On the morning of Wednesday 12th March a call was received by DSWT Nairobi about a small elephant alone on the banks of the Galana River opposite Kulalu Lodge, a large ranch on the eastern boundary of Tsavo East National Park. A plane was swiftly dispatched from Wilson airport in Nairobi carrying the keepers and all the necessary equipment to help capture and keep the orphan calf safe so it could be flown back to Nairobi. It was a bumpy flight as the plane flew south. The clouds that had been threatening rain in Nairobi slowly evaporating as the countryside beneath grew ever drier. Cultivated terraces below gave way to red soil, sparse bush and dried up river beds as the plane flew over Tsavo East. A few lonely elephants were spotted as the plane drew closer to the Galana River, the only permanent water source in the area.
Concerned guests at the nearby Kulalu Lodge had made sure that Danissa airstrip was clear and ready for the plane to land safely, even attaching a flag of toilet-roll to the wind sock just to be sure it was visible! Vehicles were on hand to help transport the keepers from the plane some 5km to the river bank, where the frightened little elephant was hiding in brush close to the river. The slope down to the bank was very rocky and steep, not too difficult to get down but nearly impossible to carry an elephant up, even if it was only a baby! Having assessed the situation the decision was quickly made that the elephant would have to be persuaded to move along the bank to where the slope was more gentle and the vehicle could be accessed. Two keepers stealthily tried to get behind the elephant to help flush him out but this proved entirely unnecessary as the feisty little chap decided to chase off the keeper in front of him and half the distance was covered in a flash.
Suddenly the calf seemed to realize what was happening and veered off through some thick mud towards the river. The keepers and helpers dashed after him, realizing that if he entered the river the rescue would become exceedingly difficult and dangerous, for both animal and humans alike. Luckily the elephant stopped short in some bush and was quickly surrounded, a situation he was not at all happy with! A strap was attached to one foreleg to help lead him in the right direction and he was encouraged up the hill to the waiting Land Rover where he promptly sat down, fortuitously close to the vehicle, just where the keepers needed him to lie down to prepare him for the flight. They gently restrained his feet with wide straps and covered his eyes to help keep him calm and stop him from struggling and injuring himself once in the vehicle and later in the plane. Next he was rolled onto a specially designed tarpaulin stretcher and lifted into the back of the waiting Land Rover, a feat which took eight strong men to achieve as this elephant was not tiny, estimated to be between ten months to a year old.
Once back at the plane the restrained calf was put on a drip and given some Stresnil to take the edge off the trauma of the capture and travel. The drips were administered to hydrate him, as clearly he had been without his mother for some time. His condition was poor, with sunken cheeks, ribs and hips clearly visible. What looked like an elephant carcass had earlier been spotted from the air on the other side of the river, but had so far proved impossible to locate on the ground due to thick bush. It is assumed that is the carcass of his dead mother. That morning an elephant snare had also been discovered and removed in the near vicinity so it seems highly likely that this little elephant was yet another innocent victim of poachers. Something hard to explain is that he has a gash and chunk missing from his right ear, and this seems to be very definitely a wound inflicted by a sharp object like a knife. It is an old injury, completely healed but reminiscent of the manner in which pastoralists mark their livestock. We have another orphan in our care called Lesanju who had a huge chunk of her ear missing because she had been disfigured by the Samburu when they rescued her. Danissa may well have been caught as a tiny calf to have this done to him by the pastoralist people of this area.
As the elephant was safe and secure the keepers and helpers swiftly shared a few sodas and downed some water, both a celebration and a necessity in the punishing 40 degrees heat and the plane left on the return trip to Nairobi. The journey was not smooth, due to the heat thermals and large clouds gathering, a precursor to the rains hoped for at this time of year. The elephant however lay quiet and still, closely watched over by the keepers. A little over an hour later the plane passed over the Nairobi DSWT nursery and landed at Wilson airport where the pick-up was waiting to transport everyone the short journey home. The elephant was carefully unloaded into a stockade and medicated before his restraints were taken off and the blanket lifted from his head. A bottle of milk was offered to kick-start the all important bottle feeding process. The other elephant orphans returned to the stockade shortly thereafter, keen to comfort and reassure the new arrival. Laragai, in the stockade next door, only having been through the same thing just over a week before, being particularly reassuring touching the new arrival with her trunk.
Danissa was feeding well and had calmed down quickly and as such it was a huge shock for everyone when he collapsed at around 9.00pm on the evening of the 14th whilst comfortably settled in the stockade. He was placed on a drip. Very tragically Danissa died in the early hours the following morning.