The Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit

Field Report - June 2006

 Return to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Website

The unit spent the early part of the month translocating elephants from the Ngulia black rhino sanctuary in Tsavo West. The sanctuary which measures about 65Km2 had an estimated elephant population of 150 before a management decision was made to reduce their numbers in order to improve the performance of the rhino population. This number is far above the carrying capacity of the sanctuary and they have caused a severe destruction and degradation of the habitat.

Two black rhinos

In October 2005, attempts were made to drive the elephants out with a helicopter through selected areas of the fence, which had been brought down and camouflaged with bushes. The elephants stubbornly refused to go out and it was decide to try other options. One of these options was to immobilise them and revive them outside the sanctuary close to watering points. To assess the success of this option, a small capture team comprising of two vets, a technician, four rangers and four drivers was sent to Ngulia between the 26th of June and 10th of July 2006 to undertake the exercise before a bigger translocation is planned. Thirty-eight animals were immobilised and removed from the sanctuary. This comprised of 35 bulls and a small family of three. There was no mortality.

An immobilised bull  The elephants are numbered before being translocated

The elephants are lifted using a lifting crane

Animals were located from a vehicle and either darted from the vehicle or on foot depending on the approachability and the vegetation cover. Those in open areas were darted from the vehicle while those in bushes were darted on foot. Darting was done with the Dan-inject CO2 propelled rifle which is more gentle and does not scare away the animals on dart impact. Etorphine Hcl at 18mg was used for the big bulls while 17mg was used for the smaller bulls and the family matriarch. Smaller doses were used for the smaller family members. Hyaluronidase was added to the immobilising darts to reduce the induction times.

An elephant about to be translocated  The elephants are lifted onto the back of a truck using a lifting crane

After the animal showed signs of narcotisation, the vehicles would close in slowly to enable fast response immediately it went down. Down time ranged between 4 and 12 minutes depending on the dart site and averaged about 7 minutes. Once down, the animal would be processed for recovery while the vets and the technician monitored its stability and took necessary samples. Overheated animals were cooled with copious amounts of water especially on the top ear pinna. Animals were recovered by a lifting crane and transported while still immobilised to the release sites where they were revived.

One of the elephants being translocated  One of the translocated elephants wakes up after being revived

The release areas were determined by the capture site. They were Rhino valley, Mtito-Ndawe junction, Eastern end of Ngulia Airstrip and the Southern side of the sanctuary towards Tsavo River. A few animals that looked compromised anaesthetically, those that took long to recover and those positioned badly on the transport lorry were released not far across the fence. We avoided transporting animals for long distances to avoid complications that would arise when they are transported immobilised. Animals captured were marked with numbers using white paint on their backs to enable identification and monitoring for a few days after capture before the paint disappeared.

One of the translocated elephants back on its feet after receiving the revival drug  One of the translocated elephants in its surroundings

The other activity in the month was on the 6th of June while undertaking the above exercise, when we received a report of a bull elephant at Kabi ya Kazi on the western side of the Chyulu hills with a spear injury on the right fore leg. After confirmation that it was on sight, we rushed and treated it. The wound was very infected. We cleaned and treated it and administered high doses of a systemic antibiotic.

The bull is darted  The sedated bull

The arrow wound is heavily infected  The arrow wound is extremely deep

The wound is thoroughly cleaned to remove the infection  The wound is disinfected by Dr. Ndeereh

The wound after treatment

A second treatment was administered on the 22nd when the elephant was sighted again. The infection was found to have cleared but the swelling is yet to subside.

The bull is sedated for the second treatment  The bull's foreleg is still slightly swollen

Water is poured over the still open arrow wound  The wound caused by the arrow is free of infection

The animal is able to walk with much ease now. This time it was found in a difficult rocky and dense terrain. Darting and subsequent follow up and treatment were done on foot. It will continue to be monitored and progress reported.

The bull gets to its feet after the revival drug is administered  The bull back on its feet after the second treatment

The unit was also actively involved in the movement of three young elephants from the Nairobi nursery to the rehabilitation facility at Ithumba, Northern Tsavo East.

The vet unit follows the trucks carrying the orphans  The trucks carrying the orphans arrive in Ithumba

The orphans alight upon arrival  One of the Nairobi orphans first steps on Ithumba soil

The Nursery orphans meet the Ithumba orphans

The movement was without hitch and reports so far indicate that they have adapted well to their new home. Finally, on the 17th we were called to help determine the cause of death of an elephant a few metres from the Tsavo East- Ngutuni sanctuary cutline.

Birds circling the dead elephants carcass

The carcase was however too decomposed to tell the cause of death. The tusks were intact which would rule out foul play.

Remains of the dead elephant  The dead elephant

The Mobile Veterinary Unit operated by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust working with the Kenayan Wildlife Service and funded by Vier Pfoten.