A dance with pachyderms: The difficult task of treating injured elephants
By Jimmy Rutherford
Boni, Head of the National Police Reservists at Lolldaiga Conservancy, and I were driving along the route used by the ForRangers Ultra, heading towards Ole Naishu and Borana Conservancies. Abandoned pig-farm barns surrounded by herds of zebra, large towers of reticulated giraffes hidden in thick acacias, and “Ambush guys” (old male buffaloes with cantankerous attitudes) stood amidst the impressive Lolldaiga Hills. Coming up to the foot of one hill, I asked Boni about the current elephant poaching in Laikipia. He said that these days it is rare, and that it is common for any elephant carcass found to be with its tusks, just as they should be. It was only after driving over the brow of yet another hill that another danger revealed itself to me.
With tusks barely beginning to protrude below his cheeks, a young bull elephant calf limped slowly across the grassy hillside, rocking back and forth, and calculating his steps carefully to reduce the weight placed on his rear right leg. Grazing close by, his mother kept a close eye on him, caringly matching his slow pace as he hobbled along. The cause of this limp? A bullet hole in the side of his leg, most likely fired by a farmer desperately trying to defend his crops in a neighbouring village. Rather than a poaching attempt, this was an effort to deter the elephant herd from ruining crops; one that resulted in the injury to this calf. The rest of the herd had left, but fortunately, he was in the relative safety of the Ole Naishu Conservancy, close to the boundary fence with Borana, where ranger teams standby ready to help at a moment’s notice. We spent a short time photographing his injury to inform decisions and logging his location ready to call it in.
The next morning, we rushed along the rugged tracks to meet Borana’s owner, Michael Dyer, and Dr Matthew Mutinda, a Kenya Wildlife Service vet. Strong anaesthetics were soon prepared and I jumped in the back of the truck as Matthew took the front seat in prime position to fire. The elephants had barely moved since the afternoon before, but they had been joined by two others. They continued to feed as the truck edged closer, peacefully wrapping their trunks around large bunches of grass before delicately slipping them into their ever-munching mouths.
Everyone was silent. The muzzle of the dart gun lurked outside the front window and soon it was fired. It took a beat for the calf’s mother to realise that something was wrong, but then she wasted no time turning her attention to us, the perpetrators, trumpeting, lifting her head and spreading her ears out in anger. We reversed and when we were at a distance that mother deemed comfortable, she stopped, flattened her ears and carefully placed the tips of her trunk over the fallen dart in an attempt to figure out what it was.
It was now a waiting game. It can take anywhere up to 20 minutes for the anaesthetics to take effect and, given the size of the calf, I was confident we were in for the long haul. Of course, after just three minutes, his eyes started to close and his front legs began to slump in a downward dog-like motion before… thud.
What happened next was one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever witnessed. The other three – his mother, a second adult female and her calf – all rushed back, trumpeting, and rumbling in the confusion with their tails extended horizontally outward. His mother tried desperately to get him to his feet, standing beside him and nudging with her trunk and knee but to no avail. At this point another truck with the ranger teams moved in to gently guide her and the rest of the elephants away. The others did not present much of a fight, but the mother was understandably stubborn. Moving back and forth like some form of giant, clumsy dance the mother advanced and retreated, lifting her head and swatting her trunk in the direction of the truck until, finally, she gave way, turning tail and plodding reluctantly up the hill.
We did not have long to work. As the calf was dowsed with water to maintain his body temperature, twigs placed in between his nostrils to keep his airways open and his ankle checked for mobility, the other truck continued its dance with the anxious mother who stood firm and continued to try to return to her calf.
Team members carefully cut away at the spiny acacia saplings that surrounded the unconscious calf so that he could be moved, but rolling an elephant, even a calf, onto his other side is no easy feat (not surprisingly he weighed an absolute tonne). Bone fragments were removed, bloods taken, and antibiotics administered. Then the reversal drugs, which kicked in quickly. The calf was awake like a rocket. But he was unsteady and six people were needed to try and support his body weight as he squealed and shrieked for his mother. As soon as he reached his feet, the radio signalled that the rangers were ready to let the mother go. Michael said: “Run” and everyone sprinted.
Once we were all in, our Land Cruiser veered up the hill before turning to look back as the mother trotted back as fast as she could, her trunk dangling down and her ears wide out. She reached the calf, which despite still being unstable, already looked like he was starting to put some weight back on his rear leg. After she checked him over and comforted him, gently inspecting his shoulders and back with her trunk, she led him away.
The following morning, Michael and I went to check on the herd. Flying close to the ground, we scoured the landscape looking down amidst rhinos, giraffes, buffaloes and, of course, elephants. But we did not see the calf. Did he make it? We didn’t see him or his mother; encouragingly, neither did we see any flocks of vultures. The team has still, after several months, not seen him. The rangers and the vet team did all they could for the injured calf, with Matthew estimating a 50/50 chance that he would pull through. Protected by teams of rangers, conservancies like Borana and Lolldaiga are the best places for this calf to be. After this experience, his mother most likely led him to somewhere far away that she thought would be safer. Unfortunately, those places are becoming harder to find.