Thursday February 20, 2014
Its been just over two weeks since Mshale was darted near Ithumba in northern Tsavo East NP. Nobody on the ground has seen him since, and no aerial patrols have picked him up. But there are two good sides to his story.
After searching high and low for him in the surrounding areas near where he was treated, by both ground teams and aerial patrols, there is no sign of him. He was in a weak state when he was treated for severe spear wounds, however, he had the strength to move off with his companions after the operation. It rained heavily for a few days just after he was darted. This not only brought cooler weather, but abundant water and lush vegetation has sprung up providing plenty of food.
Yesterday, while the Trust 's Top Cub was out looking for Mshale, a large bull elephant with a severe arrow wound in his back right leg was sighted from the air.
Plans were immediately made to treat him with a call to the DSWT/KWS Vet, Dr. Poghon; a call to the helicopter pilot who confirmed he would be on standby; a call to the DSWT/KWS anti-poaching team to be ready with water, ropes and the Trust's tractor at first light.
At 6am one the 20th of Feb the Trust's Cub was airbone heading to the last location where the wounded bull was sighted. The morning was misty and dark, an unusual overcast February day in Tsavo. One can never predict how a darting operation is going to turn out. Sometimes the patient is just standing where he was seen the day before, and on other days the patient has vanished into thin air. So the Vet and the helicopter remained on standby until a confirmed sighting was made. Just as well because by 10:00hrs, with two of the Trust's Cubs in the sky since early morning, nothing had been seen. By 11:00hrs 8 bulls have been seen, but still not the patient. It's strange how such large beasts suddenly emerge from the bush after 5 hours of intensive searching by the two planes, criss-crossing the same areas many times.
In this sort of situation different scenarios start popping into your mind - was he tracked by the poachers in the night and lying dead somewhere, covered by branches, or did the presence of the plane the evening before disturb him enough to make him walk all night to a totally different place? The search gets wider. the chances of finding him drop by the minute. We landed to reconvene and make a plan, deciding on one last search, one plane to the north and one to the south.
Finally, we find him, in a thick riverine valley, with eight of his compatriots. The search is over and the action plan has to be resurrected. Dr. Poghon is called off standby, and so is the helicopter pilot. The helicopter arrives at1300hrs, and in the meantime the Vet has to be picked up from Voi in the Trust's Cessna 185 scheduled to arrive a little after 1300hrs.
When the Vet arrived, the ground team was ready and waiting on a nearby road close to where the elephant was last spotted. The helicopter landed on the road, and while Dr. Poghon prepared a dart plans were made. Meanwhile, the 185 sets out to locate the bull and does so almost immediately, communicating with the helicopter and ground team via radio. As the 185 circles overhead, the helicopter lifts off with Dr. Poghon at the ready.
The helicopter was guided immediately to the the herd of elephants by the 185 and hovered at 50 ft while looking for The Patient. He is spotted in a group of three. Peter, the helicopter pilot, separated The Patient from his two protective friends and herded him closer to the road as Dr. Poghon readied himself to fire the dart. At the right moment, Dr. Poghon skillfully darted the elephant as Peter continued to push him closer to the road so that the ground team could access it more easily. After a few minutes the elephant stood still, swayed, and then collapsed in a heap. He had fallen badly into some bushes, flopped on his haunches instead of on his side. His massive weight now pushng on his lungs and heart. It became critically important to reach the elephant on the ground to push him over onto its side as elephants in this position will typically survive no more than fifteen minutes.
The Trust's tractor was forging a route through the thick bush towards the elephant, directed by the 185 from the air and guided around trees by the ground team on foot. They were able to reach the elephant in time and with the help of the tractor the team was able to pull him over and make sure he was breathing as he should and cool. The trunk was propped open with a stick to allow the elephant to breathe and the ear folded over on top of his eye. A Trust Scout splashed water on the elephants ear to keep the body cool throughout.
Due to the lack of closeby landing sites the helicopter dropped Dr. Poghon back on the road. He is then directed back to the elephant by the 185 overhead. once in site Dr. Poghon quickly got to work and the 185 aircraft returned to an Airstrip to land.
The huge wound on his back leg is the result of a poisoned arrow. A clear entry wound leads to a gaping abscess on the front of the leg above the knee. The the vet makes a small incision and begins to extract a massive lump of nectrotic flesh from the wound. The rotting muscle tissue is more than 2 feet in length and weighing several kilograms. Once it has been removed Dr. Poghon is able to begin cleaning out the deep wound, in the process dislodging a handcrafted arrow. He is lucky not to cut himself on it as it is lodged deep in the elephant's flesh.
While cleaning the wound, gallons of water is poured in to flush out any remaining puss and tissue before filling the hole with hydrogen peroxide, iodine and other antiseptics. Once Dr. Poghon was satisfied that it was properly cleaned, he took a moment to relax while an assistant packed the wound with the magic green clay. He was pleased with the result and gives the elephant a "100% chance of recovery." He administered long-lasting antibiotics, and painkillers once his assistant had finished packing the wound with green clay,. he waited for most of the ground team and a few onlookers to make their way back to the road and to safety before reversing the anaesthesia. The tractor was positioned with a clear escape when the elephant began to stir. the magnificent animal strains as he rises to its feet and then disappears silently into the bush.
The search for Mshale has resulted in the saving of another big northern bull.
Report by: Nick Trent and Neville Sheldrick
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust