When the rescue team saw the elephants, the scene that met them pierced their hearts. Indeed, while they were aware that the mother had been the target of poachers, they weren’t prepared for what they found. And the sight was so soul-shattering that the rescuers were unable to hold back their tears.
The cause of their tears was the plight of the mother’s baby, whom rescuers called Zongoloni. However, this hadn’t been the first sighting of the elephant family on September 22, 2013. That had come earlier the same day and had led to the rescue group receiving a report of an injured elephant roaming the Kenyan countryside.
And not only was the elephant badly wounded, but she also had a baby in tow. Under the circumstances, then, good Samaritans called in the experts. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) would consequently head to the scene, accompanied by a Kenya Wildlife Service Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was created in the late 1970s and named for the founder’s late husband. Its website states that it “embraces all measures that compliment the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife.” And, in particular, it specializes in the protection of endangered species such as elephants.
Furthermore, the Mobile Veterinary Unit was equipped with everything it would need to tend to a wounded elephant. And so when the group finally tracked down the injured animal, they were ready to treat her. But there was one more matter that needed attending to first.
First of all, the baby needed to be tranquilized along with her mommy. Next, Dr. Jeremiah Poghon began to assess the poor animal’s injuries. He discovered that the adult elephant had suffered a leg wound.
In fact, she had been the target of poachers, who were no doubt after her ivory. Mommy elephant had survived, but she had been shot in the leg as a result of the encounter. Unfortunately, though, the DSWT found that treating her wound was far from straightforward.
Specifically, the elephant’s survival was in question due to the fact that the bullet had become lodged firmly in her leg bone. And the wounded animal’s prospects didn’t seem good, as executive director of DSWT UK Robert Brandford recalled to The Dodo in February 2017.
“Although the team did all they could, the prognosis was relatively poor,” he said. “She was struggling to walk far and with a young calf… [that] was a very difficult position to be in.” As a result, all the team could do was leave them be and hope for a positive outcome.
And at first, it seemed like the elephant family might have a happy ending. They were seen a week later, and despite the team’s fears, Zongoloni’s mommy seemed to be recovering well. It appeared that the operation had been a success.
But the following week, the adult elephant collapsed. The evidence suggested that she had fallen several days before her discovery, leaving Zongoloni to fend for herself. What’s more, the baby elephant had stayed at her mother’s side, enduring hunger and thirst in her sorrowful vigil.
The traumatized calf had survived by drinking her mother’s urine, but without proper nourishment she was getting weaker. And yet she still stayed by her mommy’s side to protect her in her darkest hour. In fact, when the pair were discovered Zongoloni was trying desperately to revive her mom with her trunk.
Teams from both DSWT and specialists in anti-poaching from the Kenyan town of Voi subsequently raced to the scene. Despite their experience of similar situations, though, the sight was still overwhelming for some rescuers. Zongoloni’s actions broke their hearts, and all they could do was weep for her.
“Zongoloni’s mother was clearly targeted for her ivory tusks,” Brandford told The Dodo. “This agony, pain and heartbreak had been caused from a single bullet. The saddest part was knowing that… both mother and calf had been without food or water for some time.”
The team couldn’t save Zongoloni’s mother, so they euthanized her in order to end her suffering. There was still hope for little Zongoloni herself, though; she was tranquilized and transported to DSWT’s Nairobi National Park. And while she was badly dehydrated, rescuers gave her a drip that saved her life.
However, Zongoloni had been emotionally scarred by her mother’s tragic death. She would lash out at keepers, and they were unable to bottle feed her as a result. But kindness and patience, along with some elephant expertise, eventually won the day.
“To help with her emotional stress, we would bring the other orphans to feed just outside of Zongoloni’s stable,” Brandford explained. “This helps immeasurably with all new arrivals. [It] gives them a sense of belonging once more.” And over time, the technique worked.
Twelve days later, Zongoloni joined the other nursery elephants, and her healing process began in earnest. Indeed, in the following three years, the baby elephant found her place in the herd and has gone from strength to strength – so much, in fact, that she was later made part of DSWT’s rehabilitation program.
“She is also feeling the call of the wild and spending more time with wild elephant herds,” Brandford explained. “Zongoloni will one day return to the wild and begin a family of her own. Man took away her mother’s life and we are determined to give Zongoloni the wild life she truly deserves.”
Although Zongoloni is now on the road to recovery and rehabilitation, sadly her experience is far from unique. “Her story, along with many before her, is a graphic reminder of the price that is paid for ivory,” the DSWT has stated in a video about the incident. Let’s hope those words prove resonant.