By Kristin Davis
The last time I was in Kenya, flying in one of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s (DSWT) aerial surveillance airplanes, I was on the way to see one of the most tragic sights I’ve ever seen in my life.
Two massive elephants had been poached near the Tiva River, in Tsavo National Park. Like all poaching victims, their deaths had been torturous.
The poachers had climbed up the electrical tower nearby and cut thick cable from it. Then they’d set up wire snares using the cable. They tied one snare around two huge trees, and when a male elephant had walked in, his foot had been trapped.
The massive elephant was left circling the tree endlessly trying to free himself, until he became so weak that that poachers could move in and hack the tusks off his face. The circle of destruction around the tree presented a terrible picture of the end of this glorious creature’s life.
Sadder still was the coffee pot and the ashes of a fire just out of reach of the elephant’s circle of distress. There, the poachers had sat, drinking coffee and watching, waiting until they could plunder his ivory and hack away at his tusks.
The scene of cruel deaths like his has haunted me in the years since.
Now it’s early 2015, and I’m in Kenya again, visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To blunt the ongoing poaching threat, the trust, working with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), has mobilized nine Anti-Poaching Teams. Air support has been expanded to include a helicopter to work with a rapid response rescue team.
I was lucky to go out on a KWS/DSWT mission to treat a huge bull, probably around 40 years old. This bull had been seen during their aerial surveillance patrol with a large abscess on his side.
We flew to where the elephant had last been seen, and with the help of one of our spotter planes, we found him.
With air support, the ground team encouraged the mighty elephant to move to a clear spot where he could be darted. The logistics of each vet operation are different and fluid. All participants need to communicate and respond quickly.
It’s incredibly impressive that the teams are able to find wounded elephants, treat them fast, and get out of the way before the elephant is revived. All this action happens in 100-degree heat.
The abscess on the lower part of the elephant’s side was as big as me, if I curled into a ball. A tiny incision was made, and KWS’s Dr. Michael Njoroge removed the rotted tissue. Lodged in the necrotic flesh was an arrow head tipped with poison.
— Kristin Davis (@KristinDavis) February 7, 2015
This elephant would have faced certain slow death if he’d not been found and treated.
As we were leaving the scene in the helicopter, I was able to film the big bull waking up. After some effort, he got to his feet and turned to face us, lifting his trunk as if to say, “Go away and stop bothering me!” Or maybe, ” Thank you.”
VIDEO: See elephant’s gesture following its treatment.
We will never know, and it doesn’t matter. That elephant will live on in the wild, at least for now.
The poaching continues—the very next day Dr. Njoroge successfully treated a similar case—but now we have the tools to fight back to save these majestic creatures.
I was filled with pride and gratitude as we flew away from the recovering elephant. I dream of a day when we won’t need a rapid response aerial team to help the elephants. But in the meantime I’m privileged to be a part of the work of the DSWT and KWS.
And I’m thankful to be able to share an uplifiting story because of the support we’ve gotten from so many people in fighting for the future of elephants. We will fight for them every day until the world puts a stop to the demand for ivory.
An active philanthropist, Kristin Davis has had the honor of dedicating her time and efforts to serving as a Patron to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Davis joined the trust in 2009, after she traveled to Kenya to go on safari but instead found herself trekking into the wilderness to save an orphaned baby elephant. After the trust was alerted, the baby elephant was transported to the nursery. Davis is dedicated to the mission to give orphaned elephants a chance to heal, thrive, and eventually be introduced back into the wild—and to protect their habitat and ecosystem. She is also dedicated to inspiring change and creating awareness to stop the illegal poaching for ivory through campaigning and as Executive Producer of a new conservation film, Gardeners of Eden.