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Africa is still facing a poaching crisis. The giants of the wide-open savannas and the impenetrable rainforests continue to be killed at alarming rates to fuel an insatiable demand for ivory in the Far East.

The data from the Great Elephant Census revealed that elephants had declined by 30% in a period spanning 8 years (2007-2014). And while the statistics are sobering and difficult to fathom at the same time, it is the struggle of the individual elephant that really hits you.

Saving a giant

A few weeks ago I got word from one of the wildlife conservancies in Laikipia, north central Kenya, that an elephant we had treated together with the Kenya Wildlife Service and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust had not recovered from its bullet wound injury. It had passed away during the night.

elephant, bullet wound
©Maurice Schutgens

On the day that the vets had treated him they had done all that was humanly possible for the 30-year-old bull elephant with the bullet wound in his leg. It was touch and go whether he would recover but given the incredible resilience of elephants, we had been cautiously optimistic.

elephant, bullet wound
©Maurice Schutgens

And while sometimes elephants do recover, other times they do not. Sometimes there are no happy endings. Sometimes, despite the best efforts, by both nature and man, the elephant dies and it is then that a difficult job must be carried out.

Removing an elephant’s tusks

The ivory cannot simply be left on the elephant for it is likely that someone will return for it and it will find its way into the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade. Therefore the tusks have to be removed – and many do not realise the scale of such a job.

When an elephant has been dead for many weeks and the carcass is left to decompose, the tusks will come away easily, no more than a firm tug is required.

Unfortunately, when the carcass is fresh, the tusks remain deeply rooted within the skull of the elephant and these have to be chopped out carefully using an axe by a skilled individual.

Elephant death, tusk removal
©Maurice Schutgens

The trunk of the elephant is sliced free first, using a machete to improve access to the skull. Countless powerful axe swings follow, coming down with a resounding thud, bone splinters flying in all directions. The rangers doing the job are soon covered in sweat as the midday sun blazes down on them.

Two hours later the men are still at it, taking turns to swing the axe while the other catches his breath. By now the root of the tusks are visible (usually 1/3 of the entire tusk length is embedded in the skull), but they are still held firm. They continue to swing the axe.

Elephant death, tusk removal
©Maurice Schutgens

With a monumental effort, the rangers manage to rip one tusk free, later the other. It’s a dirty job, a job nobody should ever have to do but it’s the job that few people realise must happen when an elephant dies and the tusks are left behind.

There are numerous organisations working tirelessly across this great continent to save this iconic species but the reality is simply that not all elephants can be saved. And for now, there is no dignity in death in for an elephant.

Elephant death, tusk removal
©Maurice Schutgens

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Born in the Netherlands but raised at the end of a tarmac road in a remote Ugandan village, Maurice was always going to end up living in Africa. After a brief stint in Europe he returned to this great continent to pursue a Master's in Conservation Biology at the University of Cape Town, which was followed by several years of traipsing across the globe in search of adventure and stunning wild places. For the last few years Maurice has been based in Kenya and is working towards securing a future for African elephants and the landscapes on which they depend. He is a passionate conservationist, amateur explorer and his camera is always with him! You can follow more of his adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and on his website.

Africa Geographic Travel