16 January 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Elephant, Out for the Count

It was early morning, and the wildlife vet with his dart gun was up in the chopper above us at first light, hunting for a certain bull elephant.

It had a radio collar on that had become too small and needed removing.

Suddenly the elephant appeared, a pink dart sticking out of its rump, fluid streaming from glands on its temples. High in the sky was the helicopter, gently herding it towards us.

Uh-oh. It was in musth, a sexually active phase bull elephants go into, a time when they become more aggressive and irritable.

The vet on the ground was worried. Would this mean the drug dosage wouldn’t work? Would they have to dart it again? This was going to be tricky.

Meanwhile the elephant just walked back and forth, head up, completely oblivious to us, apparently seeing nothing. Minutes passed, but he still wasn’t going down.

Just when the vets lost hope, he slowed and paused between two thorn trees, as if trying to remember something.

JJ van Altena, the vet on the ground, darted closer, ducking behind bushes to stay out of sight. Suddenly he stood up, grinned and waved to us to come closer.

“Come quickly,” he called. “He’s out for the count on his feet. You’ll never see this again.”

Douw Grobler, down from his helicopter flight, is the head of Catchco. “Stand there,” he said. “I’ll take your picture.”

We barely had enough time to say cheese. The sleeping giant behind us started to list visibly to starboard. Everyone scattered, and the earth jolted as six tons of elephant sat down, then collapsed.

While the team worked, Douw let me lean against the bull elephant’s chest. I felt his 20-kilogram heart beating, a steady drumroll. It was like touching Africa’s sweet spot.

Category: Wildlife

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