On the morning of Monday February 3rd 2014 one of the Tsavo Northern Area’s famous bull elephants showed up at the mud-bath where the orphans and ex-orphans congregate each morning. The Trust’s keepers had not seen this particular bull, known as Mshale, since October 2013 when the rains turned the north green.
A group of large wild bulls have become part of the regular attendees at the morning mud-bath, each one well known by the keepers. As a result of the October to December rains these big bulls venture enormous distances, because 100km is a stroll for an elephant. Sadly it also exposes them to danger, where the threat of being hunted for their ivory increases significantly.
The severe wounds on Mshale’s neck and back told a story that morning. He had returned thin and weak, having been brutally speared, and judging by his condition and the wounds probably a few weeks before, and probably a long distance from Ithumba. His visit was no coincidence, intimate with the Ithumba Orphans, and our team of Keepers, but sadly also to Dr. Poghon who has saved Mshale’s life from arrow wounds no less than three times previously. This iconic bull with his just-under 100lb tusks, is no doubt also well known by the poachers that target him.
The quiet killer of Tsavo’s elephants is the poacher who favours the poisoned arrow or spear. Silently and consistently the poachers target the elephants in search of ivory now that the demand is what it is, and for Monuments like Mshale life is fraught.
Because he has been treated three times before, and he knows where help lies, we believe Mshale came back despite his poor body condition so that he could be treated and saved one more time. Immediately when the keepers sighted his wounds they called Angela and asked for veterinary assistance. The KWS Vet seconded to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Mobile Veterinary Unit funded by Vier Pfoten, Dr. Poghon, was alerted and prepared his equipment and drugs. He drove immediately from Voi to Mtito Andei where the Trust’s Cessna 185 picked him, accompanied by a KWS ranger and supplies they were ferried 20 minutes over the Yatta plateau to Ithumba to avoid any unnecessary delays. The big bull was immediately sighted from the air.
Mshale was darted with ease and went down near a road on his left side, making the work easier as his wounds were both on the right side. With assistance from the Trust’s anti-poaching team and keepers, the Vet set to work. Two large spear wounds had to be cleaned up. One had passed right through his ear deep into his neck; the other into his back.
An hour later the work was complete and it was time to wake him up. The last two times we treated him he had trouble getting back up. This time too. The Trusts 4 wheel drive tractor was called in to help. With a rope around his tusk this massive elephant was pulled up. Slowly his immense head and tusks rose off the ground, and he stood again. He waited, allowing the rope to be removed from his tusk, before he slowly moved away into the thick bush.
We are guarded about his chances of surviving these deep wounds, and we had hoped he would stay close to be monitored by the ranger teams in the days that followed, but he disappeared as unexpectedly as he arrived and has not returned. Ground teams have patrolled constantly, and our aerial support for the Kenya Wildlife Service has flown extensively in the area to try to monitor him, but thankfully we have not found his carcass, but nor have we sighted him since the operation. He is a survivor, and seeing him rise from the ground a fourth time proves his strength and resilience, and of course we all pray for a positive outcome.
Knowing these elephants as intimately as we do, sharing extraordinary experiences with them over the years, watching their incredible friendships with our ex-orphans as they slowly impart their wisdom and knowledge on the youngsters, and most importantly of all having their trust and understanding, leaves one even more determined to make a difference and do everything humanly possible to stop this madness. Everyone throughout the world needs to join in the fight to save the elephants, because sadly magnificent Icons like Mshale are dying daily, just for an ivory trinket. This must not and cannot continue.
To view a recent BBC update with footage of Mshale's treatment: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-26172030