A Massive Operation to Re-Treat a Big Bull

Published on the 25th of July, 2023

With a body that towers into the sky and tusks that sweep towards the earth, a bull elephant in his prime looks invincible. However, nature’s behemoths are deceivingly vulnerable — in fact, it is often their size that puts a target on their back.

Such was the case with a big bull who was first reported in Kilifi County on 25th June 2023. He had a serious injury to his front right ankle, which appeared to have been inflicted by a spear. The SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit mobilised a treatment, which revealed a sobering development: The presumed spear had penetrated the ankle joint, which is a difficult injury for an elephant to overcome. After tending to the wound, the bull got back to his feet. Given the nature of the injury, Dr Limo gave him a guarded prognosis.

In the following days and weeks, the SWT Aerial Unit kept a close eye on the patient, monitoring his recovery. However, treating giants comes with a twist: An elephant cannot be sedated again until the original anaesthesia has left their system. Thus, we must often wait several weeks to conduct a follow-up treatment.

The team organised the second treatment as soon as possible, 18 days after the initial operation. Given this elephant’s size and compromised condition, we knew it would be an enormous undertaking. There was a high likelihood that he would lack the strength to get up on his own after treatment, so we had to bring in reinforcements. This would take the form of a backhoe and crane truck, which could be used to hoist him to his feet.

To give readers an idea of the planning that goes into an operation like this, we have laid out all the pre-treatment logistics involved:

1. Secure transport permits for the backhoe

2. Collect SWT/KWS Mount Kenya Mobile Vet Unit (as the Tsavo Unit was on off) in the SWT aircraft and wait at Kaluku

3. Fuel and prepare the backhoe, crane truck, and low-bed truck (used to transport the backhoe), and get drivers in situ

4. Confirm that roads are in drivable condition for the low-bed truck

5. Low-bed/backhoe and crane truck depart from Kaluku Field Headquarters at 3:00 am

6. Kaluku ground team departs at 5:00 am, a journey of about six hours by road

7. Galana team and SWT/KWS Kulalu 2 Anti-Poaching Team mobilises to provide ground support

8. Team liases in village near treatment location, then confirms if conditions are dry enough for the crane truck to go off-road

9. If so, SWT helicopter flies to the scene with SWT/KWS Mount Kenya Mobile Vet Unit and treatment can commence

10. If not, we develop an alternative plan

Fortunately, we got the green light at step nine and treatment commenced without a hitch. Dr Poghon darted the bull from the air, and he succumbed to the anaesthetic in a relatively open area. After cleaning out the wound and administering another round of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, the revival drug was administered.

Everyone collectively held their breath. This was the moment we had such serious concerns about: The injury had taken a toll on the bull, and it was a very real possibility that he would not be able to lift himself to his feet. As a precautionary measure, the team looped ropes around his tusks and positioned the backhoe behind him. If necessary, the crane truck was on standby.

But luck was on our side. The bull hauled himself to his feet and stood tall. Dr Poghon remained guarded about his prognosis, but was encouraged that he had the strength to get up unassisted. He is in an area with plentiful food and water, which means he won’t have to travel far as he recuperates.

Tragically, it remains a very real possibility that this bull will not recover. It is heartbreaking that a single, lethally-placed spear could end his majestic reign. However, we have given him the best possible chance of survival. If needed and if possible, we will conduct another treatment in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, ground and aerial teams will continue to monitor his progress.

Donors like you make these large-scale, life-saving treatments possible. Thanks to your support, we are able to answer the call, no matter the logistics involved.

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