Picking up the Pieces: Treating a Wild Elephant on the African Savannah
Advocacy What happens to elephants targeted by the ivory trade when they fail to succumb to the poacher’s snare, bullet or arrow?
The mechanics of treating an elephant are not always straightforward. Locating an elephant in the vastness of Africa is the first hurdle, which is often likened to finding a needle in a haystack. But as it is often said, a strong offense is a good defense. Roaming Anti-Poaching Patrols and Aerial Surveillance Units that are proactively looking for poachers as well as possible surviving victims are key to spotting injured elephants.
Once located, it’s a race against time to organize swift treatment. Vets must be transported by air or land, often an elephant must then be separated from the herd and darted with a tranquilizer gun, with the skilled vet ascertaining the appropriate amount of sedation to use based on the size, age and condition of the animal.
Treatment type and duration depends on the wound; these days, those injured tend to suffer afflictions caused by bullets, spears, snares and poisoned arrows. Removing poisoned arrows can be a fairly simple and quick operation, taking about 15 minutes to remove the arrow, any necrotic tissue, followed by proper antibiotic treatment to aid in a healthy recovery. Removing entangled snares that have often cut into leg tissue however can be a trickier business.
Treatment to properly extract the snares can take upwards of 30 minutes, using specialized tools to remove the cable, then appropriately treating and dressing the wound. Bullet wounds are the most difficult and it can be next to impossible to retrieve the bullets, which can become embedded deep in an elephant’s body. Nevertheless, if a medical intervention will yield a favorable prognosis, every effort is made to attempt to assist any animal.
Measuring the cost
The goal is ultimately aimed at preventing the need to medically treat animals affected by poaching in the first place. However, persuading governments to invest in protecting their wildlife is an oft-cited challenge by conservationists, where policy and decision makers can be influenced by dollar denominated measures of benefits and costs. What is the real value of an elephant? An elephant might look majestic, but its tangible benefits to the community can be harder to measure in financial terms.
Research by the iworry campaign found that a saved elephant could generate over $1,607,624.83 during its lifetime, thanks to tourists willing to pay generously for a chance to see and photograph the world’s largest land mammal. By contrast, the same report found a dead elephant’s tusks could fetch around $21,000 (un-worked). That makes a single living elephant, in financial terms, arguably as valuable as 76 dead elephants. Keeping elephants alive brings in tourism revenue to communities. Dead, they benefit criminal cartels- even terrorist groups, and Kenya’s local economies lost more than $44 million alone in 2014.
Ending the killings makes monetary sense. But until that happens, keeping remaining populations alive through individual medical treatment where possible must not be forgotten.