Darkness was falling when we received the call, on the eve of World Elephant Day: A female elephant and her calf had fallen into a cesspit on a community ranch, to the south of the Teita Sisal Estate, in Taita County.
The cesspit had been capped, but failed rains have created extremely challenging conditions for wildlife in the region, and we believe the pair were lured to the pit by the smell of water within. The calf, who was less than three years old, must have climbed atop the lid and fallen through. While attempting to rescue her baby, the mother soon followed in her wake. As a result, both were hopelessly stuck in the pit’s cavernous depths.
A ground team and the SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit were immediately mobilised. In the meantime, Phillip Kyriazi of Teita Sisal Estate deployed a JCB backhoe to the scene, which his personnel used to begin digging a trench off the side of the pit.
After traversing long, bumpy roads through the darkness, our teams arrived onsite at 9pm. Everyone immediately joined forces, digging out the trench and back filling the five meter deep cesspit with sandbags. Using the backhoe, they were able to break down one side of the pit, but only to a certain point: Once the bucket got close to the mum’s head, they had to resort to a more manual approach, lest they inadvertently hurt her. This was a labourious process hand-dropping sandbags into the hole to enable the mum to have enough height to put her legs up on the edge. All the while, the baby waited calmly by her mother’s side.
Then came the difficult part. While the mum could put her front legs on the edge of the pit, she still lacked leverage to haul herself out. So, the team wrapped a strap around her backside while attached to the claw of the backhoe. Ever so carefully, the machine was able to hoist her upwards and forwards, helping her free of the tank. She was clearly exhausted from her ordeal and needed a few moments to rest before we once more used the strap and backhoe to lift her to her feet. She then briefly disappeared into the bush, but the anguished calls of her calf soon drew her back to the scene .
What ensued was a relay rescue between human and elephant. Our teams were struck by the fact the mum knew they were trying to help. At no time did she display any aggression towards the rescue team, which would have added serious complications to an already very challenging operation if that had been the case. Instead, she worked alongside them trying to save her baby. On three occasions, she walked up to the pit. This was the rescuers’ cue to retreat and let her try to retrieve her calf. After each failed attempt, our teams moved back in to resume their efforts. It took another half hour to ultimately extract the calf, this time using a strap placed beneath her belly to lift her out. By 11:15pm, both elephants were finally freed from their ordeal.
Incredibly, the calf remained full of energy upon her return to terra firma. She rushed about confused while her rescuers looked on, before running to join her mum. This scene drove home just how much was at stake that night. This young calf, could have so easily lost everything, and her brave mother through the most extreme circumstances did everything she could to save her baby. The love and loyalty, courage and understanding of elephants was on graphic display for all to see, but it demonstrated too just how vulnerable these incredible animals are to human actions. Fortunately tonight it was positive human action that reversed their fate and their story has a happy ending, with the pair walking off into the darkness on the eve of World Elephant Day. This was a fitting end for a brave young mother and her robust baby who still have so much life to live.