I’ve always had a soft spot for animals, especially the ones I can’t barbecue. I believe animals should be treated with dignity and respect so I get offended when people won’t feed their dog or when someone just kicks their cat around. The way donkeys are treated in this country makes me sick. Animals are fascinating, to say the least. The big five, in particular have a lot of amazing qualities. My favorites are lions and elephants. Yes, I love elephants, despite the fact that an elephant sat on my computer and broke it, temporarily crippling my writing career. I just called someone an elephant. That’s how you know this is going to be interesting.
I’ve spent almost half a year working in a luxury tented camp in Tsavo West. It’s never a boring day in the jungle. Coffee might be great, but there is nothing better to kick start your day with a dose of adrenaline than the smell of fresh elephant poop in the morning. Coming across a pack of ferocious wild dogs basking on the road or a lioness trying to locate her cubs are pretty good ways to get your day started too.
One morning I was contemplating on how to end up doing the least amount of work possible when the manager came to fetch me. I could tell by the look on his face that something was seriously wrong. One of the tour drivers had noticed an injured elephant on his morning drive and before any calls could be made, I was required to take close up photos of the animal so that the authorities could see exactly what they would be working with.
Elephants have a huge head, a huge brain and a superb memory. Most of the older animals were around in the 80’s and 90’s when poaching was on an all-time high, particularly in the Tsavo. They saw what happened to their buddies and they still remember. They know humans mean trouble so they tend to be very violent. Fortunately, this herd was accustomed to the company’s cruisers so taking the photos was no trouble at all. The animal in question was a middle-aged mother of two calves, one of which was still suckling. The herd of about fifteen elephants had stumbled into a tomato farm in a nearby Maasai Village a few nights before. A confrontation ensued and one of the animals was injured. Human-Wildlife Conflict has claimed lots of casualties, both human and animal. The elephant had been speared to the head and the handle had broken off, leaving the rest of the weapon inside the animal’s head. She was in pain.
Medics arrived about three hours later, which is commendable because they were dispatched from a station nearly five hours away. By then, the herd had moved into a dense part of the park so they had to be tracked on foot.
A team of rangers, medics, a tour guide and myself ventured into the forest to locate angry elephants, one of whom was wounded. A classic walk in the park. They had guns, I had my camera. If this was how I was meant to go down, then I’d definitely leave behind a collection of very dope photos. Did I mention that this is the place the infamous man-eaters of Tsavo call home? Nice Kitty. Say cheese.
The guide was amazing at tracking the animals. We found them in less than an hour. Lucky for us, they were just about to cross the road so all we had to do was stay put till they did, catch up via vehicle, dart the wounded animal, scare off the rest, remove the spearhead and wake her up. Piece of cake. However, things happen in the forest. Things nobody has accounted for.
Initial attempts to dart her were unsuccessful, because the rest of the herd realized we were after their wounded so they all surrounded her and kept her in the middle immediately we showed up guns blazing. I got some really nice shots. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the vet and his tranquilizer gun. He missed the first shot and the entire herd ran off to hide in a highly inaccessible area. The only way to get them out was by using a helicopter to scare them away, directing them to a more open section of the jungle and darting her from there. This is not a movie so getting a helicopter took serious phone calls to very serious offices but eventually one was availed. Meanwhile, the team had to keep following the animals from a distance just to make sure we knew exactly where they were at all times. We were kept entertained by the vet’s story on how his bosses had conspired to pin the death of ten rhinos on him. The rangers had pretty interesting stories too. One of them was a reformed poacher cum smuggler. He had done some serious damage when he knew no better. Now he was making up for it.
It takes a few hours to get a helicopter ready for action, especially for an impromptu operation such as this one. The elephants kept retreating into the deep jungle so a local KWS airplane had to be deployed to keep track of them. The plane was in the air for a good two hours, just circling and monitoring the animal’s progress. Soon enough the helicopter arrived and the vet was airborne.
Elephants are huge. It’s hard to imagine that an animal that large can run. They can. Really fast too. All hell broke loose when the helicopter drove them out of the thickets and the injured animal was darted. They decided to run for dear life. We wanted the animals to remain in the area between the helicopter and the cruisers. We only wanted them to move towards a particular direction because it was the only area accessible by vehicle. The pilot kept pushing them forward and the only way to keep them on track was to keep them caged between the helicopter and the vehicles. The vet cruiser was doing 80Km/h but the elephants were still ahead of us. It was unbelievable, and quite thrilling to watch the whole spectacle while hanging on to the side of the cruiser and yelling directions to the driver. I was Tarzan for a few minutes.
The tranquilizer took effect a few minutes later and the elephant passed out. The rest of the herd tried to cover her but rangers drove them off with their guns. It was now dusk, a dangerous time to be out.
Elephants use their ears for thermoregulation. That’s why they’re constantly flapping. An unconscious elephant can’t flap its ears so it could die of heatstroke in minutes. Someone has to do it manually while constantly pouring water on them. The trunk also has to be kept open or the animal will suffocate. Everything has to be done fast because if the animal is unconscious for too long it dies. A dead elephant is a career ender. It’s a very dramatic process.
By sheer luck, the spear had missed all the vital organs and the wound hadn’t been infected. The spearhead was about a foot long, longer than a grown man’s arm.
Do you have any idea how strong and daring one has to be to drive such an object into an elephant’s skull? Serious respect to whoever was responsible. I admonish the act, but I’m still in awe. Somebody would make a great Avenger.
The day was long and mighty exhausting. It was frustrating and exhilarating in equal proportions. Above all, it was extremely expensive. The whole exercise took six hours, involved about twenty people, four vehicles, an airplane and a helicopter. That’s how much it takes to rescue one injured elephant, and this was just a basic operation. Most are not as easy as this one was. Watching that lucky elephant stagger onto her feet and disappear into the jungle made everything bearable.
I am very glad the elephant in the room was addressed.