In 2011 alone, one in every 12 African elephants were killed by poachers. Now if that seems like an insane number to you, you’re not wrong. Statistics like this make it very hard for elephants to trust human beings. And yet every so often, situations arise that break the cycle.
When an unpredictable bull elephant named Pretty Boy wandered up to a truckload of animal activists, they had no idea what was about to happen…
Over a three-year period, between 2011 and 2014, a total of 100,000 elephants had been slaughtered. Even with the increasing number of poachers and the slow decline of the African elephant population, there is hope: men and women who have come together to fight off those who kill wild and endangered species for sport or profit.
And so it happened that one day, veterinarians from the Animal and Wildlife Area Research and Rehabilitation Trust (AWARE) came to Zimbabwe to help take care of the threatened wildlife there. As a wildlife conservation organization, AWARE is up to speed on all the illegal poaching in Southern Africa. Little did the valiant vets know that this trip to Zimbabwe would become one to remember…
The AWARE trust is actually based in Zimbabwe and is the sole veterinary-run conservation trust in the entire country. Their aim is to treat the well-being of wildlife and to help in efforts to conserve their dwindling habitats. But poachers, by far, are the most prevalent problem facing Zimbabwe’s vulnerable wildlife.
The two vets in our story, Dr. Keith Dutlow and Dr. Lisa Marabini, were not unfamiliar with the idea of tracking animals in the wild. Indeed, they spent all their time, tracking down sick and injured animals all throughout the dense forests of the Zimbabwe preserve. Nevertheless, the act of locating the injured animals usually takes much longer than it does to treat them…
Studying Mana Pools
It was the summer of 2016 and Keith and Lisa were out in the field, working with their colleagues to locate injured animals. They were located in Mana Pools National Park, a wildlife refuge in Zimbabwe. Despite the almost unbearable heat, the two doctors were hard at work. They’d even managed to treat one wounded elephant and were eager to find more to help.
Just as they were making their rounds again, in search of another elephant they’d heard was injured in Mana Pools: the elephant found them. Pretty Boy, a bull elephant who lives in the park, had apparently been shot right in the forehead by poachers. After several weeks of walking around with a bullet hole in his head, he finally decided to find some help…
Pretty Boy had always been one of the tamer elephants in the preserve, but even with his reputation, the vets never expected a bull elephant to just walk up to them, asking for help. Originally, the description of his attack had been that he was shot in the shoulder. One look at Pretty Boy’s head made it clear that the situation was much more dire than they thought.
Pretty Boy didn’t approach their vehicle right away. Once he’d found who he was looking for, he stood at the edge of the trees, deciding if he was ready to come closer and inspect the situation. Before too long, however, the tranquil bull elephant made up his mind, and came over to where Keith and Lisa were sitting in their car…
Just one look at Pretty Boy’s wound told them that this was the elephant they had been searching for. Yet, if that were the case, Pretty Boy had been walking around with a gaping wound in his forehead for weeks. They knew that the hole was bothering him and worried that the elephant might already be succumbing to infection.
Nevertheless, if they did manage to tranquilize Pretty Boy and extract the bullet, even give him antibiotics, it might be hard for the elephant to get back up. He was an older elephant and his back was injured. Even healthy elephants sometimes have trouble getting back up once they’d been tranquilized. Still, they couldn’t wait any longer or worry about the consequences…
The elephant was sedated, and the vets got right to work. An X-ray of the animal’s skull revealed that the bullet, or what they believed to be a bullet, was still lodged in the animal’s skull, but had hit the hard, thickened part and not penetrated deep enough to kill him. Turns out the poacher wasn’t a very good shot.
The poacher also didn’t really seem to know much about poaching elephants either. The bullet that had glanced off of Pretty Boy’s skull had been far too small to take down a bull elephant. It had caused a large fracture, but not one big enough to kill the elephant immediately. Either way, Pretty Boy had still developed a severe infection…
Although the team dug in Pretty Boy’s skull for some time, they seemed unable to find the bullet itself. It had left a huge hole when it had gone through the skin and muscle but must have shattered upon impact. The broken bits of bullet were eventually located but would remain stuck in the elephant’s head permanently. They were too small to retrieve.
It wasn’t the broken bullet that caused Pretty Boy’s infection, however. Bullets create so much heat that they’re actually sterile when they enter organic tissue. What had become infected was the broken flesh and bone where it hit, and the gaping wound that it left in its wake. Unfortunately, the infection was very close to becoming life-threatening for Pretty Boy…
Hours of Work
The determined vets continued the surgery, flushing out the wound with antiseptic and making sure that every square centimeter was free from the infection. Soon, they patched the elephant back up and waited. His heart rate and breathing were starting to drop, they knew it was time to wake him up.
It’s a dangerous business waking up a bull elephant from deep slumber. Even one so gentle and used to humans as poor Pretty Boy can be disoriented and dangerous when they awaken. It was the moment of truth, the team of vets administered the antidote and woke him up…
Before waking him up, the team brought him back to the spot where they’d found him if only to minimize the disorientation. They administered the dose and left the teetering, woozy elephant to his own devices. They resigned themselves to come back a few hours later to check on him. Hopefully, he hadn’t wandered off too far or been retargeted by poachers in his weakened state.
Thankfully, Pretty Boy remained perfectly calm after the awakening. There was a downside, however. A few hours later, the poor injured elephant hadn’t moved very far. He was a bit dazed, a bit confused, but none the worse for wear. He was, after all, in much better shape than he had been with a gaping bullet wound in his head…
As expected, Pretty Boy was good as new in about a day. The elephant had smart enough and calm enough to know the difference between bad humans, like the poachers that had shot him, and good humans, like the vets. Dr. Keith and Dr. Lisa had saved the day and helped reinforce Pretty Boy’s trust in humans.
Organizations like AWARE exist all over the country and provide animal welfare programs to endangered species. These organizations also help people to look after their own animals in surrounding countries. Stories like Pretty Boy’s increase awareness and appreciation for wildlife and can help turn young people away from poaching when they grow up.