Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Elephant with the Boot

                                 The Elephant with the Boot.

The young elephant had been suffering for more than a week when it was first spotted

by a ranger on foot patrol.  Elphas Mnisi knew something was amiss when he came

across the tracks of a lone elephant, much too young to be separated from the

breeding herd.  Judging by the size of the spoor, the animal was no longer a calf, but

definitely not old enough to be wandering off on its own.

Close inspection of the tracks revealed that the animal was dragging one of its front

legs, and Elphas immediately started tracking.

Five gruelling hours later, with the light fading fast, Elphas found the elephant resting

under a marula tree near the river.  Through his binoculars he could barely make out

the massive trauma to the leg, which the elephant was trying to keep off the ground. 

Knowing that the animal would probably still be in the same place by morning,

Elphas returned to base, and Ertjies Röhm, the head of Mpumalanga Nature

Conservation was notified.

This was happening in a game reserve managed by Mpumalanga Nature

Conservation, and therefore did not fall under the auspices of SANParks.

Not having the infrastructure of the Kruger Park, Ertjies has to make use of 

independent contractors in cases like this.  His call to Prof. Cobus Raath at about 8pm

resulted in a mad scramble to prepare for all eventualities.

  At the time Cobus was hosting twelve veterinarians from the US, UK,

Canada, Portugal and Spain, attending a post-graduate course in wildlife management

at his Ngongoni Lodge.   Understandably, the excitement was beyond fever pitch – the

young vets knew all about cats and dogs.  Horses, cattle and sheep were old hat.  An

injured wild elephant, however, was a totally different kettle of fish. 

Immobilising darts and muti boxes were prepared, and transport and a helicopter laid on. 

They did not know the nature or extent of the trauma, the size of the elephant, the

location where it would eventually go down – every possible scenario had to be

catered for.  There would be no second chances.

Excited anticipation saw to it that the vets got very little sleep that night.  Plus, of

course, the fact that Cobus had them on the road by 03.30 in the morning.  None of

them minded in the least.

First light found everyone in position at a picnic spot some five kilometres from

where the elephant had last been seen the previous evening. 

Shortly after sunrise the tiny Robinson helicopter made its noisy appearance.  With

their severely restricted budget, Mpumalanga Nature Conservation cannot afford the

luxury of the two Bell Jetrangers owned by SANPARKS.  They have to

make do with the least expensive rental available, in this case a Robinson, which may

seem more suitable for making scrambled eggs than serious flying.  But then, with

Danie at the stick, the little Robinson has been known to take on a life of its own. 

Cobus prepared three tranquilising darts with different dosages of A30-80, the new

drug developed by him and his pharmaceutical partners.  To safely dart the animal, the

dosage has to be matched to the weight of the animal – and Cobus didn’t quite know

how big the elephant was.

Finding the elephant was the easy part – it was still under the same tree as the night

before.  The terrain was difficult, uneven with high, dense vegetation.  Normal

procedure is to drive the elephant to an area where it would be accessible prior to

darting it.  But this elephant wouldn’t budge.  The high pitched whine of the giant

wasp and the whap-whapping of the rotors under strain failed to move it - a sure sign

that the animal was in severe pain.

Cobus had no choice but to dart it where it was.  Even then it did not attempt to flee,

and after three minutes it went down in its tracks.  By this time the ground crew had

moved in as close as they could get with the vehicles.  Danie put Cobus down in a

nearby clearing, and they approached the elephant on foot, one of the Nature

Conservation officials, armed with a .458 Winchester rifle, in the lead.  Sometimes

seemingly anaesthetised elephants have a tendency to get up unexpectedly and wreak


The animal was lying on its side, and the first thing Cobus noticed was the

overpowering stench of rotting meat. A dense cloud of blowflies was droning in the

oppressive atmosphere, humming their familiar song of death and decay.  Through

long experience Cobus immediately knew that this was bad – very bad.  One look at

the elephant’s leg confirmed this.  The foreign vets stared at the grotesque mess with

revulsion – they had never seen anything remotely like this before.  In Africa it is a

common sight, which never fails to bring one’s blood close to boiling point. 

