REPORT ON MISSION CHAD - 2
My Mission to Chad – as representative of the Emergency Orphan Team
by Roxy Danckwerts
In response to Stephanie Vergniaults reports of a brutal poaching incident that had occurred in Chad in the Chari river area, and that possible orphans were amongst the survivors of the attack, I set off as a representative of the Emergency Orphan Team to see if I could be of assistance to Stephanie and her Team.
These are some of the last remaining Savannah elephants of Central Africa and because of the continuous poaching threat could be wiped out in a matter of months.
Can we all really stand by and watch that happen?
I, personally, could not.
I was aware that Dr Mike Toft was also traveling to Chad in order to give emergency veterinary treatment to the wounded elephants. Dr Toft is a respected and highly experienced wildlife veterinarian, so it was going to be a big privilege for me to be able to observe and work alongside him.
I knew very little about Chad, but felt a strong empathy with Stephanie, who was struggling against tremendous odds, to maintain the integrity of the herds of the Chari River System. She was desperate for veterinary help but I also felt that she needed moral support to strengthen her will to continue. I was warned that Chad was not going to be an easy visit.
The challenges faced during the ten day mission were enormous. The heat of over 40 degrees Celsius is incredibly debilitating. It is relentless and inescapable. It certainly cuts down one’s working hours, and with no electricity in the rural areas, working time is even further reduced.
For a wounded elephant, this heat can be catastrophic. The elephants need to get to water at least once daily. In order to do this, they have to navigate their way through villages crowded with people, livestock and noise. For the wounded elephants, in severe pain and sepsis, this was an enormous task and contributed significantly to their levels of immune response, stress and endurance.
Resources and infrastructure for efficient immobilisation are almost non-existent.
There are no off road vehicles to navigate the heavily eroded, dirt roads in the area.
There is no helicopter, nor drone to locate the animals in the thick bush.
There are no experienced trackers to follow and identify where the elephants may be.
There are no armed guards, nor experienced rangers, to protect the team from the potential of a charge from the traumatised herd, once a dart has been launched.
No one speaks English, so communications under stressful conditions of tracking or immobilisation are cause for serious danger and error.
Veterinary drugs and equipment are at an absolute minimum, due to luggage space and import regulations
On top of these logistical challenges are the threats to the personal safety of the Team. And I don’t mean threats from cheeky scorpions and black mambas, which were numerous, but the threat of being in a virtual war zone, with Boko Haram seeking to destabilise the existing government.
For Stephanie, the seemingly endless bureaucracy to get authorisation for a mission never seen before in this region of Chad, was a nightmare. She was up at all hours of the night and day, writing letters, pleading with government departments, pushing for multitudinous signatures ... all the while constantly anxious about the fate of the elephants in the bush. She is underfunded and has very little moral and intellectual support for this continued effort.
And then it was all systems GO.....
The most seriously injured elephant was located and immobilised by Dr Mike Toft. It was a smooth and perfect anaesthesia. Dr Toft flushed out the wound extensively and opened up channels for drainage. He used the metal detector to locate any bullet fragments.
The elephant was treated with long acting antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. Before reversal, food was placed around her, so that she could gain strength from good nutrition.
The local community was very interested in this exercise and many people came by to have a look at the proceedings.
The elephant was named “Stephanie”! Dr Toft’s prognosis for this elephant was guarded and he felt that she would need another treatment in a few days. She was left to rest, under the watchful eye of the SOS Elephants du Chad team.
During the course of the week, extensive searches were made for the elephant herd which was allegedly located close by. There were various local reports of calves on their own and of another injured female. However, these reports were sketchy. The bush around the numerous villages is very thick and sometimes impossible to navigate in a vehicle. Tracking on foot was possible, but could only be done very early in the morning, whilst still cool. It was impossible to do after 8am.
It was also extremely dangerous, considering the general behaviour of this particular highly traumatised herd.
The elephants are located 3 hours drive away from the SOS Elephants camp. Early rising at 3.30am was mandatory to get into the search area. The roads where spine shatteringly bad and driving in the dark was hazardous, with jay walkers of all domestic species!
After a number of days of fruitless searching, false leads and absolute exhaustion, the second female was finally discovered. It was the last day of the mission and everyone was hugely relieved.
Dr Toft made an instant and excellent decision to immobilise her, despite the heat reaching 46 degrees. He realised that she would not be able to move too far once darted, as her front leg was badly injured. She went down and was treated in a fast and efficient manner. It appeared that there were no broken bones, but extensive soft tissue damage. Again, the wound was opened and flushed, medications were given. It was also found that this female was lactating.
