The gunshot makes no sound. I’m only sure it’s been fired when the matriarch’s knees buckle under the weight of her one and a half-ton elephant mass.
“In this kind of operation every minute matters,” the vet tells us.
“No matter how many times we’ve done this, things can go wrong,” explains Iain Douglas- Hamilton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the African elephant as we approach the fallen animal.
I’m visiting Save the Elephants in northern Kenya; invited by Iain to join him and his team to replace a radio collar on this elephant while the BBC films the process.
Minutes earlier, a man in our group had driven a Landrover into the herd, separating the leader from her sisters, aunts and daughters. Confused and lost without her, the herd, now blocked from us by a circle of five vehicles, huddle together with trunks held high, and ears spread wide.
“Twelve minutes before she wakes up,” the vet announces. Iain places my fingers at the tip of the fallen elephant’s trunk into which he had positioned a thin stick to hold her two finger-like nostrils open.
“Today is good for collaring. Not too hot. Sedated elephants mustn’t get overheated,” the vet says.
The elephant’s warm, earthy smelling exhale fans my hand. I match my breathing with hers, hoping even in her unconscious state she will feel protected and safe. Wire-like whiskers cover her thick-skinned trunk. She is more massive, wrinkled, and dry than I could have imagined. Under any other circumstance I wouldn’t have the honor of being this close to a wild elephant, yet I’m conflicted about what we do in the name of research. I know the tracking information is used to establish protected corridors and minimize elephant/human conflict with surrounding communities. But how can we be absolutely certain we are helping, more than we are hurting these highly intelligent beings?
Two men, one sitting on her front leg pushing against her chest for leverage, pull her old collar, while two other men on the opposite side of her head push her sagging neck skin out of the way.
“Vizuri,” the vet says after the new collar is fastened in place. “Well done.” It’s now up to her fifty-year-old body to find its way back to consciousness.
According to the vet, she should stir any second. But she doesn’t. Eyes closed, she is still as death. As our trucks pull away, I hear Iain’s voice over the radio. “I’m not sure why she isn’t up yet.”
My driver is worried too. “A few years ago an elephant died from a collaring operation like this,” he says in a hushed voice.
The radio exchanges are mostly in Swahili, but I understand the subdued tone.
As our last Land Rover backs away, the herd hesitates, and then one of the adult elephants approaches their motionless leader. Everyone is silent and I can’t hold back tears.
With a nudge from her sister, the matriarch lifts her head and body in one motion, unsteadily rising to her feet. The other elephant sniffs her before other members join the greeting.
Within two minutes she steadily walks with her family in tow, looking back once before they all disappear into the forest.
One of the characteristics Iain has documented about elephants is their amazing memory. They return to old watering holes after decades of drought, and visit graveyards of herd members who’ve died years earlier. I know they won’t forget today’s experience. The best I can hope for is that they will forgive.