Photograph by Pete Muller, National Geographic
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Rangers and veterinarians run towards an orphaned elephant calf during the early stages of its rescue.
Photograph by Pete Muller, National Geographic

See the Daring Mission to Save an Orphaned Elephant Calf

A photographer captures what it takes to rescue a lone and vulnerable elephant calf in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park.  

The rescue of an orphaned elephant is an inspiring sight—but it can also be an absurd one. How do you catch an elephant by hand? The elephant may be small, but he's still an elephant.

This male calf, weighing somewhere in the range of 1,000 pounds, was spotted alone in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park, in the country's southwest. It's not clear what happened to his mother, but a lone calf is vulnerable. Given that African elephants are internationally listed as vulnerable to extinction, park officials are loathe to lose any elephants, especially to avoidable circumstances.

They hatched a rescue plan.

First, the veterinary team used a dart gun to administer a small dose of sedative, careful not to use too much. Once the sedative took effect, a team of rangers and vets set about safely taking down the elephant. The process resembled calf-roping at a rodeo, but less graceful. The elephant, unaware of the team’s helpful intent, charged and trumpeted as men grasped at its tail and hind legs. The scene played out like a Marx brothers sketch on the open savannah.

As a photographer, I wanted to capture the contorted faces of the vets and rangers as they struggled to—quite literally—catch an elephant by the tail. This forced me in front of the melee, standing before the struggling elephant like some kind of witless, accidental matador. The elephant seemed to surge with new anger and energy each time it spotted me in its line of vision. I was in a precarious position.

After some time, the team succeeded in calming the elephant and loading it into the bed of a pickup truck. The elephant stirred and kicked as the truck careened along the gravel road towards the airstrip. Like people playing Twister, we found uncomfortable perches around the groggy but active animal.

“Can it really wake up?” I asked the lead veterinarian. “Just keep your legs clear,” he said elusively with a smile.

Once we arrived at the airstrip, the team managed to shove the young rescue into the small Cessna plane that would carry it to an elephant orphanage in Nairobi.

I wasn’t expecting this kind of heart-pounding bedlam. I thought that the elephant, once darted, would weaken and collapse, and then the team would collect it easily enough. But, as is case with most things I’ve witnessed, things are rarely as I imagined.

Pete Muller is currently working on a story about elephants for National Geographic magazine. You can follow Pete on Instagam.