Late last night, word came in that a female elephant had been shot and wounded and that there were two young elephants with her who needed rescue. A lot of work is done to ensure that elephants that are rescued are actually orphans and not temporarily abandoned.
In this situation, the mother had to be euthanized as her injuries were so critical. The team flew in, tracked the elephant for a while, and finally caught up. The mother had been shot in the shoulder, mangling her enough that she was not able to support herself on all four legs. The baby was darted first. Then the mother.
As one might expect, drugging an elephant is a somewhat complicated process (actually, just about everything elephant-related is “somewhat complicated.”) The vet has to estimate the weight of the animal, by sight, concoct the right dosage and then shoot the elephant with a dart gun.
Since the elephant is going to be loaded into an airplane, it’s important that the dosage be enough to render the elephant thoroughly unconscious, without kiƖƖing it. As with humans, being anesthetized is a potentially dangerous process, but unlike with humans, the vets can do no examination of the animal beforehand.
While all this was going on, we were waiting at the sanctuary for the message that the calf was en route, when the message was sent the team prepared everything and waited with trepidation on the airstrip for the Tropic air caravan to arrive.
While waiting at the airstrip at one end, a team is sent to the other to ensure that no goat herds or troops of monkeys wander onto the strip.
Finally, an airplane came into view. We are always so impressed with the pilots to take off and land with ease whilst carrying heavy elephant-sized loads! (it’s about two years old) it was pulled from the plane carefully and quickly.
Here, they’re pouring water onto the elephant to keep it cool. You can see that its feet are tied, but it’s still thoroughly unconscious. Some local Samburu herdsmen happened to be around and, like everyone else, whipped out their smartphones to shoot videos of the event.
The drive back normally takes about 15 mins and so we make a quick turnaround. Expressing our gratitude to the pilot we head off to the sanctuary with the precious cargo.
By the time we arrived back at the elephant camp, the other elephants had already been moved out of the stables and taken to graze in an area outside the fence. The new elephant was quickly moved into a stall, and the vets began an examination.
In addition to taking its temperature and other vital statistics they look for injuries, both for treatment, and to try to learn more about the elephant’s experience within the herd. (For example, the last elephant had some cuts and bruises that indicated that other elephants his age might have been picking on him.) They also check for worms and other communicable troubles.
The vets were very surprised to find a lot of dried bƖooḋ on the elephant’s side. You can see it to the right in this image – the bright, glossy spot. The vets quickly determined that the elephant had no injuries of its own – the bƖooḋ was from its mother as she was dripping bƖooḋ from her gunshot wound in her shoulder and the calf stood close by to his injured mother.
A single ear on a full-grown elephant can weigh around a hundred pounds. Elephants can’t sweat – they cool themselves through their ears. Thick with veins, the ears make a good entry point for injections. It only takes a single shot to revive the elephant. After this injection, the elephant starts to wake up within one to two minutes.
Suddenly it moved, but not quickly. Perhaps the dosage wasn’t quite right or maybe every elephant is simply different but this one took a long time to struggle to its feet. Elephants look quite drunk when they’re drugged.
They stagger and can’t hold their heads up. They totter backward out of control until they manage to find their balance. As rough a time as this one had at the beginning of the recovery, he came to very quickly and was immediately agitated. He paced quickly around the stall, reaching his trunk through the posts, and walking forward and backward, unsure where there might be a threat.
A keeper walked into the adjacent stall and the ele immediately went to him and reached out with his trunk. The keepers were trying to speak as much as possible and to stay nearby so that the elephant would begin to learn about their presence as soon as possible.
Access to the elephants is extremely limited – since the elephants will be returned to the wild (hopefully to their own herds) it’s important that none of these elephants be too comfortable around people. To ensure that humans don’t become “normal” to the elephant, only a small group of keepers have regular access.
This time, the keepers let all of the other elephants in, rather than limiting access to just Shaba, the matriarch. She marched in almost immediately, most likely because she smelled not only this elephant but the dried bƖooḋ on its side.
She reached through the posts to find his trunk and he immediately responded, reaching back and entwining his trunk with hers. An elephant’s sense of smell is extremely sensitive (as one would hope with a nose that big) and Shaba did a lot of “probing” of this new member of her herd. She reached inside his mouth with her trunk and all around his head.