Mammoth task is made easier

An  elephant is darted and DNA samples are taken to gain knowledge on the side effects of drug combinations.
An elephant is darted and DNA samples are taken to gain knowledge on the side effects of drug combinations.

The chopper quiets down as it lands amid grass and dust is blown up from the rotors. A team of journalists eagerly approaches the sleeping animal, his leathery ear covering his eye. Hands move over his tusks, ears, trunk and feet with constant commentary about this close encounter. The experienced team working on the animal is mainly interested in the large veins at the back of the ear and immediately cut to the chase.

During a field trip in the Kruger National Park on July 29, the SANParks Veterinary Wildlife Services (VWS) team members demonstrated their exceptional skills capturing big game. They only had one goal – to dart the elephant and take DNA samples. Through this, they gain knowledge on the side effects of drug combinations and learn how to mitigate them. “There is always room for improvement,” says Peter Buss, veterinary senior manager at VWS.

Within minutes, the young elephant bull was darted from the chopper, Yet, little did we know that it could take up to 20 minutes for the etorphine (M99) opiate dart to take effect. Of course the sleepy elephant preferred the safety of the dense bush, dashing in its direction at every opportunity.

The team led, by head of VWS Markus Hofmeyr, had other ideas. To make the group’s work easier, the animal had to be herded into the open. The helicopter was expertly manoeuvred to guide him towards the airstrip, a task that lasted 11 minutes before the drugs properly affected the brain receptors. Resistance faded with a sudden thump to the ground.

No laboratory facilities are available in the field. Yet, teams can immediately analyse blood with the help of a little lightweight machine called the i-Stat. This has revolutionised the way research is done. The data taken from the elephant now adds to more than 50 000 samples kept by SANParks, says Hofmeyr as he plucks a few hairs from the animal’s trunk.

The most important aspect of research involving anaesthesia is to limit what can go wrong. “It is difficult for elephant to breathe through their mouths, so the trunk needs to be open,” Hofmeyr explains. In case anything goes wrong, Paul Viljoen, logistics assistant for large-mammal research, is armed and ready. Luckily the team is well trained and things have always gone according to plan.

After only 15 minutes group team was done and a single injection woke the animal. Just as suddenly as he had fallen, he got up and disappeared into the bush, probably eager to escape the experience of a rather unusual morning in the Kruger.



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