Written by: Saba Douglas-Hamilton
A female elephant is sick – Cherie. She has a five month old calf. She keeps stretching out her back legs or leaning uncomfortably forward, as if trying to ease pain in her stomach. Apparently she’s been like this for weeks. Her calf tries to suckle but she brushes it off the nipple with her leg. At this age he relies almost entirely on her milk. I notice the deep indentations of her temples, and the sharp pinch around her cheekbones. Signs of dehydration. This is serious.
We wait and watch for days, finding her mostly alone with her calf, now unable to keep up with the herd. She takes to resting on raised edges of roads or sloping river banks which make it easier to get to her feet. I sense her determination to live for the calf. But she’s dying, and without milk the calf starts losing condition. We call the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) vet, but he feels that Cherie is too far gone to survive being tranquilised. He asks us to keep on monitoring her. Night falls and Cherie finally collapses. The calf nudges her emaciated body with its head, encouraging her to rise, then lays its trunk softly across her hip and leans in close for comfort. They stay like that for a long time. It’s so quiet. So dignified. There is clearly so much love. For the first time in my life I pray that an elephant will die. It’s a deeply private moment. But she is hardier than I imagined. The night passes, and another long day goes by. I’ve barely slept a wink. Somehow she just keeps on getting up and walking away.
In these terrible days of poaching, it is most unusual to be watching a natural death and I am deeply aware of the privilege. I just wish I could ease her pain. The poor vet is faced with a hard moral choice. She has lost her milk and the calf is rapidly deteriorating, so does he save the mother or the calf? Convinced that there’s no hope for Cherie, he requests permission to euthanise her before the calf becomes too weak to survive. But the go-ahead must come from way up the KWS ladder, so we have no choice but to wait.
Gazing up at the star-scape later in the evening I wonder if she has noticed the intense beauty of the night. Perhaps it will be her last in this shimmering, moon-lit landscape. The calf eats leaves and grasses nearby, but I notice he has trouble controlling his little trunk and much of the food drops to the ground. He must be so hungry. She rests a long, long time, then suddenly gets up and stands ghost-like on the edge of the riverbank. Gathering her courage she launches into a long-legged stride, disappearing into a thicket with the calf. I lose them completely in the darkness. Depressed, tired, and dreading every possible outcome of the morrow, I drive back home. If she dies tonight, I think, we will make every effort to rescue the calf and give it a second chance at life. That, my beautiful Cherie, I promise.
We find Cherie back with her family the next morning, eating the branches of a commiphora. The Samburu tell me they use its roots as medicine for stomach ailments. It seems to be the one thing she likes, but she eats it only at night. She certainly seems a little stronger. The vet feels there is no way he can now justify putting her down, not when she clearly has such a will to live. Against all odds, she just might pull through. But the calf is suffering. Surrounded by family it feels secure, and is comforted by the presence of its mother. It’s making a valiant effort to eat and drink, but I fear that without milk it will die. There is nothing the vet can do.
She rests for most of the day, and the Save the Elephants field team take it in turns to keep watch. The calf is listless, depressed. He eats continuously, shoving leaves and soft grasses into his mouth to sate the gnawing hunger. At dusk, Cherie walks slowly across the river then collapses into an erosion gully. David Daballen, head of field operations, steps gently out of his car to touch her eyes. She’s dead. At last. The calf flings his little trunk across her body then steps his front legs up onto her stomach. He rocks to and fro. David decides to keep guard overnight and try to capture the calf the following morning. But as the night deepens, a pride of lions start to roar nearby, shattering the tranquillity. They circle closer. David knows the team must act now or it will be too late.
Three times they capture the calf and three times he breaks free. He’s bigger than expected, strong as an ox and ferocious with grief. Vast black storm clouds block out the moon and suddenly the heavens open. Hit by the deluge, the team race between Salvadora trees in a last heroic effort to catch the calf, slipping in the mud, and acutely aware of lions around the next corner. Panting with effort, wet to the bone, and shivering with exhaustion, the team give up. The calf spins around and runs off into the night.
Early the next morning David finds him again, close to his family and two large musth bulls. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust vet and rescue aircraft are scrambled to action in Nairobi. The calf’s family are showing a keen interest in him, touching his back, smelling him, and catching up on the dramas of the night. David waits for a gap then eases his vehicle between them, isolating the calf from the other elephants. This time round, with enough people on hand, the capture is successful. Within a few hours, the calf is secure in the aeroplane heading towards Nairobi, sedated and on a drip. When he arrives at the orphanage he guzzles down four bottles of milk within minutes. This is a baby that wants to live. “Sokotei”, I think, the local name for Salvadora, in honour of his courageous escape from his would-be rescuers as the wild storm sent his mothers soul back up into the universe. Yes, that’s the right name.