Elephant rescue up close: saving an injured calf in Kenya’s Maasai Mara nature reserve

Baby elephant’s trunk had been nearly severed in a snare poachers had set to catch bushmeat. Helicopter-borne rescuers swoop in to take the injured animal for surgery

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 10:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 10:48am

I’m in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve with Marc Goss, chief executive of the Mara Elephant Project (MEP), when he gets a call from his team saying they’ve found an elephant calf that’s got her trunk caught in a snare.

She was spotted the previous night and they’ve been searching for her because the snare – set by bushmeat poachers – has ripped through more than half her trunk. She’s still walking around and it will get infected if it’s not treated soon.

Goss, who has worked in the Mara for 10 years, has been showing me how they protect elephants in the region. We head back to headquarters, where we board a small, leopard-print helicopter, and lift off over the fertile green lands of the Mara Conservancy.

Founded in 2011, MEP started out as a 12-man team with one vehicle, responding to complaints from the local community of elephants encroaching on their farmland, destroying crops.

“We’d started getting more and more elephants with spears in them in the Mara,” says co-founder Richard Roberts. “We got a vehicle with a siren, and set up a hotline, so anyone having trouble with elephants – day or night – could call us. Then, that same year, an Africa-wide poaching crisis hit the Mara.”

So they set up an intelligence network across the Mara, and trained rapid-response anti-poaching units. As a result, they successfully managed to curb ivory poaching in the northern Mara: in 2012 they lost 139 elephants to illegal killing; last year they lost eight.

Human-wildlife conflict remains a threat, however, says MEP board member and Mara Conservancy CEO Brian Heath. “Elephants are still being killed, because people don’t want them. So they put a spear in them, or they snare them or they shoot them with bows and arrows, just to get rid of them.”

Watch Brian Heath talking and footage of the daring rescue here

Goss lands the helicopter and we meet Kenya Wildlife Service/David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust vet, Dr Limo, and other team members, who update Goss on the plight of the injured calf. It’s a tricky situation: the herd have headed into a heavily wooded water course. It’s inaccessible by jeep due to the tree density. It’s too dangerous to follow them on foot, so a helicopter is essential to get them back out onto the plain.

Back in the air, Goss spots the herd, swoops down and circles the elephants – low enough that it feels we’re about to graze the treetops – finally causing them to leave the forest. “There she is, that’s her,” he says, pointing to a little suckling, just six to eight months old, running after her mother as quick as her stumpy legs will carry her. Her trunk is dangling at an odd angle.

Goss manages to separate the two matriarchs and baby from the rest of the herd, and two jeeps immediately move in, getting close enough to shoot a tranquilliser dart into the calf’s bottom.

It takes an excruciatingly long 10 minutes for the drugs to take effect, and we need to continue to herd the elephants to prevent them from returning to the shelter of the wooded area.

Finally, the calf begins a strange marching dance with her front legs, before finally collapsing to one side.

Hong Kong-raised helicopter pilot Ben Simpson has flown creatures great and small, from baby gorillas to George W. Bush

The two adult elephants look increasingly agitated, standing back to back to defend the baby. One faces us, ears flapping in warning, ready to charge. The mother tries in vain to nudge the calf back up onto its feet.

“Young elephant are pretty well inseparable from their mothers. Their mothers will almost do anything to stay with their calves,” says Heath.

Eventually the other adult gives up and flees towards the tree, leaving the mother and baby.

Finally, she too gives in and we manage to drive her back into the forest with the helicopter. The veterinary team immediately rushes in, and Goss disembarks to assess the situation.

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The scene is hard to take: the calf’s trunk looks like it’s literally dangling on a string. A giant barbed wire snare has completely cut through one nostril, and halfway through the other, and the vet holds up the trunk in dismay.

MEP recovered more than 7,000 snares like this last year. “The thing with snares is they’re indiscriminate, they catch anything,” says Heath, who was born in Kenya and has lived in the Mara – where he sleeps in a tent and washes out of a bucket – for 15 years.

“They’re usually set for zebra and wildebeest, but they can catch anything from lions to rhinos and elephants. There’s a big market for game meat. So it’s much more than subsistence hunting; it’s commercialised hunting.”

Back at the rescue, somebody warns me, “Be ready to jump into a car if the mother comes back,” and then: “Here she comes!” The mother is charging towards us out of the trees. I leap into the nearest vehicle, and the driver swerves round, honking the horn and accelerating straight towards her. It’s a battle of wills – which, thankfully, we win. The matriarch retreats back to the forest.

Dr Limo weighs up their options. The trunk is not being held on by much, but he’s loath to amputate: trunks are an essential part of an elephant’s body. They contain 40,000 muscles – humans only have 639 in our entire bodies – and are used for breathing, grasping, smelling, eating and drinking.

“We’ve seen elephants survive with amputated trunks,” says Heath. “They’re very adaptable animals. They learn to use the stump of the trunk and their feet to gather food.”

In this case, the stump would be very short. It’s decided that the calf’s best option is to undergo surgery at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s clinic in Nairobi, which specialises in elephant orphans, in an attempt to save the trunk. “It’ll be a first if they can fix it,” says Heath.

“It’s always a difficult choice to make to separate a calf from its mother,” he adds. “Her chance of being reunited with her is nil.”

The mother will return to look for her later, so if they’d been able to treat her on the spot, she would have found her. But left in this condition, the calf’s chances of survival are at best 50 per cent, estimates Heath. With treatment she’ll have a nearly 100 per cent chance of survival.

In the vehicle on the way to the airstrip, Heath tells me about their friends from Hong Kong who visit often, and help provide funding, some of whom have known them since MEP started out. One philanthropist (who prefers to remain unnamed) recently donated US$300,000 to the Mara North Conservancy. The money will provide valuable funds for infrastructure, says Heath, and for safe parcels of land for the animals.

We stop at the Mara Serena Airport, an airstrip where a small charter plane will take the calf to Nairobi. Beginning to wake up, she struggles and roars with pain, rubbing her broken trunk up and down on the floor.

Word must have got round at the orphanage, because when we arrive, there’s a small group of tourists waiting curiously for a glimpse as she’s carried out of the jeep.

The tourists receive a stern order to leave the stable that awaits her. Finally, the team prepares giant milk bottles and gets ready to feed her and let her rest until the next day, when the surgeon will arrive.

Angela Sheldrick from the David Sheldrick Trust, gave an update on the surgery a few days later: “Sadly the operation to stitch Enkesha’s [the trust names its elephants, usually after the area where they were found] trunk together was short-lived and within two short days a precision three-hour operation was dismantled by the wiggling and contracting and expanding of her trunk. She was adamant to get rid of the stitches, it seemed, and despite us sedating her for those first days she managed to remove all her sutures.

“That said, with daily medication and close attention, her trunk is healing well naturally, and she uses the ‘fingers’ at the tip of her trunk very well indeed. She is able to pick up anything off the ground, pluck leaves from trees, spray water over herself, and she seems oblivious to her wound, other than rubbing it more frequently than normal, probably due to itching because of the healing. We feel sure that in time much of it will heal, probably not totally, but we have learned over the years of the incredible healing powers of these animals and we feel sure this brave little girl will be teaching us another lesson. We made the decision not to amputate the trunk, as that would be a huge disadvantage.”