It’s not often that guests on a safari will participate in a mission to rescue a wounded elephant.
But then again; this is Africa.
It was early morning at Kenya’s Ol Donyo Lodge in the Chyulu Hills when two guests spotted an injured elephant Tusker wandering in the thick bush near their lodge room. He was a great bull with towering white tusks, and it was clear that the poor animal was suffering from a spear wound in his hind leg.
Poachers in the area have been known to use use spears and sometimes poisoned arrows to kill big elephants and take their tusks. But this elephant was most likely attacked by local farmers trying to chase the animal away from their crops.
“Our rangers have recently encountered a lot more injured elephants,” said Jeremy Goss, of the Big Life Foundation, a conservation organisation based in Kenya. “We never know for sure how they get their wounds, but we suspect that it is people spearing them in the farms to try and kill them or chase them off.”
This was the second deadly attack in two weeks, following another incident when a bull elephant was speared and killed by farmers on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
It’s a complex problem, says Goss. “Compared to poaching, there is less clarity between right and wrong. A farmer that kills an elephant to save his crops, or in retaliation to attacking a human, is only protecting his own property. So there’s no specific enemy. You are trying to mediate in a conflict now, rather than just track down poachers.”
As soon as the Ol Donyo Lodge guests reported the injured bull’s position, Big Life rangers arrived and found him feeding near the lodge.
The rangers monitored the animal while they waited for a vet from Nairobi to arrive, making sure he did not wander off and get lost in the thick Chyulu bush.
That afternoon, a vet from the Kenya Wildlife Service arrived on the scene by helicopter, and the team—including a group of interested guests from the lodge—went off to dart the big bull and tend to his wounds.
“Thankfully, the bull was quite relaxed,” said Shaun Mousley, manager at Ol Donyo Lodge. “We could drive within shot of him without much hassle, and after being darted, he only moved off about 50 meters.”
The Tusker eventually fell awkwardly on his haunches as the anaesthetic kicked in, and the rangers had to sling ropes over the animal’s huge tusks in order to pull him down. The pachyderm rolled over onto his side with a thump and lay motionless on the gold Chyulu grass.
The vets started work immediately as the audience worryingly looked on. The wound was located on the elephant’s rump and the vets pried around to see if any part of the spear was left in the animal. Thankfully, they could not find anything, but they were still concerned that the fresh gash would get infected.
The bloody wound was cleaned and the an antiseptic clay applied to make sure that it healed well in the African sun.
The mighty Tusker climbed back on his feet as he overcame the anaesthetic, and with a drowsy stumble, he was off.
Rangers have since seen the bull wandering happily in the bush. Thanks to the keen eyes of a few guests, the quick response of the Big Life rangers and the KWS veterinary unit, he will go on to fight another day.
“We hope that he does not clash with farmers again,” said Goss. “But in an area with a growing human population, the chances are that he will.”
“We are all having to take a step back and ask: ‘how do we manage this landscape to make sure that both elephants and people have enough space?’
Goss believes there is enough to go around, but, he said, “the land just needs to be managed to for the benefit of both people and wildlife.
“It can and will be set right in the future.”