An Incredible Treatment at the Ithumba Stockades

Published on the 14th of July, 2023

Ithumba has been the scene of some of our most incredible field stories in recent memory. There have been not one, but two occasions in which orphaned calves were delivered to the stockades by wild elephants.

It was where Sidai led her little family on the long, drought-stricken trek ‘home,’ knowing she needed urgent treatment for an arrow wound. In fact, many elephants — ex-orphans and wild elephants alike — have come to Ithumba seeking help. This week’s incident is but the latest in a long line of remarkable stories.

The wild bull appeared at the stockades — then, incredibly, showed himself inside a stockade!

It began last weekend, when a bull elephant appeared at the Ithumba stockades. This is not unusual; the dry season is beginning to bite across Tsavo, and it’s common for 50 or more bulls to converge for water. Our Keepers are always on high alert when these visitors pass through, looking out for any signs of injury or distress.

Dozens of elephants were present for the treatment, but no one showed any alarm

Thus, amidst a sea of elephants, they were quick to spot that one bull had an arrow wound in his front right leg joint. However, the hour was late — too late to initiate a treatment — and he quickly disappeared back into the wilderness. A SWT pilot subsequently conducted an aerial search for the patient, but was unable to locate him.

The patient was darted right outside the stockades, surrounded by elephants

On 11th July, we had a breakthrough: To the team’s delight and disbelief, the wild bull showed up again, this time in the company of ex-orphans Zurura and Kasigau. He proceeded to walk inside one of the stockades (almost unheard-of for a wild elephant), where he enjoyed a long, relaxed drink at the interior water trough. As other elephants continued to filter in and out of the area, the bull planted himself at Ithumba, patiently waiting. He could not have made it more clear that he was asking for help.

He succumbed to the anaesthetic a short distance away

The moment he appeared on the scene, we mobilised a field treatment. A SWT pilot collected KWS veterinarian Dr Kariuki and flew him to Ithumba in the SWT helicopter. From there, the treatment unfolded like clockwork. Dozens of elephants were present, wild and ex-orphans alike, but the overall mood was relaxed. The vet walked up behind the patient and darted him right at the water trough. He succumbed to the anaesthetic just a few metres away, surrounded by a sea of elephants. At no point did the others show any alarm or concern at the proceedings unfolding before them. It was as if they implicitly understood that whatever was happening was for the patient’s own good.

The treatment unfolded smoothly and without incident

17-year-old Zurura and 14-year-old Kasigau, who seem to be good friends with the bull, stood sentry throughout the operation. Zurura was particularly attentive and oversaw proceedings. He walked right up to the team as they tended to the wound, calmly observing their work. Once the treatment was complete and the reversal drug was administered, he stood by until the bull got back to his feet. Together, they walked back into the Tsavo wilderness.

Ex-orphan Zurura stood by throughout, curious yet calm

An arrow to the joint can have dire consequences for an elephant; we have seen a tragic number many felled by a wound that went undiscovered for too long. However, thanks in no small part to his own actions, this chap was lucky. Dr Kariuki is optimistic that he will make a complete recovery.

In fact, he waited until treatment was complete

Not so long ago, it was rare to see a single elephant in Ithumba. But this once-fraught territory has turned into a favourite destination for elephants. Nearly two decades ago, we opened our Ithumba Reintegration Unit and established a field presence in Ithumba in partnership with the KWS. In the intervening years, Ithumba has transformed into a safe haven for elephants in northern Tsavo.

Once revived, the patient (right) and Zurura walked off into the Tsavo wilderness

It might seem incredible that an elephant — especially one who is entirely wild and never raised through our Orphans’ Project — would come to us seeking help. However, elephants have an awe-inspiring intuition and capacity for trust in those who earn it. We are honoured that this bull came to us in his hour of need. Thanks to our donors, we were able to answer the call, providing life-saving treatment on our very doorstep.

The bull appeared a week after treatment, already beautifully recovered

A special update:

Exactly one week after treatment, the former patient showed up outside the stockades. In stark contrast to his last appearance, he stood tall and proud. You would never have guessed that, exactly seven days ago, he had been lying anaesthetised in the very same place. After briefly stopping for water, the bull walked back into the wilderness, restored to his natural splendour. It was wonderful to see how well he has already recovered.

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