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The Flying Elephant Docs: Fighting The Good Fight

By Vicki Croke

The terrible news about poachers slaughtering Satao, a wild bull elephant in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park whose tusks nearly touched the ground, got a lot of people asking: isn’t there anyone helping these animals? There is.

Elephants must be immobilized in the field in order to be treated. Photo: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Sheldrick mobile vet unit

Daphne Sheldrick started rescuing elephant orphans in Kenya more than 50 years ago. And through her organization, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and cooperating with the Kenya Wildlife Service, she’s expanded her efforts.

She’s got four mobile veterinary units (in addition to eight anti-poaching teams) canvasing vast areas of Kenya parkland, swooping in by plane to immobilize and treat injured elephants.

Planes transport the vets over the vast terrain. Photo: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Sheldrick plane

These days, those injuries tend to consist of wounds caused by bullets, spears, snares, and poisoned arrows.

Even baby elephants with no tusks can be killed or injured during an attack, and they are found suffering with all kinds of problems, including leg bones shattered by bullets.

This bull elephant’s leg injuries are treated. Photo: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Sheldrick elephant treatment

An elephant who is safe one moment can be dead the next. Satao is an example of that. Sheldrick’s mobile vets saw him as recently as May 4. The big elephant was robust as he watched from a distance when vets treated a friend of his who had been shot. But on June 13, it was confirmed that Satao was dead.

Even when found alive, there is no guarantee that injured elephants will survive. Because these are wild animals, they must be immobilized, which means risky sedation out in the open.

This picture illustrates why Tsavo’s elephants are red. Photo: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Sheldrick dust bath

I’ve been to the vast, unbelievably beautiful area of the two Tsavo national parks where you can see for miles in every direction. It’s breathtaking. I’ve seen the “red elephants,” who cover themselves in the region’s rust colored soil. In fact, my most vivid recollection is of sitting in a Jeep near a watering hole and noticing a speck appear on the horizon. It was an approaching bull elephant. He grew more and more massive as he drew closer.  I watched him drink from the watering hole, and watched him still, an hour later as he slowly, slowly, wandered away disappearing once again into the horizon. Free.

Considering the thousands of square miles of these two parks, and the fact that, according to CNN, poaching worldwide has doubled since 2007, it is remarkable how quickly the mobile vet units can reach an animal and how much they can do.

Orphaned baby elephants need to form strong bonds to survive. Photo: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Baby elephants
Sheldrick continues to bring traumatized baby elephants into her care where they are bottle fed every three hours and tended to by a rotating group of caregivers (to prevent them from becoming too attached to just one person).

But a look at her website, gives a detailed picture of the struggle to save elephants in Kenya.

Here, we get a dispatch from the front lines, a compelling list—both uplifting and heartbreaking:

Below is a summary of the elephant cases the KWS/DSWT Veterinary Units have worked on in the month of May alone, each of them special, each of them priceless.  Sadly we have more to report for the month of June.

5/4/2014, Tsavo: Dakota area, Tsavo East

Elephant: Adult Male

Bullet Wound: Lameness of the right hind limb with tiny penetrating wound suggesting gunshot

Successfully Treated: Wound was cleaned and long acting antibiotics were given

Prognosis good


5/8/2014, Tsavo: Ngulia Valley, Tsavo West

Elephant: Adult Male

Bullet Wound: Limping with lameness of the front limb

Prognosis Poor: Due to cold extremities and possible interrupted blood supply


5/14/2014, Amboseli: Serena Lodge Junction, Tsavo West

Elephant: Adult Male

Bullet Wound: Penetrating wound to left forelimb

Successfully Treated: One week later, the elephant could use the four limbs and without much difficulty


5/15/2014, Tsavo: Amaka Ranch

Elephant: Adult Female

Bullet Wound: Shots heard and responded to by security teams. Some elephants were already dead but this elephant was limping nearby with a broken left femoral bone

Poaching Death: Complete femoral bone fractures in adult elephants are untreatable in the wild. The elephant was euthanized and autopsy confirmed a direct bullet was the cause


5/15/2014 Mara: Ol donyo Rinka

Elephant: Adult Male

Arrow Wound: Bobo is a collared elephant that raised concerns through GPS readings and was found to have several arrow injuries to the rump, thigh and flank

Successfully Treated: All wounds cleaned and treated

Prognosis Good


5/18/2014, Tsavo: Amaka Ranch

Elephant: Sub Adult Male

Bullet Wound: Gun shots heard on the night of the 17th, the bull was found the next morning with lameness caused by a fracture of the right femur

Poaching Death: Bull was euthanized and autopsy revealed a complete and complex fracture of the femur with massive muscle tears caused by broken bones. A bullet head was recovered


5/18/2014, Meru: Meru National Park

Elephant: Sub Adult Male

Bullet Wound: Swollen right forelimb with deep penetrating wounds and more on trunk and hind limb

Prognosis Poor: He had a review on the 27th which showed little improvement but he is in good body condition


5/19/2014, Tsavo: Jipe Area, Tsavo West

Elephant: Adult Male

Poaching Postmortem: A fresh carcass was found by KWS

Poaching Death: Autopsy revealed he was most likely shot in the head and death was sudden


5/20/2014, Amboseli: Ngulia , Tsavo West

Elephant: Adult Male

Bullet Wound: An elephant with a penetrating wound to left forelimb – repeat treatment

Successfully Treated: Whole limb was swollen and skin around wound necrotic.

Prognosis Fair: Great signs of improvement were noted, but sadly early June he was found dead from the air despite two treatments.


5/23/2014, Mara: Naboisho Conservancy

Elephant: Adult Male

Spear: Big bull with spear wounds to the left and right flank

Successfully Treated: Repeat treatment may be needed


5/23/2014, Mara: Ol Donyo Rinka

Elephant: Adult Male

Poaching Postmortem: Both tusks intact but signs of attempted removal. Several penetrating wounds found

Poaching Death: One arrow head found inside the head. Elephant died from poisoned arrows


5/27/2014, Meru: Meru National Park

Elephant: Sub Adult Male

Bullet Wound: Repeat Treatment for bullet wounds

Prognosis Poor: Little improvement but he is in good body condition


8 Responses to “The Flying Elephant Docs: Fighting The Good Fight”

  1. Amy Mayers

    Thanks for this terrific article. Daphne Sheldrick and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust inspire us all to do as much as we can to save and protect elephants and all the other animals in Africa. I encourage everyone to support this terrific organization.

  2. Cindy H

    Great article, Vicki.

    This is one of the reasons so many of us foster these beautiful babies from DSWT.
    Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her daughters and her team are heroes in my mind.
    Thank you.
    Cindy H (Foster Mama to Barsilinga and Ashaka)

  3. Val

    You are amazing, special people, thank you. I will be sponsoring you from here.

  4. Anonymous

    thx for all that you do to save and protect the beautiful elephants. you have made the world a better place.

    will be sponsoring going forward.

Comments are closed.