Posted by Lisa Marabini of AWARE Trust in A Voice for Elephants on July 31, 2016
Until that point I was sitting atop the sandstone cliff in a funk. With a sinking feeling it was dawning on me that I could well have just made another Zimbabwe ZWD 6,000 mistake. We had searched the Greater Mapungubwe TFCA for the calf three weeks previously to no avail. The 400-odd elephants that we had examined in a 20-kilometer radius from the waterhole it was reported at had been fit and healthy. It had been an expensive and devastating defeat.
In the last ten days we had started to receive reports and photos again of the calf at the same waterhole, his foot blown up from the deadly snare around his shin. His condition was waning and I knew he was running out of time. The waterhole his herd frequents at dusk is in a sandstone canyon of sorts, with an entry and exit corridor. To dart a baby elephant in a skittish herd of 80+ animals in fading daylight would have caused mayhem. It would likely have been disastrous for the calf as well as the rescue team.
A helicopter was the only option. But the minutes of flying time were ticking away and reports from the pilot, NJ, via ground-to-air radio indicated the herds were healthy.
And then finally, NJ’s voice became animated. “Lisa, we’ve got him!” I could scarcely believe my ears.
“No, it’s definitely him!” The calf was unmistakeable from the helicopter with his club foot.
A flood of adrenaline washed over me as I clambered down from the rock and sped towards the vehicle, shouting to the ground team as I ran, “they’ve got him!”
Moments later, we had hastened 10km down the dusty road and positioned ourselves on a rocky track close to where the chopper was circling. As the air crew saw us approach, Keith loaded a dart and fired it at the mother. “Dart in the cow,” NJ reported.
We did not want the injured baby to be separated from its very protective mother, and knocking her down was also the only way to avoid ourselves being killed by her. As the mother started to slow down, NJ informed us they were about to dart the calf. “Ok, dart in the calf.”
But then: “Uh oh, the calf’s still running”. In a moment of confusion the calf had followed its aunt and its much younger new-born cousin, who was having more difficulty keeping up with the herd than the injured baby. It took some skilful flying for NJ to coral the calf and bring it back in a direction towards where its mother had just fallen.
The ground team meanwhile reached the mother, who had thankfully fallen in a safe spot and was relatively lightly under anesthetic. There was a moment of panic as one of the team yelled the unexpected arrival of another elephant some 40 meters away. Fortunately, that elephant got as much of a fright as we did and she fled in the opposite direction. In the meantime, the calf had dropped about 200 meters from the mother, and Keith was back on the ground stabilising it. Leaving one ground crew member to monitor the mother, the rest of the team tended to the baby.
Although he was thin from fighting the devastating injury, the calf was physiologically strong and very stable under the anesthetic. Keith set to work removing the snare which was deeply embedded round his tibia/fibula.
I set up the X-ray machine, and took radiographs of his damaged limb, which showed substantial damage to the bones of his leg and rotation of the bones in his feet. He still had a good blood supply to the foot though, and with youth on his side (being only 3 months), his skeleton should be able to remodel enough for him to recover from this ordeal.
He will probably always have a bit of a deformity, but as the air crew saw, he had no problem running at speed on three legs. He was given ultra-long-acting antibiotics, and much needed pain relief, and the wound was cleaned and flushed thoroughly.
The calf was then hoisted via stretcher onto the back of a land-cruiser, and brought to his mother’s side. Once the vehicles and personnel were at a safe distance, I administered reversal drug to the calf while Keith simultaneously provided antidote to the mother. The calf – now christened ‘Baby Keith’ – got to his feet fractionally before his mother. She instantaneously got her bearings, and we could swear she nodded at the calf, before they went trotting off in unison into the bush.