Farewell Tolstoy, An African Giant

Published on the 30th of April, 2022

Africa lost one of its giants this week.

In 1971, an elephant was born in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. For many years, he was nurtured in the bosom of his family, discovering the Amboseli ecosystem that would be his kingdom for 51 years. This little bull would grow up to become one of the most iconic elephants in Kenya.

With ivory that swept the grass beneath his feet, Tolstoy was a living natural wonder and one of the last remaining great tuskers in Africa. Through ivory poaching crises and devastating droughts, shrinking habitats and the encroaching human footprint, he prevailed. He was a leviathan, a reminder of all that nature is capable of creating — but in the end, it was the simple tip of a spear that claimed his life.

Six weeks ago, Tolstoy was reported with a spear wound to his front leg, which was likely inflicted by a farmer protecting his crops. Big bulls have big appetites, and as wild spaces continue to shrink and resources become scarce, crop-raiding and the resultant human-wildlife conflict have emerged as challenging issues.

Tolstoy was treated at the time and then monitored around the clock by Big Life Rangers. On the morning of 27th April, they found him recumbent in the heart of Kimana Sanctuary. Complications from the wound had weakened his condition, and he was unable to get back to his feet. The moment Big Life raised the alarm, our helicopter rushed the SWT/KWS Mobile Vet Unit directly to the scene.

A seven-hour battle to save our giant friend ensued, as vets, rangers, and pilots worked tirelessly to bring him to his feet. When vehicles and ropes didn’t work, a front-loader was brought in as a last ditch effort. After creating a pillow of earth to help lever him up from the ground, the loader was then used as a crane.

Tolstoy fought hard to live. Understanding he was being helped, he strained alongside his rescue team to battle the odds. He came close, but after each desperate attempt, you could see his strength ebbing away. We were all left to face the grim reality that this majestic animal was never going to stride across the plains of Amboseli again. In the day's fading light, Tolstoy drew his last breath.

Tolstoy led a storied life, but he left before his time. His death is yet another sobering reminder of the strain we continue to put on our natural world. Even the largest animal on earth falls prey to the menace of man. And yet, there is hope. There are viable solutions to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and secure habitats before they are lost forever. This heartbreaking scene galvanised all who were present to do more.

While this is the end for Tolstoy, one can take comfort in the fact that his legacy will live on. Such a magnificent creature will have sired successions of elephants. Some of the tiny babies walking around Amboseli today are the tuskers of tomorrow. The conservation solutions we put in place will ensure that these elephants, and all those who follow in their footsteps, will always have a place in our world.

This is Tolstoy as we will remember him, standing tall in Amboseli

Photo © Federico Veronesi

Share the article