SkyVet in Action

Following a report from KWS about an emergency case in Tsavo West on the 6th July a helicopter with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) veterinary officer Dr

Following a report from KWS about an emergency case in Tsavo West on the 6th July a helicopter with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) veterinary officer Dr. Titus Kaitho on board, lifted off from a Nairobi suburb at 09:00hrs. One hour later the helicopter reached the location where the elephant was last seen at 21:00hrs the night before.


Before dispatching SkyVets it's crucial to get as much information on the wounded elephants' location and condition. With the DSWT anti-poaching team on the ground passing on the latest information, a decision was made in consultation with KWS to fly the KWS Vet to the scene.

On arrival the elephant still had to be located. It has last been reported and photographed by the DSWT ground team in a herd of between 30-50 animals. On arrival the helicopter quickly located a herd of 30 elephants, but on close inspection the one with the damaged trunk was not amongst them, nor was it amongst the many other smaller groups in the area.

Balancing time against the need to locate the elephant, the ground team and the helicopter pilot met to discuss the options. After much discussion the area where the elephant was most likely to be found was pinpointed.The helicopter lifted off again with a KWS ranger on board who was known for his keen eyesight, for one last search from the air.

Within five minutes the KWS ranger sighted the elephant, standing under a tree with two other bulls. Minutes later the helicopter was back on the ground to switch the KWS spotter with the KWS Veterinary Officer. The DSWT vehicle and ground team headed to the location, and the helicopter lifted off again, and headed back to where the elephant was last seen. Plans fell into place as the elephant separated from his two friends as the helicopter approached, and moved close to a road where the DSWT ground team and vehicle was able to stand by.

The pilot skilfully brought the helicopter in over the thick bush, meters above the moving elephant, and the KWS vet fired his dart which hit its target just above the tail. Backing off, the helicopter pilot ensured that the elephant did not move away from the road, and hovered for seven minutes until the drug knocked the elephant over as he crossed the road. The DSWT team was quickly on scene, and the helicopter landed on the road nearby.

Using the trust vehicle and a tow rope the animal was eased over onto his side as he had fallen in a slumped position on the side of the road. An elephant needs to be lying on his side when anaesthetised as he has no diaphragm and he will die within 15 minutes if his weight remains on his lungs and heart. Water was quickly poured over his ears to keep him cool, and the KWS vet set to work.

On studying the near-severed trunk he was amazed to see that the wound had fully healed, and the portion of the trunk remaining still had full blood flow and movement. The elephant was breathing through a hole a quarter of the way up the trunk, and his condition appeared good. A quick decision was made not to operate, as a new wound could potentially become infected. After a dose of antibiotics to boost his system the elephant was woken up.

The team reassembled to refuel the helicopter and debrief, and the helicopter was soon on it's way back to Nairobi mission successful.

On the 9th of July another emergency call came through from the Kenya Wildlife Service Veterinary Unit requesting the assistance of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trusts' SkyVet program. This time for a female elephant in Tsavo East National Park. Dr. Poghon from the Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit was away taking his days off so was not available for this emergency case, which had a cable snare cutting deep into the neck of this young female.

Angela Sheldrick coordinated things, chartering an aircraft to fly the KWS Veterinary officer from Nairobi the 1 1/2 hour flight to the Voi airfield in Tsavo National Park. The DSWTs' Voi based Antipoaching team together with KWS rangers and the DSWTs' Mobile Veterinary Unit vehicle were on standby to assist with all ground support. Initially the elephant was extremely difficult to locate on the ground, as she had by this time disappeared deep into thick vegetation near Kanderi on the Voi River. The DSWTs' pilot Nick Trent took to the air in the Trust's Super Cub and provided the aerial support required to herd the elephant into more open ground which enabled the ground team to dart and treat her.

The operation was successful and the cable winch snare removed from the neck the wound cleaned, antibiotics administered and the terrible wound packed with green clay. The relief from what must have been an agonizing, slow and debilitating situation was clear for all to see the moment she got back to her feet. Thank you to the whole team, both KWS and DSWT, for making a significant difference saving this elephant from certain death.

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