In the depths of the drought, we found a heroic display of hope. With her own life on the line, a mother elephant remained fiercely devoted to her baby. Shoulder-deep in mud and unable to move, she continued to protect him the only way she could, shielding him with her trunk. Tiny as he was, the calf was equally brave, refusing to leave his mother’s side.
This story unfolded just a few days after a massive operation to save two female elephants from a muddy fate. On 9th September, KWS and Wildlife Works reported that yet another pair of elephants had gotten trapped in the same dam. This time, it was a mother and her baby.
During the drought, the quest for water becomes increasingly fraught, especially for a creature as large as an elephant. At first glance, the dam must have looked like a safe bet for a drink. The mother elephant wasn’t to know that its shallow shoreline was actually a mire of thick, sticky mud — or that one little slip would turn into a life-or-death situation.
As had happened to the elephants the week prior, the mother lost her footing in the slick mud. She thrashed around, trying to gain enough traction to stand, but this only made her more stuck. Her tiny baby was collateral damage, sinking ever closer to his mum’s side.
Shoulder-deep in mud, both mum and baby had no chance of surviving their muddy prison. They were now on their second day of incarceration. Each passing hour exacerbated their situation, as the unforgiving sun beat down from above and mud encroached from all sides. While adult elephants are surprisingly resilient, the baby was surely struggling without the milk feedings he needs to survive at such a young age.
As soon as we received the report, we mobilised our helicopter. After picking up Dr Limo and the SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit, the team headed south towards the Kenya-Tanzania border. KWS sent two Land Cruisers to the scene, which were joined by a tractor.
Usually, we don’t have to anaesthetise trapped elephants; although they are completely wild, they intuitively know that we are there to help and cooperate with their rescuers. However, a protective mother is an entirely different situation. Stuck as she was, her maternal instincts were out in full force, and she was adamant that no human approach her baby. She continued to pull him closer with her trunk, defending him with the only method she had left. It was heartbreaking and heroic to watch. To ease her anxiety and streamline the rescue operation, Dr Limo administered a sedative.
As it turned out, the baby shared his mum’s fighting spirit. The team was able to free him by hand, but with a chorus of hearty bellows, he kept running back to his mother’s side. Dr Limo also sedated the baby, so he could peacefully rest on terra firma until the mission’s completion.
It was a prodigious undertaking to free the female. Usually, elephants become stuck on their side, but the mud had a quicksand-like effect on this female. She was trapped standing, mired up to her shoulders. The team dug around her, trying to weave straps as low as possible. Eventually, they managed to secure the tow ropes around her front legs and bum. These were attached to the tractor, which was then caravanned to two Land Cruisers. With a mighty pull, the three-vehicle convoy managed to haul the elephant out of her muddy prison.
At last, it was time to wake up the patients. First the baby was revived, then his mum. He waited by her side until she got to her feet. Together, they walked off into the wilderness. There is still ample water and browse in the area, so we feel confident that both will find the sustenance they need. Most importantly, they will remain together. The next few months will be difficult, but with their fighting spirit and fierce devotion to each other, we are optimistic that this little family will see it through to the other side of the drought. And of course, should they need our help again, we will be there.
Epilogue: A happy ending for all
While both rescue operations had happy outcomes, this dam was clearly a danger zone for elephants. We feared that its next victim might not be so lucky. Working with the local chief, KWS corporal, and county government, we funded a long-term solution: An excavator came and scooped out the dam, resealing its floor and removing the perilous layer of mud. Not only does this benefit the local elephant population, but also the community who relies on the dam. With luck, this will be the last rescue operation that unfolds here.