A couple of days prior to this event, two calves were sighted on their own. Dr Toft and some of the team went in to make a visual assessment of these calves, but the sighting was fleeting. An estimation of age of around 18 months and 5 years was made. An attempt to follow the calves into the thick bush was met by an almighty elephant rumble! We all hot footed it out of the area, in case this large female decided to charge. We had unwittingly put ourselves into a very dangerous situation.
Putting all the facts together in retrospect, we felt that this final elephant to receive treatment, was in fact the mother or adoptive mother of the young calf and the older calf. Clearly she was feeding the younger calf, as its condition had not deteriorated to such a point that it was under threat.
My personal feeling had been, from the first sighting, that unless the young calf was definitely alone and life threatened, it would be better to leave the calf with its own kind. There are no lions or predators in that area, so if it was feeding and hanging out with another elephant or the herd, it would be better off and would have a good chance at survival.
In between the searching that was being undertaken, I was able to give Stephanie’s team the basics of training in the care of young elephant calves. I also left supplies for a contingency, should an orphan calf come into their care. Having looked after calves previously, Stephanie’s team have a good idea of what is involved, although the task would be monumental for them. Resources and facilities are limited, but there is courage and the will to succeed in her Team.
“Stephanie” the first treated elephant, was immobilised and treated for a second time. There was evidence of some improvement, but her mobility was severely curtailed due to the nature of her injuries. It appeared difficult for her to move much distance to reach water and food. Dr Toft requested that she be fed regularly by the local community. Steph gave instructions and incentives for this to be carried out and that she be monitored regularly.
It is very difficult to treat gunshot injuries in wildlife. Unlike in a captive situation where treatment can be given daily, one cannot immobilise a wild animal too often, without causing tremendous strain on the physiological system. Her prognosis remained guarded.
Having left Chad behind and returned to the comfort of my own home, I reflect on the tremendous challenges that those particular elephants are facing. They live like refugees ... moving quickly during the night, circumnavigating settlements and danger, to find water and food. They are severely traumatised, having been attacked on numerous occasions and losing many members of their families. Their only hope, once injured, is to seek refuge and help with humans ... trusting those humans not to inflict further pain nor death.
Instead of leaving the area entirely, the herd chose to remain behind, close to the injured animals and clearly communicating with them. Tracks of the visiting healthy elephants were seen each morning around the injured.
The sense of responsibility that the injured mother had to her two calves was astonishing. Despite being wracked with pain, she managed to produce milk and warn off intruders with her mighty roars. The older sister kept a close eye on her little brother too ... not abandoning her in this time of terrible threat.
I can only say prayers for these elephants who have touched my heart and soul, appealing desperately for their protection, on a grand and comprehensive scale.
Stephanie and the SOS Elephants du Chad Team have my admiration and respect. It is my hope that an NGO or Foundation will get involved with Stephanie’s project and help her with the funding and practical assistance she so badly needs to effectively protect these elephants.
Roxy Danckwerts is head of the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery and the Wild is Life animal sanctuary in Harare
First of all a huge thanks to the whole team, to Stephanie Vergniault, who managed to get the ball rolling and got help for the elephants in need.
To Roxy Danckwerts from the Emergency Orphan Team who fought the relentless heat, assisted Mike Toft and instructed the SOS team on Elephant calf husbandry
To Mike Toft for giving the ellies a fighting chance to survival and 2 young calves a mother again.
We would like to thank all our friends and supporters who donated towards this mission of the Emergency Orphan Team ,SOS Elephants du Chad, and Mike Toft.
We would also like to say a special thank you to Vera Weber of the Weber Foundation who generously funded the expenses for the travel of Mike Toft and medication he needed for the ellies
We also thank the GMFER for organising this part.
A very special and huge thank you is extended to the Chadian authorities who have been working hard to protect the Chadian ellies already for many years. Even though the army is spread thin due to the political situation , they have been in the area and as best as possible are also watching over the remaining herds and are constantly on the lookout for poaching gangs.
The Chadian authorities have also managed to expedite the processing of all the documents needed for this mission which involved several ministries and officials.
This is indeed very much appreciated.
Marleen Le Febvre
for WAR and The Emergency Orphan Team
* Financial account for mission CHAD 2
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS ARE UNDER COPYRIGHTS - Photographers: Roxy Danckwerts and Stéphanie Vergniault