Friday, December 30, 2011
Suffering elephant calf
Two weeks ago I got a call out to treat a young elephant in a private game reserve, connected with the Kruger National Park. The little baby was seen by rangers with a snare around her right hind leg.
Snares are round traps made of wire, worldwide used to capture small wild animals. They cause horrible suffering in almost all wildlife species. Local people hang them in the bush in a way that the animals don't see them. These traps can only go more tight, not loose, so the wire penetrates deeper into the tissue of the leg or neck, even until the bone or through the trachea. We have seen snares around the neck of lions, leopard, wild dogs, jackals, hyenas and the legs of elephants, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, kudus and many more species. E.g. mountain gorillas are also often affected by snares. It's a worldwide conservation problem! As long as the wire is present, the wound will only get worse and worse, until the animal dies of anorexia or septicemia. Luckily, most of the time, when the wire is removed the healing capacity of a wild animal is good.
This little elephant was very lame on that leg, but other than that still in fairly good shape. Hopefully we were still in time. She was very lucky that she was seen by rangers. Because these elephants are completely wild and there are no fences around this huge area (they can walk to Mozambique if they feel like), it's important to immediately act if you see a problem like this. If you loose the herd, you probably never find them again.
Luckily, we found one of the most experienced helicopter pilots in the country to assist me and I could fly with him to the reserve. So, instead of loading my drugs in my 4x4 to go to a patient, we loaded the rifles, drugs and other equipment in the helicopter. After half an hour flying we landed in the reserve and the rangers were waiting for us. They were following the herd to make sure to not loose the wounded calf. The manager of the reserve told me that the calf was younger than 12 months. At this age it is impossible to chase away the mother. When elephant calves are a bit older, there is a chance that the mother runs away from the noise of the helicopter, together with the other herd members. But at this young age, an elephant mother will fight with her life to protect her calf. Also, when a calf is darted and asleep and the mother does not want to leave, you have dart this mother and wait until she goes to sleep. This can be risky for the calf, which is already under anesthetics. Therefore, when in doubt, it's better to always dart the mother first, wait until she is a little bit affected and then dart the calf. This way, you can always get to your patient!
So I started to make 2 darts: one for the mother and one for the calf. In the same time, the ground team drove to the location where the rangers were waiting close to the herd. When darting elephants, an experienced ground team is crucial. An elephant can't lay on its belly, but must always lay on his or her side. When laying on their abdomen, the pressure in the abdomen prevents them from breathing and they can die. Elephants can't breath through their mouth, so laying on their trunk can also kill these giants. Two very important things to check and when I dart from the helicopter, we can't always land immediately. The family members often come back to help the sleeping elephant(s), so staying in the air is sometimes essential to guarantee the safety of the people on the ground. In heavy terrain or thick bush we often can't find a landing place. So the people on the ground are an important part of the team.
The mother fell asleep under a tree, nice on her side. I jumped out of the chopper and darted the calf on the ground next to her mother. It went very well and didn't cause too much stress. We removed the snare and I treated the wound, gave antibiotics and a painkiller. Both mother and calf woke up nicely in the same time. They wandered off into the bush together, probably wondering what happened, but probably also very relieved. Let's hope that she doing well!