Treating a Big Bull and a Striped Friend

Published on the 12th of March, 2022

As veterinary marathons go, this one took several twists and turns. It started with a bull elephant and it ended — several days later — with a zebra stallion. But it all began, as it so often does, with a chance sighting from the air.

During a routine patrol on 4th March 2021, our pilot flew over a group of six bull elephants in the northern sector of Tsavo East National Park. Circling around for a closer look, he happened to spot a speck on the left side of one of the bulls. It takes a trained eye to identify something so small amidst a moving group of elephants, let alone recognise it as an indication of something amiss. But our pilots are fluent in this nuanced language of observation, and he immediately knew it was a telltale sign of an arrow wound.

What's wrong with this picture? Our eagle-eyed pilot honed in on the white speck on this bull's haunch

It was too late to organise a veterinary treatment that afternoon, but we made a plan for the following morning. Because the helicopter was otherwise engaged, we decided to attempt a ground operation. However, locating the elephant required an aerial perspective, so the original spotter flew the Super Cub back to the scene. After an hour of searching, he found the patient, who was still with his band of bulls.

What looks like a tiny spot to most is actually a telltale sign of an arrow wound

Unfortunately, as we were soon to discover, it was all for naught. Our pilots, SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit, and ground teams convened at the airstrip nearest to the bull. From there, everyone embarked on the formidable journey to reach him by foot. After driving for an hour, the road ended. The team continued for five kilometres on foot, manually clearing the way for the vet vehicle. But then, our pilot — who was circling overhead — witnessed an exasperating sight: The bull separated from his boy band, who had been browsing in situ all this time, and suddenly disappeared into the impenetrable bush. He may as well have vanished into thin air; such is the density of vegetation in this particular area. Reluctantly, our team was forced to abort the mission.

Undeterred by an unsuccessful first attempt at a treatment, we were back in action two days later

Of course, this was but a temporary surrender. Two days later, with the helicopter on the case, we were ready to try again. Once more, the original spotter returned to locate the bull. He found him, back with his boy band, drinking from the river. Determined to keep the patient in sight, he proceeded to circle over the bulls for two and a half hours, while our helicopter pilot collected Dr Poghon and the rest of the Tsavo Vet Unit from their base at Voi. Meanwhile, the two SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams based in the northern area moved into position.

This time, the entire operation went off without a hitch

Upon arriving at the scene, our helicopter pilot shepherded the patient into an open area, ensuring Dr Poghon could dart him in a place that ground teams would be able to access. There is always a fifty-fifty chance that an elephant will fall on the ‘wrong’ side when they succumb to anaesthetic, so it is imperative to have a vehicle nearby in case the patient needs to be flipped. Fortunately, he went down quickly and on the correct side, with his wounded haunch exposed.

It took many dedicated hands to give this bull a second chance

After such a marathon, multi-day effort to treat him, the rest of the operation went remarkably smoothly. The arrow was poisoned, but the bull had two things going for him: The arrow had not hit any vital organs and the wound was fairly fresh, so the poison had not yet done its lethal work. After removing the necrotic flesh and applying antibiotics and green clay, Dr Poghon revived the patient.

While he had been struck by a poisoned arrow, it had not hit any vital organs

We estimate this bull to be about 35 years old. He is in the prime of his life, with many decades ahead of him — but a single arrow threatened to rob him of all that. One could forgive the bull for treating humans with malevolence, but he seemed to know that our team was there to help. Before lumbering off to join his friends, he turned around and gave everyone a long, steady look. And then, he was gone, off to roam the wilds of Tsavo.

Before striding off to reunite with his boy band, the bull gave his rescuers a long look

As it transpired, however, we had not yet reached the finish line of our veterinary marathon. Upon returning to our Kaluku Field Headquarters, we found that one of our zebra friends was in a bad way. This wild stallion has become a fixture on our airstrip, surrounded by his ever-growing harem of mares and their foals. He had come out of a skirmish with a lion a bit worse for wear and, while his injuries were not life-threatening, our Tsavo Vet Unit was happy to lend a helping hand.

We soon discovered that our veterinary marathon was not yet complete

In fact, we had several helping hands onsite: Most of our orphan menagerie, including Scooter the warthog, Susu the eland, and Mkubwa the buffalo, were hanging out at the airstrip when treatment commenced. They were very curious about the proceedings and remained nearby to offer their expert prognosis! After a seamless treatment, the zebra was back on his feet and surrounded by his family.

Scooter, Susu, and the rest of the orphan menagerie were eager to offer their assistance

This marathon shows what the Trust’s work is all about. When we see an animal in need, we will go to any lengths necessary to save them. That applies to a massive bull, just as much as it applies to an affable zebra. Each one has friends, family, and the right to a future — and it is our privilege to ensure that right.

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