Today we set out to immobilize Graca (M17.86) and her 7-month old calf (M17.8610) of the First Ladies family with Virginia Pearson of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Virginia studies elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses, and the calf in question had been spotted earlier this week with nodules on her trunk. Virginia, David, and I confirmed this yesterday when we found the First Ladies all together at the Ewaso at sundown. Because we would need to immobilize Graca in order to get to her calf, Virginia thought it would be a good opportunity to take samples from her, as well.
The collaborating institutions for this project were the Zoological Society of San Diego Institute for Conservation Research, John Hopkins School of Medicine, Save the Elephants, and the Kenya Wildlife Service, and so we had a large team.
When we found the group they were in prime location for immobilization, spread in open savannah. Dr. Mutinda, the veterinarian, darted Graca first, at 9:00. She ran briefly and was then calm. As we approached, the family formed a protective cluster around the calves and a few of the older members voiced their irritation. They moved away fairly quickly, though, and we were able to jump out of the trucks and get started. The team collected nasal, oral, vaginal, and eye samples as well as blood samples from her ear. While the team was working on Graca, her calf went down, so we moved on to her, taking blood, nasal, oral, and eye samples. Virginia collected samples from the two trunk nodules.
Though I’ve gotten used to seeing the elephants up close because they are so habituated to vehicles in the reserve, this was different. As I crouched at Graca’s trunk to take pictures of the action, I could feel the breeze of her exhale, which was an entirely new experience! As Graca’s calf got up and started walking away, she kept feeling her sores with the tip of her trunk. But perhaps the best scene of the experience was forty-five minutes after the whole ordeal began, watching Graca and her calf reunite and move toward the rest of their group. It was an exciting and successful day, and I look forward to learning what such samples can tell us about viral infections in wild elephant populations.