Pilot’s Perspective: Saving a Trapped Leopard

Published on the 15th of May, 2022

The morning of 27th April began as most do: coffee at first light and in the air by 7 o’clock, off to patrol the boundaries of Tsavo West. Of course, this is but the beginning of an open-ended story, as every day in Tsavo comes with its own surprises.

Despite the unrelenting pain she was experiencing, the trapped leopard was full of fight

Today’s surprise makes itself known around noon. My phone rings, with Northern Rangelands Trust at the other end of the line. During a foot patrol, their rangers had discovered a leopard caught in a trip snare. Her front paw is completely trapped, and in her panic, she has resorted to desperate measures in an attempt to free herself.

This rescue mission is not going to be straightforward. The leopard is located in a very remote place called Ishaqbini, on the eastern banks of the Tana River towards the coast. It will take an aerial operation to reach her.

Given the patient's remote location, this would be a mission for Sky Vets

I pass the message through to the Trust’s operations room, requesting availability of a mobile vet unit. The SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit is currently on task with the other SWT helicopter in Amboseli, trying to save a big tusker called Tolstoy. It is an all-hands-on-deck operation and no resources can be spared from the scene. We quickly work to find a Plan B for our leopard.

This will be a mission for Sky Vets, our initiative designed to treat injured wildlife in inaccessible areas. Dr Njoroge, the KWS veterinarian who often leads these treatments, mobilises from KWS Nairobi HQ. He and his team are driven to Wilson Airport, where Boskovic Air Charters is waiting to deliver them to our Kaluku Field Headquarters.

The leopard was caught in a trip snare, a cruel and indiscriminate means of catching small antelope

Sky Vets is in full action today! One SWT helicopter is operational in Amboseli and now the second helicopter is preparing for a mission to Ishaqbini. As Dr Njoroge and team fly down to Kaluku, we load the leopard’s location into Google Earth. It will be a 200-kilometre helicopter flight to Ishaqbini and I need to get my bearings.

Boskovic touches down in Kaluku at 3:15pm and Dr Njoroge quickly transfers his gear across to the helicopter. Within minutes, we are off, flying east over the Yatta Plateau. We continue over the endless plains of Tsavo East National Park, Galana, and Assa, where semi-arid plains stretch as far as the eye can see. It is vast and entirely wild, save for small pockets of Orma nomads and their camels and goats.

Cleverly disguised but absolutely lethal, trip snares tighten around their victim like a noose

Finally, we reach the wide, snaking form of the Tana River. As we circle into the given GPS coordinates, we see four rangers waving us into a landing area. We are met by the senior warden of Ishaqbini, who briefs us on the situation. The leopard is trapped in a trip snare, a disguised cable loop that is staked into the ground while tension is held by a branch above. When an animal unwittingly springs the trap, it tightens around the victim like a noose. Poachers set them to catch small antelope, but as we are reminded today, trip snares can even be lethal to big cats.

The warden leads us a few hundred metres into the thick bush, where we quietly approach the leopard. Dr Njoroge notes that the animal is in good health, which bodes well for the operation. He says the treatment should be a simple dart, then cut the snare free of the leopard's front left paw.

The leopard's survival instincts had kicked in, and she had set about chewing her paw free from the trap

After loading his dart gun with the required dosage of anaesthetic, Dr Njoroge lines up a good spot to deliver the dart. He then asks a small group of us to approach the leopard from another angle, so as to distract her attention and get her to show hindquarters. This meaty section of the hind legs is always the best area to dart an animal.

As we approach the leopard, she remains very calm but focuses intently on us as a threat. She lets out her deepest rumble, then proceeds to snarl and hiss at us, showing her impressive top and lower incisors. Her colours are incredible, vivid jet-black spots dotted over her sandy coat.

We thoroughly cleaned the snare wound and tended to her chewed paw

It is sad and frustrating to see a beautiful animal snared and in pain. At the same time, it is humbling to be metres away from such wild, raw power. On cue, Dr Njoroge releases a well-aimed dart to her right rear leg and we all slip out of eyesight, so the patient can drift off to sleep. Five minutes later, one of the rangers gives her a little prod with a long stick to be sure the anaesthetic has taken full effect. After confirming that she is asleep, treatment can commence.

Dr Njoroge inspects the damage to the paw and is confronted with a grisly sight: Working throughout the night and into the wee hours of dawn, the leopard desperately tried to escape the snare. Her incredible survival instincts had clearly kicked into full gear, for she had set upon the process of chewing off her own paw! She has so far managed to remove her three middle pads and claws.

The vet is confident that she will recover well and adapt to being nearly clawless on one foot

As Dr Njoroge injects painkillers and long-acting antibiotics to stave off any potential infections, his vet assistant cleans the wound with hydrogen peroxide. We prepare the green clay, which provides an excellent early defence barrier for a fresh wound, and pack the wound generously. With a healthy coating of topical antibiotic spray, the treatment is complete.

Although the wound is grave, Dr Njoroge is confident that the leopard will make a full recovery. At a fit year or so old, she has age on her side. She will adapt to being almost clawless on one side, and she has the distinct advantage of living on the banks of the Tana River, where she has access to all kinds of small prey. Leopards are the ultimate survivor; there is no other mammal more capable of adapting to almost any situation.

Rangers remained on-site to monitor the patient as she awoke from anaesthetic

Now, it is time to wake the leopard. With dusk falling, time is of the essence. Dr Njoroge injects the reversal drug and briefs the rangers to monitor the leopard for the next several hours. The success of vet operations often hinges on many organisations and people working in collaboration, and this was no exception. We all shake hands, pack up the equipment and make a beeline for the helicopter. Our last light to get home safely is fading fast!

It is smooth sailing home. We fly into the setting sun, which has turned the sky an incredible red. The remnants of a huge thunderstorm linger on the horizon in front of the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro.

Racing the setting sun, we flew back to Kaluku Headquarters

Approaching the boundary of Tsavo East National Park, the radio crackles to life. We hear Robert Carr-Hartley calling into Kaluku operations, asking them to light up the runway and hangars for two inbound helicopters. One, approaching from the west, had spent the day trying to save one of Kenya’s last tuskers. Ours, approaching from the east, just gave a young leopard her future back. Both have done exactly what the Sky Vet program was set up for, protecting the creatures who are crucial to our ecosystems.

– Hamish Rendall, SWT Pilot

Saving wild lives across Kenya

Sky Vets expands the reach of our six SWT/KWS Mobile Veterinary Units, enabling us to reach patients in even the most remote corners of the country. As with all our conservation projects, this life-saving initiative is only made possible through donor support.
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