We are the village: elephant researchers turn rescuers in Amboseli

ATE reinforces wells with concrete to prevent small elephants getting stuck, but sometimes the worst happens before we can adapt the new wells.That famous African saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is very apt when we’re talking about elephants.

In my other blog posts I’ve explained how elephant families are “the village”, guided by experienced female leaders who younger family members turn to in times of trouble or danger.

Sometimes though, that village is elsewhere, and we have to step in.

Elephant families tend to break down into smaller groups during the dry season in Amboseli, and sometimes a female may be on her own with just her young calves. The large families that roam over to the West in Tanzania are especially likely to do this at this time of year.

Recently, we got an emergency call that a calf had fallen into a Maasai well out to the West of the Park, and the mother could not get the baby out on her own.

The ATE team scrambled into action, and for the first time I was part of the rescue squad.

It was already 5.30pm and with less than two hours of daylight left, we had to get across and out of the Park and find the calf.

Unfortunately, there are a number of wells out on the West, and we couldn’t get a precise location.

Close to the Tanzanian border, mobile phone coverage becomes increasingly patchy as we flicker between Kenyan and Tanzanian networks and the black spots generated by the Kilimanjaro foothills.

Making it to the Park boundary from the centre where we’re based usually takes an hour.

With no time to waste, we took two of our cars and started out.

Although we could get the calf out of the well in the dark, first we had to find them, which would be virtually impossible without daylight.

We wanted to get a good look at whether there were other elephant groups in the area too, to make sure no elephants came rushing over to “help” when we had people on the ground.

We were not only thinking of the calf’s welfare; a frantic mother elephant at an important location for watering livestock is dangerous for people too. We were keen to get there, get the calf out and let the mother get away before people needed to use the well the next day.

If the story ended badly, the carcass of a baby elephant would also pollute the water source, and attract predators.

It was already dusk when we finally found them.

Driving unfamiliar trails at speed as we lost the light, I was thankful that we have trustworthy field vehicles, and even more thankful that I had a co-pilot in Katito, who was riding with me while Soila and Robert took the other car.

I pulled alongside where Robert and Soila had stopped but we couldn’t actually see the calf until I inched the car forward. A frantic young female was with another older calf, who we judged to be about five years old.

The mother had no other elephants to help her, and while we watched the calf struggled and almost made it, but fell back into the muddy well. We couldn’t identify the female straight away, but we had no time to waste.

Robert snapped a couple of photos of her for us to examine later, and we got to work.

The plan was simple; rope around baby elephant bottom, pull very hard. I was the team member driving the mother away.

The responsibility of keeping my colleagues safe from a frantic mother elephant was something I chose not to dwell on as I eased the car into gear and started moving towards her, revving the engine.

She did a mock charge and a head-shake, but without any back up from her family she was more frightened than anything, and quickly turned to avoid me.

As soon as she did, I increased the speed, shouting for good measure, making her take off with the older calf at her side.

It’s hard not to feel guilty, even when it is obviously the right thing to do.

Like the rest of the ATE team, I spend my days building and maintaining trust with the elephants, and violating that does not feel good.

My heart was pounding as I let her run ahead then circled back to the rest of the team.

It’s a balancing act – push a mother too far and she may not find her calf again, but at the same time she has to be held far enough away to let everyone work safely.

I stopped between her and the team, waiting for her to come again. Before she got too close I went after her again, hoping that my colleagues were able to get the calf out quickly before they all became exhausted.

It was totally dark by now, and I could see their silhouettes in the headlights of the other car, but not what was happening.

After a third circuit, waiting for the female to approach again, I was extremely relieved to hear shouts.

They had got the baby out.

I pulled up next to the well and everyone piled into the cars. The calf was perfect; as soon as the ropes came off and she stumbled away she did a huge roar – the “lost baby” cry, and her mother came rushing over.

Their greeting, the equivalent of elephant hugs, brought a lump to my throat; lit by our headlights, they touched and reassured each other, before the mother led both calves away and they melted into the darkness.

As we drove home and my heart rate subsided, I thought about the drama of the day.

It is incredibly satisfying to do something so tangible.

Without our help, that story would have ended very differently.

Mostly, our successes in fighting for elephants are less well-defined, harder to come by, and take a long time.

Although we are continually striving with other stakeholders at local, national and international levels, often we feel as though we’re failing. Our measures of success are so removed from the day-to-day lives of the elephants; the number of Facebook hits, a donation, a scientific paper or a well-written news article highlighting the plight of elephants.

We are proud to be part of the village, but we can’t do it alone, which is why we are so grateful to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and to you, for your support.

You are the village too: Please keep supporting us, to secure the story for all elephants.

They need us more than ever.


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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Joseph Okori
Regional Director, Southern Africa and Program Director, Landscape Conservation
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy