After nine months of intensive medical treatments, an African elephant calf who was found shot in the legs in Kenya has regained his strength and ability to walk again.
A pilot on anti-poaching patrol first spotted the calf, now named Luggard, struggling to keep up with his herd in Tsavo East National Park. The pilot could see he was injured and radioed in a sky vet from the Kenya Wildlife Service.
The calf had suffered two devastating bullet wounds: one in his right hind leg, shattering his femur, and another in his left hind foot, says Angela Sheldrick, CEO of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. Sheldrick says she suspects the shot came from either an AK-47 or a G3, another type of automatic weapon. (Read more: Inside the orphan elephant nursery.)
Still, Luggard was lucky.
“Had [the bullets] shattered his front leg, the outcome could have been very different, as the front legs are much more essential for mobility bearing more of the elephant’s body weight,” Sheldrick says.
Back at the orphanage, a team treated Luggard’s wounds. X-rays showed that no bullets remained in his leg or foot. arers applied green clay, a natural substance to aid in healing, to Luggard’s wounds, cleaning them daily, and gave him medication to relieve pain. He required on-demand feedings of a special milk formula.
“As his body healed, Luggard adjusted the amount of weight on his leg, and he became very efficient on just three legs, determined to keep up with the rest of our orphan herd and loath to miss out on anything,” Sheldrick says.
She says the youngster, now 14 months old, has made a strong recovery and is able to walk on his four legs again. “It’s been both heartwarming and miraculous to see him walking out and about with the other orphans in the Nairobi forest.”
Sheldrick thinks Luggard may have been shot when his herd moved across farmland along a migration route previously largely unoccupied by people. Human-elephant conflict is a growing problem in Kenya. (Read more: How Chili Condoms and Firecrackers Can Help Save Elephants.)
The elephant’s long-term prognosis is good. He’ll stay put until he’s three and will then be moved to one of three reintegration units specially equipped for orphans with long-term injuries from poaching or clashes with people.
When fully grown, Luggard will join other elephants in the Greater Tsavo Conservation Area, home to more than 11,000 elephants protected by the trust’s 10 anti-poaching teams in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Sheldrick says he’ll likely have a bulbous knee joint from extensive calcification, and Luggard will probably always have a slight limp. “We feel confident he’ll live a long, happy, and independent wild life,” she says.
Alexandra E. Petri is a staff writer for National Geographic Traveler. You can follow her on Twitter.