The veterinarian was long overdue. She should have arrived earlier this afternoon, but the silhouettes of the thorny acacia trees against the glowing red sky, signalled twilight and the closing of another day. Where was she?
The staff could feel the tension as each hour passed with no news. Tembo was not responding like they had hoped and the warden was becoming more agitated. Finally, a dust cloud came rolling in and the Land Cruiser screeched to a halt alongside the warden’s jeep.
“Hurry, hurry…she’s over here.” A nervous caretaker pointed the veterinarian to a penned area of the Ndutu game reserve.
Hearing the commotion outside, Bahari was finally able to stop pacing. He rushed out of his office with his AK47 rifle slung over his shoulder and caught up to the veterinarian. Even in the half-light of dusk, she could see that his dark green uniform looked perfectly pressed and clean, just as it was each time they had met. This always surprised her, as she knew that he took a very hands-on approach to his work. The dry, dusty environment alone should have been enough to sully his appearance, but he took great pride in his role, just as his own father had when he held a similar post in the Ngorongoro region many years earlier.
His grimace and furrowed brow laid bare his frustration. “This elephant may be dying” he said, his tone accusatory. “Your late arrival could mean that we lose her and her unborn calf.”
Tembo had been spotted late yesterday while the rangers were patrolling the southern edge of the Serengeti plains, near Ndutu. They had been following up on reports of poachers in the area.
Fortunately, Tembo did not look injured, but she didn’t look well either. It could be something as simple as dehydration. But while a diagnosis might be simple, the impact on her health was unknown at this point. Her pregnancy complicated matters. Tembo had never carried a calf beyond seven months - not even remotely close to the typical twenty-two month gestation period. But here she was more than eighteen months along, based on their estimations.
Dafina had been the resident veterinarian for the Serengeti National Park for the past three years. Her intern work, while completing her degree at the Medical University of South Africa, allowed her the opportunity to work with a variety of wildlife, but she had a special place in her heart for the pachyderms. She had treated Tembo twice before and each time she noted how gentle Tembo was.
Still trying to catch her breath, she said “Bahari, I do apologize, but my jeep blew a tire along the crater ridge this morning after tending to a lioness. Otherwise, I would have been here much sooner.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s not too late” he countered, a little more gruffly than he had intended.
She pulled a couple of items from her medical bag, then set the bag and her journal on the bench beside the Baobob tree. The caretaker opened the latch and motioned for her to go through, with Bahari following closely behind.
She noticed that there was a full trough of water near the sheltered area of the pen. “Has she taken a drink since you brought her here?”
“Not yet. We’ve been watching her closely. She goes to the trough, but then turns away and wanders back to the shade of the Baobobs,” Bahari replied. He too had a special place in his heart for the elephants. These thick-skinned creatures had no natural predators, but despite the added firepower the game reserve staff now carried, the ivory poachers were a threat indeed.
Earlier, as she had waited for the clinic to send out a replacement vehicle, Dafina had read through her notes over and over. If in fact Tembo was dehydrated, they could start providing her with fluids intravenously. But why wasn’t she getting enough fluids? Both Lake Masek and Lake Ndutu were a little higher than normal for this time of year. A small scribbled comment in her notes had given her an idea and she was anxious to try it.
She asked Bahari to hold a couple of figs that she had taken from her bag, then began working her way around the elephant, mentally checking off things she would do as part of her preliminary evaluation – look at Tembo’s feet and note any cracking, listen to her heart, and check her breathing. After the general check-up was done, she would collect a few samples, including a blood sample from behind the ear.
“What are these for?” Bahari asked, wondering if she was planning on eating them, but knowing that they weren’t quite ripe yet.
“They’re treats for Tembo. But don’t give them to her yet. Let me just check her over first.”
Tembo’s long proboscis started nuzzling Bahari’s shirt. Bahari had placed both figs in his right hand, but he quickly moved that hand behind his back. Tembo could smell them.
All of a sudden, Dafina felt a small tremor travel across Tembo’s skin. Oh no! It was happening. The symptoms she had scribbled in her notes from that previous visit to see Tembo weren’t just an anomaly. She yanked her head around to see that Tembo’s trunk was within inches of Bahari’s face. “Don’t look in the trunk,” she whispered.
Bahari’s eyes widened. Tembo shuddered once again. Bahari was trying to back up, but it was too late. With one final breath in….ACHOOOOO!
“Ahhhhh!” Bahari dropped the figs, pulled a hankerchief from his pocket, and began wiping his face and shirt.
“Ummm, I think Tembo is allergic to figs,” Dafina blurted out. “I usually carry a couple in my bag if I’m tending to an elephant, as they seem to like them. But, when I tried to give one to her last time, she sneezed a couple of times. I had made a small note in my journal, but didn’t think too much about it again, until today.”
Dafina was glad that she had followed her hunch. Unfortunately the evidence she hoped to find was right there along with elephant mucous all over Bahari’s face and shirt. Several softened thistle heads had lodged inside Tembo’s trunk and the blockage could have made drinking difficult or at the very least, uncomfortable. They would find out soon enough.
The fact that Bahari had been smeared so thoroughly meant that if Tembo had some dehydration, it was surely very mild. That was a lot of elephant snot!
Bahari finally gave up on his shirt and as he and Dafina discussed the next steps, a ranger, who had been watching everything from beyond the gate, yelled out, “Kuangalia! Look!”
Tembo had meandered over to the trough and had already begun to drink from it. Dafina and the warden looked at each other and smiled.
As they approached, Tembo lifted her trunk from the trough, turned her head, and proceeded to spray water all over the front of the warden. Dafina began laughing uncontrollably and through her continued snickers, she managed to say, "I must confess, this has made my day! If there was ever any doubt, we now know that you are not just an African Elephant, you’re a friggin’ elephant!”
Yes, this was a good sign. Bahari said in a hushed tone "Assante sana" followed by a happy sigh. "I know she will need to be monitored, but this is a much better way to end the day than I might have expected."
Tammy Rutledge remembers being wakened in the wee hours of the morning by her parents with news that the car was packed and they were all heading off on their next travel adventure. Family vacations were magical, whether they were car trips, camping, or a rented cottage on a lake. She continues to see travel in this same light – a chance to unearth and discover a whole new world. She records her travels – and especially her adventures in Africa – through photography (the photos illustrating this piece are her work) and through writing. In her free time, you can find Tammy hiking, training for triathlons, and planning the next adventure with her husband from their home base in Mississauga.
For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.