Saving a bull elephant in Tsavo

Published on the 3rd of August, 2018

In July, the DSWT and KWS came to the aid of a bull elephant that had two poison arrow wounds. This majestic creature was first spotted late in the evening on 22nd July by Taru Carr-Hartley, Daphne’s grandson, in the Northern Area of Tsavo. However with Vets unable to mount a safe and successful treatment at night, DSWT pilots Taru and Neville Sheldrick set off at first light the next day to re-locate him.

Almost invisible in the dense bush, they finally sighted the injured elephant after three hours of searching from the air on 23rd July. It was then necessary to fly to collect KWS Veterinary Officer Dr. Jeremiah Poghon, who heads the DSWT funded Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, based from Voi Tsavo East National Park's Southern headquarters.

In the meantime the ground teams prepared for what was clearly going to be a challenging case given where the bull was located, within extremely dense the bush with arrow wounds on opposite sides of his body, one embedded in his right front leg and a second in his left side. Water was placed in the vehicles heading to site, as well as additional veterinary supplies and ropes to help roll the elephant over along with pangas and axes to cut away unwanted vegetation.

Getting close enough to him on the ground to dart him was simply not possible so the DSWT helicopter was called upon and Dr. Poghon once on site was able to dart the bull from the stable and safe platform of the hovering helicopter. They then waited to see where the elephant would fall. In the meantime a DSWT pilot in a supercub flying above the action was able to guide the ground team vehicles through incredibly thick bush with little visibility to the recumbant patient.

You can't control where or how a darted elephant will fall to the ground but it is vital that the Vet is the first responder ensuring that the elephant has fallen to sleep safely with airways open. In this case dropping Dr. Poghon in such dense undergrowth was challenging, so he was dropped in an open clearing about 500 meters away and then the DSWT helicopter pilot flying above the now recumbent elephant guided him to the location. It was another five minutes before the ground teams arrived and together they immediately set about treating the first injury on the huge bull’s leg.

The poisoned arrow had already fallen out of the leg, but necrotic flesh had to be cut away and the wounds cleaned and treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs, while those assisting packed the wounds with natural green clay, which draws sepsis and further aids the healing process.

Then the huge bull had to be rolled over onto the other side, and this was done with ropes strapped around his legs to a grader in order to haul his great weight over. The second injury was treated and this time a poisoned arrow cut out and the rotting flesh around the site removed with the area cleaned. His injury was well over a week old, with the stench of rotting flesh and sepsis indicating that the effects of the poison had taken effect but thanks to the fortuitous sighting and timely treatment he received he will make a full recovery as the arrow on his side has not penetrated through his stomach wall.

After the treatment was complete, an operation which took just over one hour, the anaesthetic was then reversed and with a few large throws of his head, this big boy had the strength to rise back to his feet, a little confused by events, and undoubtedly still in pain but, critically, his wounds treated and a good prognosis. He was a magnificent elephant of approximately 45 years old, a monument of grandeur, power and magnificence and it felt good for all involved to have saved such a priceless life, and help avert a tragic fatality.

Over the years working in partnership with the KWS the DSWT-funded Veterinary Units and Sky Vet have attended to 2,362 elephants. It's a partnership that works for wildlife and one that has spanned over 15 years now. With deeply valued and appreciated financial support from DSWT donors, we will continue to come to the aid of elephants, and all wild species, that are injured and require help. A special thank you to the KWS and DSWT personnel involved in this treatment, who gave their all in testing conditions to save the life of such a magnificent animal.