There’s an Elephant in my Trunk

10 October 2017 | Giving Back |

Reading Time: 4 MINUTES

A small deviation from the usual lodge errands and luggage pick-ups, Tyler Davis writes about the day that the Angama utility vehicle played a crucial role in transporting an orphaned elephant to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

You would be mightily surprised to learn what goes on behind the scenes at a lodge like Angama Mara. So much so, in fact, that we have two utility vehicles running around non-stop from before the sun rises until well after it sets. At any given time, you may find one of our utility vehicles ferrying guests’ luggage to and from the airfield. Or setting up guest delights such as Forest BBQ or a private picnic on the Out of Africa kopje. Or running an errand to a neighbouring camp or nearby village. Or transporting an elephant.

Wait . . . did I say transporting an elephant? All in a day’s work for our utility team.

Driving to the airstrip in the rain

Towards the end of July, our guide Johnny noticed a young elephant all by himself. Somewhere between 2.5 and 3 years old, this juvenile male was far too young be travelling solo, and Johnny knew it so he alerted the Mara Conservancy rangers.

The Mara Conservancy kept tabs on the youngster in the following weeks, hoping he’d reunite with his mother and herd, or possibly even be adopted by another if his biological mother had died or abandoned him. Sadly, no such luck.

The little elephant all alone

To say that he was doomed is a bit of an overstatement – at 2.5 years old, an elephant is capable of feeding itself and surviving to adulthood. However, such an elephant is not only incredibly vulnerable to predation (and this little guy was smack in the middle of the Sausage Tree Pride’s territory), but a young male without a social system and role models can grow up to be a problem animal.

Sedating the elephant

Thus, the carefully considered joint decision was made between the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service, and Mara Conservancy to relocate the elephant to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where it would be guaranteed safety, food, and family. But just how do you relocate a 1-ton animal from the Mara Triangle to Nairobi?

Many hands involved

First, it takes an experienced team of veterinarians and rangers to safely sedate and capture such a large animal. Next, a whole lot of hands are required to pick up so much dead weight, and lift it into a vehicle with a big enough bed (that’s where our utility vehicle came in). Then said vehicle needs to race quickly, but very carefully, to the nearest airfield with a semi-conscious pachyderm and the team of professionals looking after it in the back (bonus points when you must drive through a torrential downpour).


Penultimately, the next step is to solve the puzzle of how to move an animal the size of a Smart Car from the bed of a truck into the back of a Cessna Caravan, when the biggest door is roughly an elephant’s hair wider than the elephant itself (hint: it may take a few tries). Pro-tip: secure the sleepy elephant with thick webbing and come-alongs, so that during the flight he doesn’t gradually scooch to the rear of the aircraft, upsetting the fore-aft balance and causing a tail-dragging crash upon landing.

Getting a big ellie into a small plane

FINALLY, upon reaching Nairobi, the very last step is to simply reverse all the previous steps until the elephant is safely and soundly in his new home at the Orphanage, where we look forward to visiting him once he has settled in with his new family.

As for Angama’s utility vehicle, none the worse for wear and just another day and another feather in the cap, er – bonnet.

The Angama Utility Vehicle


Note from the Editor: A special thanks to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service, and Mara Conservancy for all the work they do to save and protect Kenya’s at-risk wildlife. Specifically, thank you veterinarian Dr. George Paul, vet assistant Felix Micheni, Research Scientist Steven Ndambuki, and Rangers Leonard Sentero and Alex Nganga from the DSWT/KWS Mobile Vet Team, as well as everyone from the Mara Conservancy, for their united efforts in rescuing this elephant. If you would like to sponsor and even meet this elephant, now known as Sapalan, on your next trip to Nairobi, please visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website for more information.

AUTHOR: Tyler Davis

Guide and birding fundi, Tyler was also one half of the regional director couple that lead the team at Angama Mara for the first five years. Being the birding extraordinaire that he is, he was known to let his attention wander during meetings. The trick to keep him focused was to place him with no direct view of anything feathered. Tyler ensures that we are a grounded and well-rounded team. He also sometimes forgets to take his binoculars off at dinnertime.

Jessica Smith
October 10, 2017

Oh this story makes me so happy! My boyfriend (Colin Thoreen – he says Hi, Tyler!) and I are coming to Angama Mara in February, and we were planning to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust either before or after our visit. I was even looking for a baby elephant to adopt before we came so that we could meet our foster elephant on our visit, and now we can actually adopt one that has a connection with Angama Mara! Sapalan’s story is not up on their website for adoption yet (apparently neither is the story of the baby girl they got just before him, so I’m guessing it will be a few weeks?) but we will adopt him as soon as they will let us! In the meantime, I will continue to stalk your blog in anticipation of our February visit 🙂 Can’t wait! ~Jess

    Nicky Fitzgerald
    October 11, 2017

    Hi Jess
    Thank you for this lovely post and we cant wait to welcome you to the Mara

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