How any human being could inflict this kind of torture on an animal is beyond



The wire snare is the poacher’s preferred method of “hunting”.  A wire (for small

game) or cable (for larger animals) noose is set on a game trail or near a watering

hole, with the other end tied to a tree.  Ideally, the head of the targeted animal should

pass through the loop, which starts tightening when stopped by the animal’s

shoulders.  When the animal realises that it is trapped, the ensuing struggle

progressively tightens the noose, promptly throttling the animal.  This seldom

happens in real life.  In most cases the animal is doomed to a slow agonising death

that can take days or weeks.

Presumably this particular cable snare had been set fairly low on a game trail, where an

animal like a blue wildebeest or zebra would have to lower its head to pass through. 

Poachers can be highly ingenious at times, and often know the bush and the animals well. 

Snares and other traps are never set randomly or impulsively – the exact spots are carefully


Our hapless elephant had somehow managed to get caught just below the knee of his

right front leg.  The power of an elephant, albeit a young one, is formidable.  It being

a cable snare, it cut through skin and muscle nearly down to the bone before the

elephant managed to break the cable. This must have happened a week or more ago,

as the rotting flesh was heavily infested with mature maggots.  The stench was


Ertjies shook his head with sadness and loaded his rifle.

“No”, Cobus said.  “I can save him.”

“Are you mad?  Look at it – this animal will never walk again.  Better to put him out

of his misery and get it over and done with.”

“No,” Cobus repeated. “We have an ethical obligation here – this problem is man-

made, so we have no choice but to try.  If it had been natural causes, I would have

been the first one to euthanase it.”

“Come on, Cobus, this animal will never walk again.”  A murmur of assent wet up

from the group of veterinarians.

Cobus donned a pair of surgical gloves from his muti box and examined the leg


“I can make it walk again.”

“Why do you want to go to extremes to try and save this one elephant when we

already have ten thousand elephants too many in the country?”

This is a sad but true fact.  Since the National Parks Board stopped the culling of

elephant years ago, the population just kept increasing.  At the time Cobus had still

been employed as the chief vet of the Parks Board.  With a team of experts they

devised a system for transporting and relocating fully grown elephants.  In an effort to

stabilise the growing elephant population, every available game farm and game

reserve was stocked with elephant. 

Experts have time and again pointed out the fact that the Kruger National Park can

only sustain 6500 elephant without endangering the habitat.  The population has now

grown to a nearly three times the carrying capacity.  All it would

take to set off this time bomb is a drought, which would probably transform the

Kruger Park to a tree-less savannah.  What happened to the Tsavo National Park is set

to happen to Kruger.  Elephant damage is already evident throughout the Park.  A

prolonged drought will diminish food supplies, and more trees and leaf-bearing

vegetation will be destroyed.  This would lead to mass starvation of all browsers like

the black rhino, kudu, giraffe and many more.  A disaster of epic proportions is

waiting in the wings….

The controversy is still raging.    

Even if culling was to resume immediately, it is probably too late to turn the tide.  At

maximum capacity the abattoir in Kruger (now defunct) could only process 800 carcasses annually. 

The elephant population in Kruger is increasing by 6% annually – that is over 1000

animals per year.

Sterilising elephant cows with porcine zona pellucida was tried, but for various reasons

it was not a viable solution. Cobus is in the early stages of working on a different

solution, but that is a story for the future.

“I simply do not have the budget for this,” Ertjies said.  “Trying to save this elephant

will cost a small fortune.  I would much rather spend the money where it would make

a difference.”

“Ertjies, my conscience will not allow me to euthanase this animal – the problem is

man-made.  We have to try.”

“Not on my budget.  If you want to do it at your expense, fine.  It’s your elephant.” 

Cobus was not really prepared for this.  He needed the Parks Board’s heavy

equipment and transport to get the elephant to his bomas at Ngongoni.  All he had

with him was a small crate on an open trailer.  There was just no way this elephant

was going to fit into the crate.  Just getting it out of the thicket without the right

equipment was going to be a major problem. 

