Pretty Boy was number three on our list of wild elephants to assess and possibly treat in the Zambezi Valley that weekend. He had been reported on Facebook with a suppurating shoulder wound, and the Kariba Animal Welfare Fund Trust had been instrumental in getting permission for us to tranquilize him so we could work on him.
Mana Pools reserve is like the Garden of Eden, and it wasn’t long before we saw a majestic gray giant reaching up into the albida trees for some apple ring pods.
The first thing I noticed about this particular bull was that he had a very swayed back—and then I saw a drying wound on his withers. Could this be our elephant?
As we drew our vehicle closer, I noticed a dent in his forehead. I pulled the binos out. I drew my breath in and uttered an expletive.
“This elephant looks like he’s been shot in the head,” I said to my husband, Keith Dutlow, co-director of AWARE Trust. Even as I said it, I was incredulous, especially because the elephant emanated serenity.
I’m not one to push physical boundaries with wild animals, but I felt completely at ease with this fellow. He calmly pulled down tree branches and crunched them up in his mouth within 15 yards of our vehicle, giving us an excellent opportunity to assess his wounds.
“Even if he’s not our target, he needs to be done,” we agreed. As it turned out, this elephant was the one we were after. He was known on the Zambezi floodplain as Pretty Boy. A local tour operator called him “a perfect gentleman.”
If they’re very heavy, bull elephants sometimes have difficulty standing up after being immobilized, and Pretty Boy’s weak-looking back wasn’t in his favor. His poor body condition also caused us some anxiety.
We decided to use a lower dose of the tranquilizing drug, etorphine. Keith managed to put a dart into his rump from behind an anthill about a hundred yards away. Pretty Boy took a few sideways steps when the dart hit but wasn’t too phased by it and shortly resumed eating.
Treating Pretty Boy’s Wound
After 15 minutes, he went down smoothly and lay cooperatively in lateral recumbency. After tasking the rangers to count his breathing and monitor the pulse oximeter for his blood oxygen levels, we turned our attention to the hole in his forehead.
Thick pus was oozing from the wound. It was gray, like nothing we’d seen before, and smelled of rotting fish.
Our first order of business was to try to get a diagnostic X-ray of his forehead. I didn’t have high hopes as his head was so thick, but a lateral angle with our incredible battery-operated unit demonstrated his frontal sinuses—and what appeared to be the remnants of a mushroomed bullet under his skin—with clarity.
Probing the wound with surgical instruments, Keith started extracting what looked like loose pieces of blackened crocodile skin, with the texture of plastic. It took a while before the penny dropped that these were necrotic pieces of bone from within the sinuses.
So that’s what had happened. The bullet—likely a soft-nosed bullet, inappropriately small to kill an animal this big—had been aimed too high for a brain shot. Glancing off the skull, it had caused a depression fracture of the underlying delicate turbinate bones.
These had broken off, lost their blood supply, and become horribly infected. It’s fairly likely, in my opinion, that as the elephant turned to flee, the perpetrator fired an equally dismal shot into his withers, causing the purulent injury there.
I had to suppress a rising feeling of contempt for humanity in my solar plexus.
We weren’t able to definitively locate the bullet, which was directly under the skin. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to be causing trouble. Bullets generate so much heat that they’re usually sterile when they penetrate organic tissue. The macerated flesh and bone the impact causes, and the communicating tract to the exterior, are what causes infection of a bullet wound.
Pretty Boy’s wound was thoroughly flushed and cleaned, and topical antiseptic applied—a systemic ultra-long-acting antibiotic and a parasiticide.
After just over an hour his respiratory rate and blood pressure started to drop, and we decided it was time to bring him round by antidoting the tranquilizing drug. It went smoothly, and within minutes Pretty Boy was standing.
Later that afternoon we returned to find him dozing, his face pressed against a tree, as if nursing a massive hangover. We watched him in that position for half an hour, feeling guilty that we’d temporarily added to his pain and anxious for him to feel better.
We were greatly relieved to see him the next day with a happier demeanor, stuffing his face with albida pods. With a professional guide from the area, we walked right up to him, and he didn’t bat an eyelid; he just carried on eating. It gave me a newfound awe for these animals.
In the days ahead Pretty Boy will be monitored by guides and rangers. If warranted, he’ll get a second treatment.
Founder Trustee and Director of Operations of AWARE Trustin Zimbabwe, Lisa Marabini was born in Harare, the capital of the southern African country. She graduated from the University of Zimbabwe with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science in 1998 and became a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons by examination in 1999. She has worked in small animal practices in Zimbabwe, Australia and the UK. Lisa has always been passionate about the conservation and welfare of wildlife. She obtained her private pilot’s license for light aircraft in 1994 with a view to becoming a wildlife vet. In 2003 she spent a year trailing government wildlife vet Dr Chris Foggin around on a voluntary basis. This led to a Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) funded project in which she and Founder Trustee Keith Dutlow tested 2,000 cattle for various diseases in a remote section of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA).
She has since worked with Keith, both in the wildlife arena and as co-director of Medi-Vet. She was assistant to the Chairman on the Zimbabwe Trans Frontier Conservation Area (TFCA) Programme Conservation and Veterinary Subcommittee for three years. She sits on the Animal Welfare Legislation Steering Committee, a committee struggling to upgrade the Animal Welfare legislation in Zimbabwe. She is also a member of the Zimbabwe Veterinary Association (ZVA) committee, the Editor of the ZVA’s quarterly magazine, the Burdizzo, and the ZVA’s Annual Congress Convenor.