Harmonizing Elephant Deaths

Bathed in moonlight, we lay waiting for the alarm to ring 4:30 a.m., when we would have to drag ourselves out of bed. The Rift Valley was arranged in sharp relief below us, tranquil and magical. A moment of stillness; we had a long day ahead. It would begin with a three-and-a-half hour drive from Il Masin, south of the Ngong Hills, across the Rift Valley to Ewaso Nyiro, Narok, to make a 9 a.m. meeting.

Thankfully, the traffic was light at that early hour, giving us mental space to contemplate the gathering we were to attend. We dreaded to think how many elephants would be on the final list. Our own educated guess was 150 individuals, plus or minus a few. Whatever the figure, we knew it would represent just those whose carcasses had been found. There were others out there, hidden in dense vegetation, in places without patrols, whose deaths would never be tallied. How many bodies and bones of males lay there still? How many females? How many calves had succumbed to starvation and grief caused by their mothers’ deaths? How many of them in the bush and on the day’s lists were elephants we had painstakingly photographed, registered, and described on our databases, but whose deaths we would never record?


Two days after an adult female was found killed nearby, adult male m0243 was seen looking after this six year old calf. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.
Two days after an adult female was found killed nearby, adult male m0243 was seen looking after this six-year-old calf. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.


“We couldn’t use the word harmonize without cringing a bit.”

The goal for the day was not pretty. We were to meet with other stakeholders at the Narok County headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to “harmonize” the 2012 elephant mortalities that we had each collected from the world-renowned Maasai Mara ecosystem. We couldn’t use the word harmonize without cringing a bit. Synchronize would have been a better term, as there seemed nothing harmonious or agreeable about the task ahead.

The stakeholders had been called at short notice and came from across the Maasai Mara. There were representatives from KWS, Narok and Transmara County Councils, conservancies, NGOs and scientists, all gathered in a small room. We came armed with our dead—on paper, in pictures, in files, in folders, on spreadsheets, and in our databases. Many of them were also in our hearts, as individuals we’d known. Lekuta and Tenebo, two mature males named, respectively, by Olare Orok and Siana Conservancy scouts, were on the list. The beautiful matriarch, Goodness, so named by Mara Naboisho Conservancy Guide Derrick Nabaala, for her gentle disposition, was listed too. All three had been speared to death for their tusks.

The entire day went discussing the geo-referenced graveyards of elephants, the tusks that had been recovered, and lost, and the individuals’ gruesome deaths by shooting, spearing, and poisoned arrows. We clarified those who had died naturally, were slain in conflict with people over diminishing resources, or were killed for their ivory tusks. Had all been geo-referenced? For without a GPS point, they could not be verified and would not be counted among the dead. We added our “new” victims and struck the double-counted from the list.

“Look, look, look what is happening to our elephants! STOP the killing! STOP the trade!”

We worked until the end of the day when we made our way back home; others continued through the following day until every entry had been checked and agreed upon. Meant to take place every quarter, we have been waiting for this process. Once the data are harmonized, we may go to the press with the grisly figures, we may post them on Facebook, we may shout to the world with the hard facts, the undeniable evidence: “Look, look, look what is happening to our elephants! STOP the killing! STOP the trade!”

Meanwhile, the 2013 tally has begun, and the killing continues: six in January in one Mara conservancy alone. We are told that many people in China think that elephants shed their tusks, like antlers. The gruesome message that every tusk costs a life has to reach these buyers. We have to make the purchase of ivory, like the wearing of spotted cat fur coats, something to be scorned and despised.


Wearing a GPS collar allowing researchers to monitor his movements, Omondi pauses to listen. Like so many Mara males, he has a festering arrow wound. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.
Wearing a GPS collar allowing researchers to monitor his movements, Omondi pauses to listen. Like so many Mara males, he has a festering arrow wound. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.


As long as there is a market for ivory, it will have value. As long as it has value, it will be a resource controlled by people with power. The trade in ivory in Kenya, as elsewhere, is a corrupt and dirty business. Everywhere we go, we hear the same refrain: “It’s always like this during an election year,” or “It won’t get better until after the elections;” people insinuating that politicians are engaged in the trade in ivory to raise money for their campaigns. It may be true, but the scale of the problem is far, far deeper than that, and we are under no illusions that it will get better after the elections in early March, unless we act in unison and speak with one voice.

