Back in the summer of 2016, two vets from an African animal charity were busy working in the scorching heat of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park. In fact, they’d recently finished treating one wounded elephant and were now on the lookout for two more they’d been informed were also hurt.
The two vets were Dr. Keith Dutlow and Dr. Lisa Marabini from the AWARE trust. The pair were used to needing time to track down animals in the dense Zimbabwe parks. After all, in wildlife circles the phrase “Hurry up and wait” is often used. This is because it usually takes longer to locate animals than it does to treat them. However, with the duo’s latest patient, this wasn’t the case.
Based in Zimbabwe, Africa, the AWARE trust is the sole veterinary-run conservation trust in the country. Focused on the well-being of wildlife and habitat conservation, it provides its expertise for free, particularly when humans have harmed the animals. Of course, Zimbabwe, like other countries in this part of Africa, has a huge problem with poachers.
The organization also provides an animal welfare program called AWAREness to educate rural communities in animal health and welfare. This helps local people to look after their own animals and aims to increase early awareness and appreciation of wildlife. Ultimately, then, this should dissuade younger people from turning to poaching when they grow up.
On this particular day, one of two elephants on Dutlow and Marabini’s list was the sweetly named Pretty Boy. The animal had been reported to them through Facebook as having a shoulder wound. And working alongside the Kariba Animal Welfare Fund Trust, the AWARE vets managed to obtain permission to tranquilize and treat the elephant.
Luckily, the team didn’t have to wait long that day to come face-to-face with Pretty Boy. After a relatively short amount of time, an unusually tranquil and gentle bull walked up to their vehicle. However, the team immediately spotted a large hole in his forehead. After confirming that this injured bull was in fact Pretty Boy, park rangers assembled and headed out to help.
However, Maribini and Dutlow had already decided before confirming Pretty Boy’s identity that they were going to help. After all, the huge hole in the elephant’s head seemed to be causing him great distress. But helping the stricken animal wasn’t straightforward. Indeed, bull elephants sometimes struggle to stand again after being tranquilized, and Maribini could tell Pretty Boy’s back wasn’t in good condition.
Eventually, though, the elephant was sedated, and the vets began figuring out exactly what was wrong with him. An X-ray of his skull later revealed what they believed to be a bullet. Maribini and others believed it was likely that the poor creature had been shot. However, the bullet was lodged too high to have killed him.
Pretty Boy may have been extremely unlucky to run into a poacher in the first place. But he was lucky to meet one who either wasn’t a good shot or didn’t know what kind of ammunition to use. Indeed, the bullet that the poacher had used was far too little to take down an animal of Pretty Boy’s size. In this case, it had glanced off the skull and caused a large fracture, one that had yet to kill the elephant.
Pretty Boy was now completely sedated, so the vets continued their grisly investigations. Dr. Dutlow began to probe the hole in Pretty Boy’s head and extracted loose, plastic-like bits of skin. He later realized that these were actually pieces of bone from the animal’s sinuses.
Although the team did everything they could, they weren’t able to definitively locate the bullet in the elephant’s forehead. And even though there was a huge hole from where the bullet had entered, it wasn’t possible to dislodge it either. Unfortunately for poor Pretty Boy, the poacher’s heartless act had left the bullet stuck permanently inside his head.
However, as it turned out, their inability to find the bullet was not a fatal issue. Writing on AWARE’s Facebook page in 2016, Marabini said, “Bullets generate so much heat that they’re usually sterile when they penetrate organic tissue. The macerated flesh and bone the impact causes, and the communicating tract to the exterior, are what causes infection of a bullet wound.” This meant that although Pretty Boy’s wound had caused a dangerous and nearly deadly infection, the bullet itself could do no further harm.
Although the blood oozing from Pretty Boy’s head doubtless upset the caring vets, they carried out their work diligently. The wound was flushed and antiseptic applied. Then the team waited to see how he would react to their treatment. And after an hour or so, they noticed that his breathing and blood pressure had both dropped and decided it was time to wake him up.
In order to bring the bull out of his slumber, the team had to apply an antidote to the tranquilizer that they’d used earlier. The elephant had looked docile when he came up to the vets’ vehicle, but after waking from tranquilizers animals can be confused and highly dangerous. How would Pretty Boy behave once he had woken up from his treatment?
Later, the team returned to where they had left a woozy Pretty Boy. They were nervous. What if he had completely disappeared? Would that mean he was better or had collapsed out of sight and helpless? After all, his ordeal was extremely rare. Not only had poachers targeted the poor animal, but they had also successfully hit their target. Yet Pretty Boy had survived.
In surviving, though, he’d been left with a huge hole in his skull. And, as mentioned, this had become infected, causing Pretty Boy a huge amount of pain. As Maribini noted, it had been extremely strange how docile the creature had been when they first saw him walking slowly toward their vehicle.
“It’s like he knew we were there with the intention of helping him,” Maribini told the BBC in 2016. Maribini felt completely at ease with Pretty Boy. But the fact that Pretty Boy came right up to their vehicle had told Maribini and her team just how dire his situation was. Now that he was about to wake up, then, they didn’t know what to expect. The worst of his wounds were fixed, but it was likely that he would be confused and still in a lot of pain.
Fortunately, after coming around, Pretty Boy remained calm. The team left and decided that they would return later. And when they did come back, what they saw brought them a mixture of relief and discomfort. Pretty Boy was still not fully awake and seemed to be dazed and disoriented. However, compared to how he’d been earlier that day, he was in much better shape.
Writing on the National Geographic website in 2016, Maribini detailed what happened when they went back to see how Pretty Boy was getting on. “Later that afternoon we returned to find him dozing, his face pressed against a tree, as if nursing a massive hangover. We watched him in that position for half an hour, feeling guilty that we’d temporarily added to his pain and anxious for him to feel better.”
While Pretty Boy might have preferred to have avoided being shot in the first place, he’s one of the luckiest elephants in his continent. In 2011 alone, one in every 12 African elephants were killed by poachers, and over a three-year period, a total of 100,000 had been slaughtered. Hopefully, the work of brave vets like Maribini, Dutlow and those at the AWARE team will help reduce this number in coming years and save more elephants like Pretty Boy.