Late last night, word came in that a female elephant had been shot and wounded and that there were two young elephants with her who needed rescue. A lot of work is done to ensure that elephants that are rescued are actually orphans and not temporarily abandoned.
In this situation the mother had to be euthanized as her injuries were so critical. The team flew in, tracked the elephant for a while and finally caught up. The mother had been shot in the shoulder, mangling her enough that she was not able to support herself on all four legs. The baby was darted first. Then the mother.
As one might expect, drugging an elephant is a somewhat complicated process (actually, just about everything elephant-related is “somewhat complicated.”) The vet has to estimate the weight of the animal, by sight, concoct the right dosage and then shoot the elephant with a dart gun. Since the elephant is going to be loaded into an airplane, it’s important that the dosage be enough to render the elephant thoroughly unconscious, without killing it. As with humans, being anesthetized is a potentially dangerous process, but unlike with humans, the vets can do no examination of the animal beforehand.
While all this was going on, we were waiting at the sanctuary for the message that the calf was en route, when the message was sent the team prepared everything and waiting with trepidation on the airstrip for the Tropic air caravan to arrive.
While waiting at the airstrip at one end, a team is sent to the other to ensure that no goat herds or troops of monkeys wander onto the strip.
Finally, an airplane came into view. We are always so impressed with the pilots to take off and land with ease whilst carrying heavy elephant sized loads! (it’s about two years old) it was pulled from the plane carefully and quickly. Here, they’re pouring water onto the elephant to keep it cool. You can see that it’s feet are tied, but it’s still thoroughly unconscious. Some local Samburu herdsmen happened to be around and, like everyone else, whipped out their smart phones to shoot videos of the event.
The drive back normally takes about 15 mins and so we make a quick turn around. Expressing our gratitude to the pilot we head off to the sanctuary with the precious cargo.
By the time we arrived back at the elephant camp, the other elephants had already been moved out of the stables and taken to graze in an area outside the fence. The new elephant was quickly moved into a stall, and the vets began an examination. In addition to taking its temperature and other vital statistics they look for injuries, both for treatment, and to try to learn more about the elephant’s experience within the herd. (For example, the last elephant had some cuts and bruises that indicated that other elephants his age might have been picking on him.) They also check for worms and other communicable troubles.
The vets were very surprised to find a lot of dried blood on the elephant’s side. You can see it to the right in this image – the bright, glossy spot. The vets quickly determined that the elephant had no injuries of its own – the blood was from its mother as she was dripping blood from her gun shot would in her shoulder and the calf stood close by to his injured mother.
A single ear on a full-grown elephant can weigh around a hundred pounds. Elephants can’t sweat – they cool themselves through their ears. Thick with veins, the ears make a good entry point for injections. It only takes a single shot to revive the elephant. After this injection, the elephant starts to wake up within one to two minutes.
Suddenly it moved, but not quickly. Perhaps the dosage wasn’t quite right or maybe every elephant is simply different but this one took a long time to struggle to its feet. Elephants look quite drunk when they’re drugged. They stagger and can’t hold their heads up. They totter backwards out of control until they manage to find their balance. As rough a time as this one had at the beginning of the recovery, he came to very quickly and was immediately agitated. He paced quickly around the stall, reaching his trunk through the posts, and walking forward and backwards, unsure where there might be threat.
A keeper walked into the adjacent stall and the ele immediately went to him and reached out with his trunk. The keepers were trying to speak as much as possible, and to stay nearby so that the elephant would begin to learn their presence as soon as possible. Access to the elephants is extremely limited – since the elephants will be returned to the wild (hopefully to their own herds) it’s important that none of these elephants be too comfortable around people. To ensure that humans don’t become “normal” to the elephant, only a small group of keepers have regular access.
This time, the keepers let all of the other elephants in, rather than limiting access to just Shaba, the matriarch. She marched in almost immediately, most likely because she smelled not only this elephant, but the dried blood on its side.
She reached through the posts to find his trunk and he immediately responded, reaching back and entwining his trunk with hers. An elephant’s sense of smell is extremely sensitive (as one would hope with a nose that big) and Shaba did a lot of “probing” of this new member of her herd. She reached inside his mouth with her trunk and all around his head.
After a bit of this she suddenly pulled her trunk out of the stall and became agitated. She stepped back, put her weight on one side, then the other, then thrashed her head from left to right with tremendous force. Then she stomped quickly in a circle to the other side of the stall where a large foam pad was hanging, and furiously pushed her head into it. There were a couple more head thrashings and then she returned to the newcomer and began to pet him again.
Of course there’s no way to know what she was thinking but it was impossible not to watch this and see it as frustration and anger. It looked like she came in, saw the new ele, figured out what happened and then went into a rage over the fact that ANOTHER elephant had lost its mother. Shaba’s own mother was shot and killed before her eyes.
Soon other elephants were in, and all reaching through the posts to greet the new arrival.
The more I watch these animals, the more I’m struck by how much their body language resembles our own. The babies, especially, have very child-like body language. They fidget with their feet – rocking quickly from side to side – when they’re waiting for something. They swing their trunks with the same idle, fidgety manner that a kid swings his arms. Though we’ll never know what Shaba’s actually up to, it was impossible not to watch this scene without feeling that she’s furious over the tragedy that she’s witnessing. As the matriarch, she has a tremendous responsibility for the others in her herd, all of whom are younger than she. Plainly, she feels that responsibility and takes it seriously.
I returned to the lodge , and as I rounded a corner just next to my tent I was startled to find a large elephant, pulling apart a tree and eating it. He chuffed at me, but seemed okay to have me there. There was a small ravine between he and I so I felt fairly secure in my position. I watched him for a while and, as always, was fascinated by the dexterity of his trunk.
What I found out later was how much trouble the elephants had been causing around the lodge that day. This elephant stayed around camp all afternoon and pushed over a large tree. All the elephants in the area seemed more active and agitated than normal.
Elephants have the ability to send out infrasonic (extremely low frequency) sounds that other elephants can feel in their feet. Research indicates that these messages can travel many miles. To go from seeing Shaba’s tantrum to seeing these elephants agitated, miles away, made it hard not to think that maybe she’d sent out an alarm call of some kind after seeing the newly orphaned newcomer.
As I write this, I’m sitting at the sanctuary. About every fifteen minutes the new elephant screams. It’s not the “normal” elephant roar that I’ve heard, but an extremely pained cry that lasts for a while and then echoes up the valley. He doesn’t know where his mother is, doesn’t know that she’s dead, and there’s no way to tell him.