“Deal,” he said.  To his students: “We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”

The door of the crate was removed, to be used as a skid.  The elephant was rolled onto

the door, and manhandled to a point where the winch cable on Cobus’ 4x4 could

reach.  This took two hours of backbreaking effort under the hot Lowveld sun. 

   The elephant had to be kept sedated and the vital signs monitored continuously.

With the help of the winch and the vehicle, the elephant was soon next to the trailer. 

The trailer was unhooked from the 4x4, and canted over backwards to create an

angled ramp.  Another hour of sweating, cursing and improvising later, the elephant

was loaded and the trailer hitched.

The journey back along the N4 highway had many a motorist gaping at the sight of a half-

grown elephant snoozing on the flatbed trailer. 

At the toll gate Cobus was confronted by an elderly gentleman who jumped out of his

vehicle and stuck his finger under Cobus’ nose.  The irate citizen had been under the

impression that Cobus was a big game hunter, carting his trophy off to the

taxidermist.  The perception did not sit well with the old guy, and he voiced his

feelings at maximum volume, not mincing his words.  This resulted in a minor traffic

jam, but after the necessary explanations the procession was soon under way again.

Once the elephant was offloaded in the bomas there was still some daylight left, so

Cobus and the team of vets immediately got to work on the wound.   Only once all the

necrotic tissue had been removed did the full extent of the damage become apparent. 

Cobus judged that, with a bit of luck, the blood supply to the extremity would still be

adequate, so he cleaned the wound and packed it with a special concoction of his. 

Layers of gauze packing was followed by many metres of bandage. 

Over this a sturdy boot was made, to hold everything together. 


After administering a massive dose of  antibiotics and painkillers, Cobus revived the

animal.  It was groggy, and the ordeal seemed to have left it in shock.  Cobus

monitored the animal through the night via the CCTV cameras in the bomas.  It was

not well, and stood swaying on three legs till just before dawn, when it laid down

again.  This was not a good sign, and Cobus was not a happy camper. 

By noon the next day, however, the elephant drank some water, which had everyone

jumping for joy. 

Over the next few days Cobus had an intensive series of lectures to work through with

his students – they were here on a two-week course on wildlife management, and

there was a lot of knowledge to be crammed in, in fourteen days.  But their hearts

were not in it – that young elephant out there in the boma, fighting for its life, was all

that occupied their minds.  By day three the elephant started eating, and that night

serious celebrations were in order, with lots of beer, barbecue and song.

The day before this group was due to leave, they sedated the elephant again to

change the dressings and inspect the wound.

They could not believe what they saw – there were still spots of dead tissue that had

to be removed surgically, but there was no sign of infection, and the wound was

actually healing!

The next day, none of the vets wanted to leave.  They had bonded with this African

orphan, and litres of tears were shed.  They made Cobus promise to send lots of

photos and to keep them updated.

The following Sunday a new group of students arrived, and on learning the history of

the elephant in the boma, the process started all over again.  By the third week the

wound was beginning to show signs of  connective tissue forming, and covering the

exposed muscle and tendons.

The elephant was eating and drinking normally, and apparently beginning to enjoy the

human company.  It was complacent, and could be hand-fed titbits like oranges,

sugarcane etc.

By the sixth week the bandages came off permanently.  The elephant had an ugly

scar, but not only could it walk, it walked without a limp.

Releasing the animal into the wild held too many risks and uncertainties.  The fact

that the elephant had lost its fear for man could lead to all sorts of problems later on. 

Cobus called an acquaintance who runs an elephant-back safari outfit, and when he

came to have a look at the animal, it was love at first sight.

This time the elephant had a proper, freshly painted transport cage, and there were no

further toll-gate incidents.

Novels by Leon Mare
            Cheetah in the Rain
            Fighting AIDS
            Show me a Reason
Available on Amazon, Apple, Sony, Kobo, Smashwords etc.


No comments:

Post a Comment