Poisoned Tusker Treated in Daring Field Operation, the Eleventh in Two Weeks

A large tusker lies unconscious on the wet ground as the emergency helicopter lands. Photo by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
A large tusker lies unconscious on the ground as the emergency helicopter lands. Photo by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

TSAVO NATIONAL PARK, Kenya––On September 15 vets in the field successfully treated a large iconic bull elephant during a daring field operation, after the animal was found poisoned by a poacher’s arrow.

The tusker had a clearly visible wound in his back right leg when pilot Neville Sheldrick, while on a routine air patrol, spotted the animal limping through the bush. He immediately called the Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit to come to the aid of the troubled elephant.

Authorities quickly deployed a helicopter, along with a vet from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), to dart the animal, and a rapid response ground team waited to move in with medical equipment to treat the wound.

“There are a number of factors that determine how quickly an elephant will die from a poisoned arrow,” explained Angela Sheldrick, Executive Director for the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphan-elephant rehabilitation project and conservation organization based in Nairobi.

“The freshness of the poison, the location of the arrow and how deeply it penetrated its quarry are some of the variables.”

“It can take hours, weeks, or even months for the animal to perish,” she said.

See the video of the dramatic rescue below


Deadly Skill

“There are tribes bordering Tsavo National Park that are extremely proficient in the art of poisoned arrow poaching,” Sheldrick said. “The technique is passed down through the generations and is sadly very effective.” (See: Beloved African Elephant Killed for Ivory)

As storm clouds gathered, pilot Humphrey Carter, along with KWS Veterinary Officer Dr. Poghon, flew the DSWT helicopter into the area. They darted the bull from the air at 1:00 p.m., and he conveniently fell onto his left side, allowing the vets easy access to the wound.

The bull’s companions–a group of old male elephants who were milling around by his side– had to be chased off by the helicopter so that the ground team could move in and work uninterrupted.

The elephant lay unconscious on the red earth, and his great white tusks, now horizontal, pointed aimlessly toward the dark horizon. A torrential downpour, the first of the season, made working conditions wet for the vets as they tended to the open wound, removing all the dead tissue that was forcing its way out of the arrow hole.

Once the wound was clear and the long-acting antibiotics administered, the vets injected the antidote and waited to see what would happen. Despite the slippery soil, the elephant managed to slowly stand up.

The elephant manages to rise up in the wet mud. Photo by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Up and Walking

The proud team, soaking wet and muddy, watched the bull walk off into the veld and join his companions, who were waiting patiently a little way off.

He was the second elephant that the veterinary unit saved that day, and the eleventh treated against poachers’ arrows in the past two weeks. Continued aerial and ground monitoring (in the worst cases, the team mark the treated elephant’s back with paint, which makes identification from the air easier) confirm that all 11 animals have made a full recovery.

“The recent upsurge in poaching is due to considerable offshore demand for ivory,” said Sheldrick, “creating a financial incentive to kill elephants which reaches all the way down the supply chain to the poachers on the ground.” (See: 100 000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years)

To match the threat in Kenya, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service, now runs nine anti-poaching teams within the area. The team has four aircraft and a helicopter, providing aerial support, patrols, and assistance to the field teams in detecting illegal activities or injured animals.

Vets work on the wounded elephant. Photo by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Vets work on the wounded elephant. Photo by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

“Our anti-poaching teams have arrested more than 1,000 poachers,” Sheldrick said. “These arrests range from notorious elephant poachers through to bush meat poachers.”

The Sky Vet program was established a year ago to treat cases that are located in areas inaccessible to the mobile veterinary units. In that time Sky Vet has already saved 80 elephant lives.

“This ground and air support has proved extremely effective,” Sheldrick said. “Without the efforts of the Kenya Wildlife Service, together with support from us, the situation in Tsavo would be significantly worse.”

Follow Paul Steyn on Twitter: @paulsteynless or Instagram: @steynless

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: paul@paulsteyn.com Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram