Saving a Big Bull From a Poaching Attempt

Published on the 14th of June, 2024

On the morning of 6th June, our fixed-wing pilot began his day with a patrol over Tsavo West. Not far from Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, he spotted a very large bull browsing in the bush. He was the kind of elephant who commanded a good look: about 45 years old, with a hulking stature and huge tusks.

Elephants of this size are often targeted by poachers for their ivory. Realising he warranted a thorough check, our pilot circled the plane back around, skimming around the bull’s right side. At first glance, he looked to be in good condition — but our Aerial Unit knows to leave no stone unturned. He went round again, to check the other side.

And thank goodness he did. Just behind the bull’s front left leg was a telltale bump, with something protruding from it. It had all the signs of a poisoned arrow wound, which is a favourite poaching method. Our pilot flew as close as he could, took several photos, and reported the sighting to our Kaluku Field Headquarters.

The SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit was on leave, but the Amboseli team was able to answer the call. The SWT Caravan aircraft scooped up Dr Kariuki and his assistants and delivered them to Tsavo West. Meanwhile, our helicopter flew to the scene to relocate the bull and gently shepherd him to open ground. While ground teams got into position, the veterinarian darted the patient from the air.

He was a big bull and took quite some time to succumb to the anaesthetic. Fortunately, he fell on the ‘right’ side, although the backhoe was waiting in case he needed to be flipped over.

As soon as he was down, the team got to work. The wound had indeed been caused by an arrow, although the arrowhead had since fallen out. The protruding object, which we assumed was the shaft, was actually necrotic flesh: As his body fought off the poison, it killed the skin surrounding the wound.

Dr Kariuki and his assistant removed all the dead flesh before thoroughly draining and cleaning the entry site. Meanwhile, the team kept the patient cool and hydrated by pouring water behind his ears and over spine. A small stick placed in the end of his trunk kept airways open, as he breathed heavily and steadily. After administering antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, the bull was revived.

Left untended, a poisoned arrow can be a death sentence. The victim usually dies within a short period, after which the poacher returns to harvest the ivory. Fortunately, this story had a different outcome. Because of a diligent pilot’s patrol, this big bull was helped in time and will make a complete recovery.

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