This one I'll remember
Well itís been quite a while now since Iíve shared any adventures with you. Iíve enjoyed sharing life in the Valley with Bill, and we had a wonderful adventure or two together. Now that Bwana (aka Bill) is on his marathon forty hour journey home, I have a bit of time to catch up.
I suppose I expected to practice some unusual medicine while I was here, but Iím not sure I quite expected the kind of patient I cared for two weekends ago. On a very hot and humid Saturday afternoon, Bill and I were looking forward to some lazy time enjoying the sweltering heat. A call came in on the radio saying that Rachel McRobb, head of the South Luangwa Conservation Society (http://www.southluangwaconservationsociety.com/ ) responsible for anti-poaching activity (and now of National Geographic fame), needed help with a baby elephant that was found near a village outside the park and presumed poisoned. She said it needed intravenous (IV) fluids and wanted to know if I had any. Then she asked if I would help as well. Since helping save baby elephants is not something I get to do every day, I said ďSUREĒ, expecting to just be an extra pair of hands.
When I arrived I found a baby elephant (estimated at about 4 years old based on his tiny tusks and shoulder height) lying on his side in a puddle of mud with a tarp protecting him from the sun. He was moving a bit, but he looked sick. When I told Rachel I had the IV fluid, she said ďGreat! Can you show me how to do it? Iíve never started an IV.Ē Now, I missed Elephant Care and Physiology 101 in medical school, but I was game to try since we thought he would die without the fluids.
I learned quickly that the best place to start an IV in an elephant is in his ear where a big fan of veins lies that the ellie uses to keep cool by flapping his ears in the air. All I had was human-sized equipment, but after a couple of attempts to get through the remarkably tough skin, I got the IV in, which I considered a major victory. For the next three hours, I squatted and crawled in the muddy soup of elephant poo and pee holding the IV catheter into his ear while Rachel and her crew squeezed in eighteen liters of IV fluid. Despite our best efforts he still couldnít get up, so we left him for the night in the care of two of Rachelís scouts armed with an AK47 to fend off lions and hyenas.
While we were busy with our efforts, the entire village of one hundred people gathered nearby to watch. Every time the ellie moved a bit and I slithered around in the mud to keep my hand on the IV, great peals of laughter erupted from the crowd. Though one of the village leaders had reported the sick ellie to Rachel, the general consensus seemed to be that killing and eating it was a much better idea. This time of year the elephants go into the villages at night to ďraidĒ the mango trees, and apparently elephant meat is considered a delicacy even if the ellies werenít considered pests. The villagers thought we were completely balmy to be wasting so much energy on an elephant!
As more people move to the Valley for jobs in the safari camps where visitors come to see the animals in the park, the conflicts between the animals, who donít understand park boundaries, and people increases. The sad situation reminds me of the people in West Yellowstone who canít bear to have their use of snowmobiles limited to protect the animals or of the ranchers who demand any bison that crosses the Yellowstone park boundary be shot for fear it will give their cattle a disease. As far as I can tell, weíve done a pretty poor job of balancing the needs of many animals for a healthy ecosystem against our greedy demands for more. Itís hard to be optimistic that these people, who have so much less than we do, will get it right. Okay, okay, off my soapbox.
The next morning our 600 pound patient still looked weak, so we decided he needed to be moved from the muddy field to a place he could receive better care. Rachel sedated him, and with a lot of hands helping, we loaded him into a mattress-padded truck for the one hour trip to a wildlife education center where a make-shift pen had been hastily thrown up. Once there he gradually improved to the point he could eat mangos and young palm leaves, an elephantís idea of chocolate I presume.
But he still wouldnít drink. Every time we placed his trunk in the bucket of water he would quickly jerk it out as if he were drowning. I think he knew a lot better than we did that elephants donít drink lying down. I think it would be like trying to lie down and drink water through your nose. We even tried putting a rubber tube through his mouth and down his throat to try to give him water that way. He thought this a VERY bad idea which he showed us by repeatedly yanking the tube out of my hand with his trunk.
Finally after receiving advice by phone and email from elephant experts in Kenya and South Africa, we decided to try to get him on his feet. About seven of us all got on one side of him and with a great heave-ho we rocked him to his knees. In a flash, he was on his feet. After a couple of wobbly steps, he quickly decided to retaliate against all of us crazy mzungus who he must have thought had been torturing him for two days. He flared his ears and charged at us as we scrambled to get out of the pen. Though he was only a little guy as ellies go, 600 pounds of elephant charging at you is still plenty of elephant!
The expertsí advice was to try to keep him for a day or two so that he could regain his strength. Since the ellie wasnít in on the discussions, he decided that he had had quite enough human help, thank you. After testing all the sides of the make-shift pen, he managed to lift one of the bars, and off he went. We were delighted to see him walking off into the bush near an elephant river crossing where we think he was likely to be adopted by another herd. Happily, two days later he was seen with his new herd browsing in the area. And we hope heíll live to be an old and grey (well I guess heís grey already) elephant with quite a tale to tell his grandchildren.
The whole experience was quite remarkable for me. Being so close to this amazing wild creature, listening to his heart, hearing his low rumbling calls for his mother, looking into his dark eyes, feeling the roughness of his bristly skin, all were sensations Iíll not forget. Itís naÔve to think that saving one baby elephant could make much difference for conservation of the species, but Iíd like to think it couldnít hurt.
This page was last updated 01/07/06