Across Africa, one elephant is killed every 15 minutes by ivory poachers. But what happens to elephants targeted by the ivory trade when they fail to succumb to a poacher’s snare, bullet or arrow?
In partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, our ground and flying vet teams are treating injured wild elephants that have been targeted by poachers in Kenya. Yet the mechanics of treating any injured wild animal are not straight forward. For any big animal like an elephant, it can also be pretty dangerous, both for them and for the vets.
1. Locating any animal in the vastness of Africa is the first hurdle, Kenya alone is more than twice the size of the UK.
Roaming anti-poaching patrols and aerial surveillance are the first line of defence and are key to spotting injured elephants, as are community scouts. These days, those injured tend to have wounds caused by bullets, spears, snares and poisoned arrows. Time is of the essence as wounds can quickly become infected and, for those elephants with calves, it’s a race not just to save the mother but to secure the future of her family too. Sadly, even baby elephants with no tusks can be injured during an attack and are found suffering with all kinds of problems, including bones shattered by bullets.
2. When spotted, it’s a race against time to organise swift treatment.
Transporting the vets by air or land, often an elephant must be separated from the herd and darted with a tranquiliser gun, with the skilled vet ascertaining the necessary amount of drugs to use based on the size, age and condition of the animal. Sedation can be risky, elephants must fall on their sides not their haunches to avoid their immense weight putting pressure on the heart and lungs — ground teams always remain on standby with a Land Rover or tractor to pull the elephant onto its side should it land on its front, as elephants in this position will typically survive no more than fifteen minutes.
3. To ensure the elephant can continue to breathe, the trunk must be propped open.
A stick does the job well, and water should be splashed on and behind the visible ear to keep the body cool throughout.
4. Treatment type and duration depends on the wound.
Removing poisoned arrows can be a fairly simple and quick operation, taking about fifteen minutes and requiring the removal of any rotting tissue; removing snares with wire cutters requires care and precision. Bullet wounds are the most difficult, and it can often be impossible to retrieve the bullets, which can become embedded deep in an elephant’s body. Operations can take anything from a few minutes to a couple of hours, after which the wound is flushed clean before being packed with antiseptics and green clay, a natural substance that helps speed the healing process and keeps insects and external matter away from the wound.
5. Green clay, antibiotics and painkillers are almost always administered along with a reversal anaesthetic.
Should the elephant be unable to stand, a tractor or vehicle is always on standby and, with strapping safely attached, the elephant can be helped to its feet. Follow-up treatments might sometimes be necessary and ground and air teams will look to check on injured elephants in the subsequent weeks to ensure successful recovery.
6. With elephants under threat, each life saved provides hope for the species.
The ultimate satisfaction is seeing that elephant rise up and walk away, back into the bush — they almost always glance back at those that have treated them. Are they checking back to ensure they are safe? Are they questioning why humans have helped them after being the cause of their injury or are they even acknowledging the help they’ve received? We’ll never know for sure.
Spotting injured animals and keeping the vets fully equipped is key to their successful treatment, and they need your support.