The death of Elgon

She was a very unique orphan for the Trust, the only elephant we have ever had from the “Mining” elephants of Mount Elgon National Park, situated astride the Kenya Ugandan Border

She was a very unique orphan for the Trust, the only elephant we have ever had from the “Mining” elephants of Mount Elgon National Park, situated astride the Kenya Ugandan Border.   There Mt. Elgon’s small population of elephants tunnel into the sides of that extinct Volcano to take the minerals and salts that their large frames need, and which are leached out of the soil, and by extension, the vegetation, in areas of high rainfall.   Some of the caves excavated by the elephants extend over two dark kms. into the sides of the mountain, and there the elephants pick their way along ancient trails by feel using their trunks, at the same time keeping their youngsters close so that they do not become lost or injured by falling down crevasses.

Our latest orphan from that unique population, (named “Elgon”) was always at risk when she arrived at the Nursery in the evening of the 4th August 2007, having fallen into a 28 ft. dis-used Pit Latrine on the boundary of the Park the previous night, where she spent a traumatic and very cold night in pouring rain, battered and bruised huddled in a heap at the bottom.   The next morning the community had to tunnel deep to in order to reach and rescue her, after which she endured a grueling 4 hour drive in the back of a Pickup truck on appalling roads, also in pouring rain, before reaching the Kenya Wildlife Service Park Headquarters, where she was housed in a horse stable.   Fearful, and with the legs on one side of her body badly injured, there she awaited the arrival of the rescue plane, which could not come until late afternoon.   Therefore it was not until late afternoon that she reached the Nursery and there she was warmly welcomed, and comforted by the incumbent 8 elephant Nursery inmates.   Very quickly she calmed down, and began taking milk, first from a bucket, and then from the bottle.   The Vet confirmed that the injured legs were not broken, but we always knew that she was seriously at risk from pneumonia, so she had a longer than usual course of the usual antibiotic given as a precaution against pneumonia.

About a week later, the Keepers remarked that foul smelling breath was coming from her trunk, but we, and the Vet decided that it was probably from damaged tissue at the top of the trunk sustained during her ordeal down the pit.   She was given a different antibiotic, this time penicillin based and although the smell improved, it was always still present.  Then, suddenly, pus and blood came from the trunk, and we, and the Vet suspected that an abscess must have burst high up, and that from now on there would be a chance of recovery, since her appetite remained healthy.   Also both damaged legs were improving significantly.   By now she was friendly, calm and happy.

Suddenly, at 3 a.m. during the night of the 21st August, she unexpectedly fell into a coma and an hour or two later, long before dawn, she was dead.   We had lost the battle to save little Elgon and the actual cause of death remained mysterious.

Her body was sent for a Post Mortem examination, and this revealed three abscesses on the lungs, but otherwise healthy lung tissue every where else.  The Vet suspected a disease previously only seen in equine foals, so tissue samples were sent to Veterinary Labs in both Dubai and Kenya.   Eventually, the results showed that it was not, in fact, the equine specific ailment, but instead a particularly virulent form of pneumonia known as “pseudomonia,” and that the bacteria responsible was resistant to all antibiotics other than just one - Ciprofloxacine.

Even after 50 years of hands-on experience raising orphaned elephant calves, every one teaches us something new, so the long learning curve continues.   Next time there is even a hint of that kind of smell on the breath of a baby elephant orphan, we will know exactly what to do, and hence others that would otherwise might perish, as she did, will be saved and live.   At least she died surrounded by the care and the love of her Keepers and her little elephant friends, especially Lesanju and Lempaute, who immediately embraced her, and remained close to her throughout each morning and afternoon.   Her end was certainly kinder than it would otherwise have been down that dis-used Pit Latrine bordering her Mountain home.