Published on the 22nd of February, 2018
September of 2017 in the southern area of Tsavo an incredibly severe drought gripped the area, and the death toll for elephants was dramatic. This was through a lack of food and not water, but due to poor rains spanning a number of years things finally culminated in catastrophic circumstances for those elephants that chose to remain in this area of the Park, and not move while they could when the waterholes still remained with water to greener pastures.
As it turns out the 2017 drought in Tsavo claimed approximately 400 elephant’s lives, the worst drought since the 1970's drought that ravaged the Tsavo elephant population. The victims were mainly the elderly and females who remained anchored close to water points due to their dependent young. During this time, when the situation required, our teams were frantically trying to save drought stricken orphaned babies, and aerial and ground patrols were carried out daily in the hopes of being able to help in time.
On the afternoon of the 25th September while DSWT 'Works Manager' Trevor Jennings was on a routine inspection of the Trust funded water boreholes on the Dika plains, he came across a young abandoned elephant calf. She was approximately two years old, in a weakened condition, with a pride of lions lying perilously close under some bushes. Trevor immediately reported her situation to the Kenya Wildlife Service Park Management and mobilized more men to head to the scene to help with a rescue, and while he waited for help to come he monitored proceedings closely.
Thankfully due to the intense heat, despite being aware of her, the lions remained recumbent in the shade. Given that there were no elephants in the area, and that elephants were dying from drought in large numbers by this time, there was little doubt that she was an orphan, and that her mother was likely to be one of the many casualties from this brutal dry season. With time running out, and with the risk of lions killing her before a rescue could be mounted, Trevor contacted the DSWT field headquarters at Kaluku to mobilize the Trust's helicopter to fly directly to the scene.
The Trust's field headquarters is situated approximately a 40 minute flight away so the aerial team wasted little time, mindful that if they were to get to site, fly the calf up to Nairobi that same day, they could not afford any further delay. The Trust's Voi Keepers in the meantime headed to the scene by vehicle as well to help mount the challenging rescue, because in the absence of KWS Vet Dr. Poghon, who was away at the time, this calf was going to have to be restrained by hand, all the while with a pride of lions resting under the nearby bushes! Once there the ground teams drove the vehicles as close as they could get to the calf before she turned tail and took off, at which point they hurriedly scrambled and took off after her.
Given her emaciated state she was unable to put up terribly much resistance and eventually, after a good long run, the men caught up with her and were able to restrain and capture her. The lions were perplexed by events, and took off in the opposite direction to rest under bushes further from the action. The vehicle manoeuvred to where she lay and many able bodies managed to haul her into the land cruiser to then drive her to a suitable bush landing pad, in more open clearing. The timing was immaculate because no sooner had the vehicle got into position the helicopter could be heard in the distance.
Now it was time for the seamless operation of transferring the calf from the land cruiser into the helicopter to begin. This presented a further challenge given her size, but everyone was mindful that with a drought victim time was of the essence and that getting her quickly to Nairobi was vital if she was to survive.
DSWT helicopter pilot Andy Payne is no stranger to transporting orphaned elephants, as it has been the rapid response the DSWT helicopter has enabled us to achieve, avoiding unnecessary delays that have saved so many orphaned drought victims this year. Andy set about work directing operations as the calf was heaved into the aircraft.
Once she was manoeuvred into place she was strapped down securely before the helicopter took off, headed directly for the Trust's Nairobi Nursery. After a one and a half hour flight the Nursery Keepers were on hand to transfer the precious cargo into a prepared stockade at the Trust's Nairobi National Park Nursery, but once she got to her feet marvelled at how a calf of that size managed to fit into the helicopter.
We named this calf Sagala after a mountain clearly visible from the Dika plains. Due to adrenaline coursing her veins she arrived with quite some fight and proceeded to stamp the blanket that had been used to cover her eyes into the ground!
The Nursery orphans were by this stage back in their night stockades, and looked on at all the commotion, blasé having seen it numerous times before. However their rumblings and interest could be heard from all around, and this communication helped calm Sagala down. As is so often the case with starvation victims, the days that followed saw Sagala grow weaker despite taking her milk well, and she even collapsed a couple of times. Thankfully as the days passed her strength returned and it was not long before we could let her join the dependent orphans out in the Nairobi National Park.
Sagala is an extremely fortunate calf to have been sighted before she made a meal for a pride of lions, or worse still died from starvation. Trevor's fortuitous journey that afternoon saved her life, along with the rapid response of so many who were pivotal in getting her safely to the Trust's Nursery where specialist care was on hand. Sagala is a shy girl, who as of now has not been corrupted by naughty Esampu and her ilk! We are hopeful that being older she will resist the temptation and keep her mild manners.