Treating a Tsavo Bull

While on a routine patrol over Tsavo on the afternoon of May 7th 2014 one of the DSWT’s pilots spotted a large bull elephant, which was standing in a clearing

While on a routine patrol over Tsavo on the afternoon of May 7th 2014 one of the DSWT’s pilots spotted a large bull elephant, which was standing in a clearing.  On closer inspection it was obvious that something was not right with the elephant as he was hunched up and did not make any attempt to move as the plane flew overhead, which is unusual. A number of low passes confirmed that he was suffering from an injured front left leg and was in need of immediate veterinary intervention.  Instantly calls were made reporting that a darting operation was needed. The KWS vet based within the Tsavo Conservation Area was called to confirm he was available and to prepare him for an early start the following morning. Then the helicopter pilot in Nairobi was contacted to do the same. 


At 0715 the next morning the Trust's Top Cub was airborne heading to locate the bull elephant once again. The vet was on his way from Voi and the helicopter was estimated to arrive shortly. The DSWT ground team in the area was then en-route to collect KWS personnel and head to the meeting point, which was a short distance from where the elephant was sighted the afternoon before.  The vet, the helicopter and the ground teams were in place whilst the Top Cub had already sighted the elephant just 5km away. The ground team made their way through the dense bush on foot, whilst the helicopter with Dr Poghon the vet, took to the sky to find the bull and dart him from the air whilst the DSWT pilot continued to direct the ground teams and vehicles to the correct location, as they had the essential manpower, ropes, water and drugs necessary to treat the elephant.

The elephant was successfully darted on the first attempt and went down on his left side, whilst the helicopter managed to find a tight clearing and landed nearby allowing the vet to get to the elephant swiftly. Meanwhile the two vehicles were guided in through the thick bush which hampered progress. The clock was ticking, but the elephant was stable. After what seemed like a long time the vehicles finally made it to the sleeping elephant where water was quickly doused over his big ears to cool him down. This routine has been well rehearsed as by now the DSWT ground teams have assisted in many similar operations and they know the ropes.

On examination the vet found a very small wound in the elephant's upper left leg. It looked like an arrow wound, but after extensive probing nothing was removed. There was nothing else to be done other than to administer long lasting antibiotics. Finishing up, Dr Poghon administered the reversal drug to a vein in the ear, while a rope was hooked around a huge tusk and attached to the rear of one of the vehicles. As the bull rolled his massive body to rise the vehicle then pulled in tandem, helping him up.  The bull balanced himself slowly, unable to use his left front leg, before he pulled himself up with huge strength and effort and slid the rope off his tusk with his trunk. He staggered around and looked like he was going to fall over, but he quickly regained his balance and stood still, listening. After a short while he moved off under a tree and that's where he stayed for a while.

On May 14th, six days after the bull’s treatment, he was sighted near a road. The aerial and ground teams decided to check on his progress by taking a closer look at him. So the DSWT pilot landed nearby and was collected by a KWS vehicle to be driven to the site of the elephant where he was sighted under a large tree. The team approached the elephant quietly in an attempt to see clearer the extent of his wounds and any healing taking place, but they were met with a surprising reaction as the bull suddenly and unexpectedly charged the team with incredible speed and strength despite his injury.  The bull’s strength in charging over 100metres, protecting himself from what he believed to be the enemy, showed his sheer determination to survive.  The team who thankfully got out of the way in time, now truly know not to underestimate an elephant’s power even when injured. Sadly nearby the team also found the bull’s friend, lying dead, his 62kg tusks still intact, one of the many who are made victims of the ivory trade.  

Having continued monitoring the progress of this elephant and despite the bull appearing to be slowing recovering, his leg still seemed problematic, so it was decided that a second follow up treatment was needed.  Dr Njoroge of the new Amboseli Veterinary Unit drove to the site of the elephant on the 20th May directed by the DSWT pilot. Darting went well and Dr Njoroge further examined the wound on the inside of his left leg, cleaning it out well and filling it in with green clay, before he gave the bull a fresh dose of antibiotics.

Daily monitoring of the bull from the air has continued, made easy as he stays close to the same waterhole, drinking and browsing, and moving slowly as he keeps the weight off his front leg. He is looking healthy, but he is definitely not putting any weight on that leg yet. It’s been three weeks now with two visits from the vet.  If he can keep going another week he will be treated a third time. The teams will not give up on him as long as he is standing and has the determination to survive!

UPDATE: MAY 31ST 2014 This brave bull turned out to be a major focus of the month for many of the ground teams, with aerial surveillance taking place every day and veterinary assistance on standby.  The bull managed to travel 12km over the days since his last treatment, during a period that the teams were hopeful he would recover.  He finally settled at a waterhole where he fought on yet sadly finally collapsed on the 31st when no further veterinary intervention could have saved him. His tusks were recovered by the KWS.  This was a great sadness to all of the teams, who put in so much effort in the fight to save his life.

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