Immobilising an elephant and an angry rhino

This article is part of a series of journal entries from the Elephant Ignite Expedition, 2016. For Day 1, check out A Journey of Courage, Hope and Love.

DAY 2: The following morning was an early start at 06h30. Simon had arranged for the EIE crew to be involved in an elephant immobilisation, which was hugely exciting for all of us. I remember telling Natalie Dumbrill, an EIE crew member from the UK, that it wasn’t normal to be a part of an immobilisation before you even saw an Impala. This was her first trip to Africa and it had already been a mind-blowing experience for her. The vet, Mike Toft, briefed the crew on what was happening, why it was happening, and how to act. You could have heard a pin drop.

The reason for the immobilisation was to take blood from a Cow as part of their Elephant Contraception Programme. Mike and the aircrew set off in the helicopter to find her, and the rest of the ground crew jumped in the back of the Phinda vehicle and sped along the bumpy roads, hanging on for dear life to get to where they’d found and darted her.  She went down effortlessly, and Dr. Toft and the Phinda crew immediately jumped to work, measuring her padded feet (which elephants use to communicate over great distances by subsonic vibrations), taking blood samples for DNA, and measuring her tusks.

Up close with an elephant

It was so surreal, as well as being my first experience of being up so close to an elephant. Let’s not forget that these animals are wild and a female cow can weight up to 4 tonnes. She was still quite young and wasn’t yet fully grown. As soon as all the work had been done, Dr. Toft ushered us back to our vehicle so that he could administer the antidote to wake her up. The safety of the elephants is always a priority and Phinda run a very slick operation in making sure that the elephant is under as little stress as possible.

It was incredible to be able to touch her leathery skin, feel her glassy teeth, smell her warm breath, and hear her snore and she lay there on the ground while being measured and assessed so that the team could gather data to learn more about her.

After a quick helicopter flip, we drove to another section of the Game Reserve where we watched the team take off the foot collar of a six-year-old Black Rhino that was going to be moved to another location. Black Rhinos are angry animals, and he went down with a fight. After taking the collar off, and treating a few wounds that occurred during the immobilisation, he was back on track. Taking his anger out on every poor sapling and bush that was in his way, he eventually trotted off and disappeared into the thick bush.

Our first border crossing into Swaziland

Charlie then gave the EIE crew a quick lesson in how to fix a tyre puncture with a puncture repair kit, as well as how to change a tyre. After the crash course, we were confident that we knew what to do! We were on our way again – towards the Swaziland border post of Golela. The town of Golela is situated on the southern border with Swaziland, 45km from Pongola. Formerly spelt Gollel, the name is of Swazi origin, said to mean ‘place of game’. This was a hunting ground of the Nyawo tribe in former times and was also the place where the Swazi and Zulu kings use to meet to have an ‘indaba’.

We stayed at  Brown’s Tented Camp in Royal Jozini Big Six Estate that night, which is a rustic campsite located in the foothills of the Lubombo mountains and overlooks the northern part of Jozini Dam. The terrain was exceptionally dry and you could see the drought was most definitely taking effect on the animals and vegetation. Digs Pascoe from Space for Elephants came to chat to the crew, and Jay and Ruth (who run the camp) joined us for dinner. The night was FREEZING, and the air was filled with the calls of Fiery-necked Nightjars, the high pitched cry of a Black-backed Jackal, and the faint grunting of a hippo in the distance.

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