What does it actually mean to “harmonize” elephant mortality, and why should we do it? The simple answer is that with many people engaged in elephant conservation in Kenya, we need to agree on the actual figures so that we can document what is going on and react in an appropriate way. In reality the situation is a bit more complex.

To explain requires a bit of history. Prior to 1990 African elephants were on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), permitting the sale of ivory from elephant range states under a quota system. It was a system open to so much abuse that East Africa lost 85 percent of her elephants in 15 years, and the continental elephant population plummeted from 1.3 million to 600,000.

In 1989 the Parties to CITES voted to place African elephants on Appendix I, thereby enacting a ban on international trade in ivory. The vote was certainly not unanimous, and many southern African countries and their trading partners were against it.

The next ten years saw both the slow recovery of populations of these long-lived mammals, but also the eroding of the ban. Several southern African country elephant populations were down-listed to Appendix II and so-called “one-off” sales of their ivory stockpiles were permitted to Japan and China.


Babies elephants at play in the relative safety of one of the conservancies. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.
Babies elephants at play in the relative safety of one of the conservancies. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.


In 2000, in response to concerns that these sales would stimulate the market, the Parties to CITES initiated a program called Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, or MIKE for short. The MIKE program involves collecting specific data on elephant mortality from some 52 “MIKE sites” or populations of monitored elephants across Africa, with one of its primary aims being to monitor whether and how the decisions taken at CITES might be impacting levels of poaching on the ground.

While these data have provided a valuable indicator of poaching trends, they have also been highly criticized for not being able to prove or disprove any causality between ivory stockpile sales and levels of poaching. Already in 2007 there were telltale signs that all was not well, but as the number of poached elephants continued to rise, there was strong disagreement about whether the down-listings and stock-pile sales were the cause or whether the “ban” (undermined by them) was no longer working. By the end of 2012, the poaching situation was completely out of control, and MIKE was still unable to conclude whether the ivory sales were the cause!

There were other issues with MIKE that had troubled us. While MIKE has provided facts and figures to the authorities, in some countries it may also have led to a delay in sounding the alarm about the killing of elephants for ivory.

Kenya has two official MIKE sites, Tsavo and Samburu/Laikipia. In addition, the presence of elephant projects in Amboseli and Maasai Mara has also allowed detailed mortality records to be collected according to MIKE criteria.


A family with orphans led by a young female finds the road a good place for a mud wallow. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.
A family with orphans led by a young female finds the road a good place for a mud wallow. Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices.


Scientists love facts and figures, as do government officials. Facts and figures mean information, and control of such information means power. Those who collect data often want to use it for their own purposes and may be reluctant to share it. Individuals and institutions may also keep a lid on figures because they don’t like what they reveal and may, therefore, want to control access to them.

In the early 1990s, when Joyce headed the Elephant Program for KWS, she set up an Elephant Mortality Database to help KWS monitor its anti-poaching efforts as well as the success of the ivory trade ban that had been enacted by CITES. It is this database that now holds the MIKE data and forms an important source of information regarding the level of illegal killing of elephants in the country.

As a result of the MIKE program, some of the information in the KWS Elephant Mortality Database is now of interest to a wider audience. Indeed, the whole world suddenly has a stake in those figures. Of particular interest to the world at large is the “PIKE”—or the proportion of the total dead that have been illegally killed.

Over the last six years or so the number of deaths and, particularly, the PIKE, has been steadily rising (we believe because of decisions taken at CITES). The figures have not been pretty, and it is fair to say that some individuals have sought to both window-dress and keep a lid on the facts to keep them from public view. Scientists have been intimidated for having differences of opinion about the numbers. There have been rumors that, for speaking out, some individuals have had their funding blocked, honorary wardens have been stripped of their titles, and others have been accused of colluding with poachers. Whatever the truth, in this climate of secrecy suspicion has flourished, causing frustration and anger to boil over, even among close colleagues and friends.

“Thankfully, the last few weeks has seen a major shift in attitude in Kenya.”

Thankfully, the last few weeks has seen a major shift in attitude in Kenya. The press is suddenly really on the ball “naming names” and pushing for action. The Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, has promised to act, and all signs indicate that heads will roll. The new Director of Kenya Wildlife Service is promising transparency and is reaching out to collaborators, and harmonization meetings are taking place across the country.

