Even elephants see the vet…


Rebecca Horan, International Intern

Date Published

Given the social nature of female elephant herds, it is odd to see an adult female alone, especially without her calves nearby. When we first saw Alpine on her own during a weekly mammal census, we assumed from a distance that she was a lone bull. After observing her with binoculars and determining that she was in fact a she, we approached her to determine why she might be out here without her family. The elephant in question is named Alpine, a female in the Flowers family, and she has mothered three calves, the youngest born in 2012. Immediately upon nearing her, we knew something was wrong, her stomach had folds of sagging skin, she was very skinny, and everything about the way she moved seemed to indicate that she was in great pain. She would move to feed, but appear to give up, perhaps in too much pain to effectively do so. After she was observed by other STE staff members, the decision was made to call in the vet to assess and treat her.

Early on the morning of the vet’s arrival, two STE vehicles went out into the park to locate Alpine. Once she was found, our LTM team stayed with her to ensure that she remained in a place accessible for safe immobilization. Watching her shift her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot, I wanted badly to comfort her in some way, through supportive words or with a gentle touch, but I knew the only true help we could offer would be administered by the vet. Once the vet had observed Alpine and examined some of her waste, he and the Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS) rangers present prepared their medications and treatment plan. I was impressed by the careful coordination of the vet team’s efforts. Once she was darted, she was down in only five minutes, from there the vets worked quickly to administer medications and examine her condition, all while ensuring her comfort—water was poured over her head so she remained cool, her ear was used to protect her eyes from the sunlight, and her trunk was propped open with a stick. Amid the flurry of activity, including collecting a skin sample from her ear for medical assessment and tail hairs for STE research purposes, I was able to bend down next to her and stroke her rough head. I knew she was still in pain and probably quite unnerved by the whole ordeal, but I hoped she sensed that we did want to help.

Fairly quickly, it was time to get her back on her feet, a challenge given her already weakened condition. Her initial efforts to move after regaining consciousness from the administered immobilization antidote were ineffective. Clearly experts, the KWS rangers carefully looped one end of rope around her right tusk and the other end to the front of their vehicle. With both encouragement and momentum from the moving car, Alpine was on her feet and on the move away from all of us only 30 minutes after initially being darted.

I do hope the next time I see Alpine that she has returned to her family and is in better health. Unfortunately, the vet is less optimistic, he suspects that she may have a twisted colon and will most likely not recover. For her sake and the sake of her calves, I hope that is not the case, but illness and death are a reality of life, no matter how much we care for these elephants.