Herculean effort to haul elephant to safety

Published on the 15th of August, 2018

For three days in mid-August, this adult male elephant lay trapped in thick mud, stuck in a drying water pan along the Kilenyeti River, on the northern boundary of the Chyulu Hills National Park. With rescue efforts impeded by the muddy terrain that surrounded him on all sides, preventing vehicles from getting close, it really was a case on all hands on deck to get him back on his feet.

The mammoth rescue operation spanned three days and involved The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, together with our local partners Big Life Foundation and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), as well as members of the local community, all of whom fought tirelessly to free him.

Full grown and weighing upwards of five tons, this already tough operation to save the bull - who became stuck late evening on 11 August - was made all the more difficult by the fact that the surrounding area was totally impenetrable to vehicles; there were only two safe passages in and out to the elephant. Land Rovers and even a JCB were no match for the treacle-like earth, becoming stuck fast as they sought to get close to the elephant; in the process of trying to rescue this beautiful bull even one of the lorries got stuck.

Stuck and surely terrified, the elephant also posed a risk to rescuers that got too close on foot with one KWS ranger suffering a broken ankle during the rescue on 12th August, as he was caught by the elephant’s trunk as he aided efforts to free him. To ensure he received timely medical treatment, the DSWT helicopter medivacked him out and up to Nairobi’s Wilson Airport where an ambulance was waiting, before the unit returned to the scene to further support the rescue effort.

In the end, it took many hands and varying equipment including a lifting crane and excavator to manoeuvre the elephant enough to get the Trust’s strappings (an invaluable piece of equipment when it comes to moving elephants used by the DSWT/KWS Veterinary Teams) in position. On day two of the rescue we used two lorries chained together to pull the elephant bull free, but he slid back into the mud that night when visited by a small herd. On the third day we used three land cruisers strapped together to pull him free again, rolling him over onto his side before trying to lift his head.

Having spent days trapped in the mud without the ability to take food and only a little water through a hosepipe we put into his mouth, the elephant was too exhausted by his ordeal to stand and KWS Vet Dr. Kariuki, from the DSWT-funded KWS Amboseli Veterinary Unit, administered medications from the Trust including intravenous fluids to increase his strength. Several hours later, he slowly began to stir, before finally rising back to his feet on the evening of 14th August – some three days after rescue efforts began – and walking off into the bush.

Thanks to the incredible resolve of all those involved to see this elephant saved, he was finally freed. His equally exhausted rescuers, sporting all manner of bruises, injuries and even broken bones, were delighted by the outcome and to know that their undaunted efforts paid off for this big boy who is free at last.