motivate UNESCO to expand the Mount Kenya World Heritage Site to include both Lewa and the Ngare Ndare Forest last summer.

The new corridor wasn’t enough to also protect Mountain Bull, Pope says, “from the curse of carrying ivory.”

Ames Kornman said Mountain Bull’s death has left everyone at Lewa “more motivated than ever to do everything in our power to protect the remaining elephants of northern Kenya.” She pointed out that old elephants with long tusks like Mountain Bull have become increasingly rare as poachers kill every elephant they can find. If the current rates of poaching continue, Kornman said, “We may never see another one like him in our lifetimes.”

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