Our Most Complex Rescue Operation Yet

Published on the 1st of May, 2024

We were confronted by a disturbing sight: In the watery depths of a 45-foot well, an elephant was barely visible. He was fully submerged, forcing him to tread water and use his trunk as a snorkel to breathe. He had been there for at least 12 hours — and time was running out.

On 19th April 2024, we received a sobering report from Wildlife Works: A sub-adult elephant had fallen into a well on a community ranch south of Tsavo West National Park. It was already late in the day, but knowing that this was an urgent situation, we mobilised to the scene. We were joined by the SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit and KWS rangers.

Upon arriving in Kuranze, it immediately became clear that the situation was much worse than we had imagined. The well was deep and steep — a perfect combination for a very complicated extraction. But most worrying was the water. The elephant (who, at about ten years old, was of a not-insignificant size) was completely underwater, with only the very topline of his body visible, moving back and forth as he methodically treaded water in the claustrophobic space. We can only imagine how frightened and exhausted he must have been.

But the elephant had fought for himself this far. Now, it was our turn. We didn’t quite know how we would do it, but we knew we couldn’t give up on him. The decision was unanimous: No one would be leaving. While the SWT helicopter flew back to Kaluku to refuel and bring back more supplies in the morning, the rest of the team braced themselves for a long, sleepless night in the wilds of southern Kenya.

Before we could even think of extracting the elephant, we had to first get the water levels down. He needed time to rest, or else he would drown. Even with water pumps, this would be an all-night affair. Illuminated by headlamps and a sliver of moonlight, we got to work.

However, this proved to be a Sisyphean task. The well was beneath the water table, which meant that every inch of water removed promptly filled back up. We alerted headquarters and organised reinforcements to be brought in at first light. We are incredibly grateful to our hardware supplier in Voi, who opened at dawn so we could get the equipment we needed. Now, we had three pumps working in tandem, whirring in a desperate race against time.

At last, the water was brought down to a level where the elephant could comfortably stand. (All told, about 150,000 litres of water were extracted.) But that was only the first hurdle. Now, we were faced with the monumental task of lifting a big, heavy animal out of a 45-foot well.

We hired a supersized crane for the job. But it was based in Mombasa — no small journey, especially for heavy machinery. It made the journey on the main roads on a low loader, then continued for several hours on the bush tracks. As it slowly trekked across Kenya’s greatest wilderness, we organised the rest of the operation.

Anaesthetising an elephant in water is extremely risky. The moment the trunk becomes limp, there is the immediate risk of ingesting water into the lungs. Getting to them before that happens is a matter of life or death for the elephant — but it also presents no small risk for the rescue team, who must drop into a confined space with a very large, very wild creature.

While KWS veterinarian Dr Limo lined up the dart, SWT pilot Roan Carr-Hartley and a KWS ranger slipped into harnesses and stood poised on the lip of the well. The moment the elephant was sedated, they descended into the well’s watery depths and secured straps around his body.

The rest of the operation went like clockwork. The straps were hooked onto the crane which — ever so slowly — lifted the elephant to freedom. Once he was on solid ground, Dr Limo reversed the anaesthetic and administered medicine to ensure the elephant didn’t get pneumonia. Everyone waited with bated breath while he got to his feet. Remarkably, despite the incredible ordeal he had just survived, the elephant walked off into the bush, standing tall and strong.

As one member of the operation recounted, ‘In the dead of night, we could hear the elephant churning his feet and breathing through his trunk. He was fighting so hard to live. We had to fight alongside him.’ What a privilege that we were able to do so.

This was an incredibly complicated operation that required enormous resources. It took 22 hours from the time we arrived to the time the elephant walked free, but we were able to give him the second chance he deserves. It is through the generosity of donors like you that we are able to answer the call, no matter how great the mission.

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