How a Drop-Sized Sighting Saved a Poisoned Arrow Victim

Published on the 25th of January, 2024

This veterinary treatment demonstrates the importance of having boots on the ground and eyes in the sky. From the sighting of a single drop of pus, a bull was spared a grisly fate.

On 15th January 2023, the SWT/KWS Ithumba Anti-Poaching Team was conducting a routine patrol in the northern sector of Tsavo East. While the focus of these patrols is to spot signs of illegal activities, the team are also on the lookout for any irregularities that might indicate an animal in distress.

The sighting that started it all — a single drop of pus

When the rangers spotted a drop of pus on a well-trafficked elephant trail, alarm bells started ringing. The use of poisoned arrows is on the rise, and the presence of pus is a telltale sign of such an injury.

Now came the challenge of finding the elephant. The northern sector of Tsavo East is a jungle right now, after weeks of bountiful rains. Armed with coordinates from the Ithumba Anti-Poaching Team, our fixed-wing pilot went on a targeted aerial patrol to find the patient. He managed to find the bull, 5 kilometres west of the original sighting. Sure enough, his back left wound bore a wound that was oozing pus. It was a small injury — one that only the most eagle-eyed field personnel would be able to spot — but it could have fatal implications.

Our fixed-wing pilot managed to track down the patient from the air

Unfortunately, treatment was not possible that day. Each subsequent morning, our pilot resumed his search for the patient. On 22nd January, he managed to re-locate him, this time 10 kilometres from the initial coordinates.

With his location confirmed, it was all systems go. The SWT Caravan picked up Dr Kariuki and the SWT/KWS Mobile Vet Unit from Amboseli, flying them to Tsvao where they switched to the helicopter that was needed to access the elephant's location.. Dr Kariuki darted the patient from the air and the helicopter pushed him towards a nearby waterhole, where the ground team was waiting.

The poisoned arrow wound

There was one minor hiccup, when the bull succumbed to the anaesthetic and fell on the ‘wrong side,’ with his wound inaccessible. Because he was in an open area, the team used their vehicle and special elephant straps to flip him over. With everyone in position — including, crucially, the patient — treatment could commence.

Our suspicions were confirmed: The bull had indeed been struck by a poisoned arrow. Fortunately, however, intervention happened before the poison could do irreversible damage. The team cleaned out the wound and administered long-acting antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. The bull has been given an excellent prognosis for recovery.

With the patient in position, treatment could commence

This operation was a true team effort, from the first, fortuitous sighting of pus to the moment the bull got back to his feet. As we have seen time and again, poisoned arrows can be chillingly lethal for even the largest elephants. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of those on the ground and in the air, however, this bull has been spared such a fate. This arrow will be but a blip on what we hope is a long, healthy reign of Tsavo.

Donors like you make these life-saving treatments possible. Any amount you are able to give makes an important difference, allowing us to have a comprehensive presence in the field and offer support to animals in need.

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