More than any country in the world, Kenya is an epicenter of elephant know-how. We have a team of internationally recognized Kenyan conservationists and elephant authorities, conservation expertise, institutions, and policies in place, and a galvanized public with the will to slow the rate of killings. As we write, members of a newly formed group, Kenyans United Against Poaching, are marching through the streets of Mombasa, chanting:

“No wildlife – No Tourism,
No Tourism – No Work,
No Tourism – No Economy,
No Tourism – No Vision 2030.
We Must Stop Poaching Now.
China Must Stop Ivory Trade.”

Elephants are an asset to Kenya and her people and, as we await the release of the official 2012 elephant mortality figures, we are hopeful that Team Kenya will work together in harmony to protect her elephants.

Joyce PooleJoyce Poole has studied elephants since 1975, holds a Cambridge University Ph.D. in elephant behavior, and played a key role in obtaining the ivory trade ban in 1989. She is a world authority on elephant social, reproductive, communicative and cognitive behavior and has dedicated her life to the conservation and welfare of elephants. Poole headed the Kenya Wildlife Service Elephant Program from 1990-1994 where she was responsible for elephant conservation and management throughout Kenya. She is author of numerous scientific publications, two books and is lead author of The Elephant Charter. Poole and husband, Petter Granli founded and direct ElephantVoices. In 2011 they initiated an ongoing elephant conservation project in the Maasai Mara. Read more on
Petter GranliPetter Granli is an economist with significant corporate experience in management and communication. His venture into wildlife conservation began in 1998 as one of the founders of the award-winning Norwegian eco-travel company, Basecamp Explorer, which he directed for three years. In this capacity he initiated the Maasai Mara Cheetah Conservation Project and several collaborative eco-projects involving the Maasai. In 2004, while working together with Joyce Poole, he initiated a human-elephant conflict mitigation project around the Amboseli area. Together with Joyce he founded and directs ElephantVoices. Read more on


  1. Margaraet Shoemake
    FL USA
    February 7, 2013, 12:42 pm

    I fell in love with elephants on my first trip to Kenya. so much so I could not wait to go back to see them again which my husband and I did about 1 year later. I think the chant in Mombasa above really says it all for the people of Kenya. Don’t give tourists more reasons not to go to Africa. For me, I cannot wait to go back to africa. Keep up the fight and the media posts. I wish everyone could see wild elephants.

  2. Lee West
    February 6, 2013, 11:23 pm

    Great post on a very sensitive subject that touches our hearts. You both do God’s work for the elephants and planet. You also take BEAUTIFUL pictures!!! I hope millons of people read this post!

  3. Joyce Poole and Petter Granli
    February 6, 2013, 1:12 pm

    Christa – we definitely need a Chinese social media campaign. Wish we had an equivalent of our ElephantVoices Facebook page on Chinese social media sites……

  4. Joyce Poole and Petter Granli
    February 6, 2013, 1:09 pm

    Roy Mbole – very sad to hear about the baby elephant – I wonder how old it was. Calves under two years old don’t survive without their mother’s milk and mortality rates for young elephants as old as 10 are higher if they are orphaned. Mother elephants play such an important physical and emotional role in a calf’s survival. I am sure that calf was not only in pain but grieving. Do contact the Sheldrick Trust if you see another baby on its own – they may well be able to help.

  5. Christa
    Portland, OR
    February 6, 2013, 10:24 am

    Maybe what we need is a Chinese social media campaign to make people see how repugnant ivory products are. If people really think that they’re shed like antlers, we need to rip that myth off. In the U.S. ivory products are stigmatized (though there will always be people who take it as a point of pride to acquire illicit materials) largely due to the visibility of conservation efforts.

  6. roy mbole
    February 6, 2013, 7:14 am

    Dear Joyce/Petter
    Thank you for the good work you are doing and May God keep you safe as you help protect the elephants. I visited Shimba hills a few week ago and came face to face with a baby Elephant which had a gun shot injury on the leg and it really seamed sad wondering alone As i didnt spot any others around….very sad I have the photos.

  7. LAMINI Petra von Zezschwitz
    Karma Kagyu Lineage, Germany
    February 6, 2013, 5:17 am

    For the Good of All Beings

  8. Bellachella
    Buffalo, NY
    February 5, 2013, 10:14 pm

    Thank you for letting us know what’s going on and for fighting to save the elephants. The ongoing massacre is unforgivable. I hope that the Prime Minister really does something and that heads do roll. The poachers, suppliers, and buyers deserve the same fate as their victims.

    • Joyce Poole and Petter Granli
      February 6, 2013, 1:44 am

      Stricter law enforcement and harsher penalties are certainly needed but no one deserves the horrible fate of some of these elephants.