Paving the way to modern medicine, dart guns, trust and patience

Posted by on Nov 13, 2017 in From the Field

 Shortly after landing in Surin, Thailand, I was greeted by Dr. Gwa, one of our new elephant vets with a warm but sad face at the airport. “Dr. Magda, it’s a pleasure to meet you..but I have bad news for you, we just lost a baby elephant this afternoon,” she said. My heart sank, I immediately thought of EEHV and how unexpected these stories tend to be. He was only two years old, had symptoms that started a couple days ago with swelling around the eyes and face, quickly progressing to a swollen tongue and collapse. Tragically the owner did not allow our team to intervene, as some members of the community are still skeptical of modern medicine, and only believe in the traditional way. Although the owner did not allow our team to take necropsy samples, which would have been very useful in understanding this disease, he did allow us to take blood which will let us know if our suspicions are correct. EEHV is a fatal virus affecting Asian elephants across the globe with very little known about how it spreads. It can kill a baby within 48 hrs, and can cost thousands of dollars to treat, with few attempts being successful. One of the reasons for my trip is to attend an EEHV workshop in Hua Hin which Vets International is a partner in, along with Kasetsart University, Wildlife Reserves Singapore,  the Smithsonian Institute, the Zoological Parks Organization, Asian elephant support, and Ag-bio Pero.

 The next morning while having breakfast, I heard a bull elephant roaring in the distance. I turned my head to see him attacking a female, poking her aggressively with his tusks. I immediately called our vet team who arrived within minutes…along with 30 men with sharp polls, ropes and bull hooks. Who can blame them when their lives are at risk dealing with highly dangerous elephants..with one in three known to have the disposition to kill people.  I was wondering if this owner was actually going to let us intervene, or if we were going to have to resort to watching things unfold the traditional way. Fortunately the dart gun was already being loaded with xylazine, a tranquilizer that would sedate but not knock the animal unconscious, so that hopefully the female could be safely removed from the situation. She was tethered to the ground near the bull who recently came

​Our assistant Chai holding the dart gun as Dr. Pang and Dr. Gwa get the drug prepared.

into musth, a condition where the male’s testosterone levels increase exponentially making him very aggressive so he can fight other bull elephants wishing to mate females. For elephants in captivity this is a time of pure hell for they are typically too aggressive to be controlled and are left alone in isolation, chained until the period ends, which can last 4 to 6 months. The owners wanted them to mate, but sadly it seemed the elephants had a different agenda in mind. Given the safety concerns for elephants running away, attacking people or other animals, elephants here are rarely left unchained, thus even the mating happens with elephants’ feet hobbled together, with one of their legs attached to a short chain pegged into the ground. Dr. Gwa loaded the gun and I followed her through the tall grass until we reached a tree a few meters away from the angry bull. 


​Bull elephant with tranquilizer darts.

The owner requested that we lower the original drug dose, so in an attempt to build trust we agreed to do so. The bull elephant was shot in the rear with the dart gun. I was proud to see our $9000 piece of equipment in action…. but approximately 20 minutes later nothing happened. A second dose was then given and 20 minutes after that he started to relax. The female was safely removed and some puncture wounds were visible on her rear, but she was able to walk away without any lameness. 

   I imagine you must be thinking how could these people be so cruel to chain their animals so much, and even chain them while they should attempt to mate. But the reality is, after spending time with the Kuy tribe and watching them care for their elephants,  for the most part they truly love their elephants, and for the last several hundred years have been living with and managing elephants in this way…it’s all they know. They spend most of their day caring for their elephant in one way or another whether it’s gathering food, walking or bathing them. But they have also witnessed many friends or family members get killed from elephants as they are not domesticated,  so they prefer to play it safe. Our work here is not something that is going to create change overnight, but the idea is that with the right team (proud to have the Zoological Parks Organization and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation collaborating on this), resources, approach AND lots of patience …we can induce change over time and improve elephant welfare, health and wellbeing. The fact that the 30 men did not need to intervene and resort to rough tactics to control this bull, and that our team of two female vets and two highly skilled assistants were trusted with modern drugs, is a feat in and of itself. 

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