Saving Kenya's Giants

Published on the 27th of February, 2020

For as long as time itself, the circle of life has maintained order in the natural world.

Humans threaten to disrupt this rhythm, as our activities increasingly leave wild lives and the places they call home hanging in the balance. With that said, it is deeply satisfying for us to be in a position to remedy these wrongs. Any life saved is a victory, but it feels particularly poignant when that life belongs to an elephant, who are so often targeted for their ivory or caught in the crosshairs of human-wildlife conflict as they compete for resources to survive.

For this month’s Field Notes, I would like to tell you how we go about saving Kenya’s giants — and bring you along on one of these remarkable, collaborative treatments.

– Angela Sheldrick

Saving Kenya's Giants

The threats facing elephants are many and varied, but human-wildlife conflict has emerged as one of the most pervasive threats to the species’ existence. Since the inception of our Mobile Vet Units, in partnership with the KWS, we have attended to 2,701 elephants in the field, and injuries resulting from encounters with people are worryingly on the rise. Mankind’s footprint is expanding at a relentless pace, disrupting ancient wildlife corridors and shrinking wild habitats. This leaves elephants and other creatures without the land and resources they have relied upon for millennia, and as a result, they maraud onto community lands. An elephant moving through a farmer’s smallholding can devastate subsistence crops, so communities are quick to retaliate — often with fatal consequences.

In January, we were able to save two iconic elephants in Tsavo who had been the target of poisoned arrows. This is an ancient method of poaching favoured by the Kamba people, a tribe known for their hunting skills and bush prowess, who live bordering Tsavo. While it may seem incomprehensible that a single arrow could fell a creature as giant as an elephant, it is scarily effective: The shaft of the sharpened metal arrow is wrapped with a poisonous concoction, primarily from the acokanthera oppositifolia shrub, which contains toxic cardiac glycosides. Once the arrow penetrates the skin and the poisons infiltrate the bloodstream, a slow and painful death usually follows.

The upside is that, if the victim is spotted early enough by our SWT/KWS Mobile Vet Units, the effects of the poison can be reversed and the patient has hope for survival. Thankfully, creating poisoned arrows is a dying trade among many other tribes, and the poison is not nearly as strong or effective as it was in the 1970s and 80s. The tribe that makes the poison is the Giriama tribe, traditionally hunter-gathers who live along the coast of Kenya and up towards the eastern boundary of Tsavo East.

When it comes to saving wild lives, our Aerial Unit is key in the equation. Tsavo is a vast and dense wilderness, much of it without road networks, making our “eyes in the sky” crucial. Our skilled pilots fly many hours every day, scouring the landscape for illegal or unusual activities, while also monitoring the movements of wildlife. More often than not, it is they who first identify poisoned elephants. They also play a vital role in the subsequent veterinary operation. Darting an elephant from the ground is not just challenging, but can be extremely dangerous and in many circumstances is not even an option. That’s when the Trust’s helicopter takes flight, providing a safe platform from which the vet can dart the animal from the air with Etorphine. Then, while the anesthetic takes effect, the helicopter gently guides the patient to a clearing so that the operation can be performed safely.

After the elephant is fully sedated, the Mobile Vet Unit gathers by its side and treatment commences. The final step is administering diprenorphine into the patient’s ear vein, which revives the elephant. At this point, everyone must move a safe distance away while waiting for the giant animal to come around. This is always a dramatic moment, because elephants have to toss their head in order to rise to their feet from a recumbent position, and sometimes they struggle when carrying huge ivory. When this happens, a ground team with a vehicle is on standby to place straps around the elephant’s tusks, which help lift their head so they can be coaxed back to their feet. Watching them rise with that spectacular shake of the head — knowing that they must be wondering what on earth happened to them — brings about a very special feeling. The knowledge that one played a part in saving such a remarkable creature from unimaginable suffering, and that they now have a second chance to live a long and full life, is deeply fulfilling.

One of the bulls we treated in January was a truly magnificent tusker, with sweeping tusks that nearly grazed the ground. His injury was old, suppurating and serious, and we felt a sense of great urgency when we first spotted him. We knew that if we did not treat him that day, he could well vanish back into the bush — and if that happened, his septic wounds would eventually kill him. Because life is rarely straightforward, things were made even more complicated because we did not have any vet in the ecosystem at the time. Fortunately, KWS vet Dr. Mijele, who heads our Mount Kenya Mobile Veterinary Unit, was on call in Nanyuki. We quickly organized a plane to fetch him, and after an hour and a half flight, he landed in Tsavo. From here, he swapped aircraft and was whisked to the scene in the SWT helicopter, where teams were poised to support from the ground.

The operation went smoothly and this beautiful bull will live another day, month, year, and even decades because of it. We hope that he too learned a valuable lesson to not venture into community lands and raid their crops, as that was obviously what put him in this precarious position. Tsavo National Park is thoroughly protected and, thanks to the recent bountiful rains, full of good browse and water, so we hope that he will remain within its vast confines.

Our second bull was also the victim of a poisoned arrow, undoubtedly sustained because he had marauded onto community lands. His injury was less serious, and he was quickly treated and sent off with an excellent prognosis. These sorts of stories unfold daily among our five Mobile Veterinary Units, who work tirelessly across Kenya’s protected areas to save wild lives. Every time a patient gets back to their feet, a feeling of relief and pride washes over us — just like the feeling we experienced as we watched that iconic bull stride back into the wilds of Tsavo. Every day, our teams are performing miracles and providing lifelines to creatures who would otherwise be without hope for a future. While we cannot erase all the problems that mankind foists upon our wild world, we can be part of the solution.

Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To receive the email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with our staff, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.

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