By Jana-Mari Smith
Images of an elephant being rescued from a potentially fatal set of circumstances in Damaraland on Sunday 17 February have captured the hearts and minds of Namibians and animal lovers the world over.
A few brave souls struggled for hours under the searing African sun to rescue an adult female elephant trapped for more than 11 hours in a drain at a campsite in the vicinity of the Burnt Mountain.
“It was clear that she realised we were helping her,” said Archie van der Merwe, one of her rescuers, after the time. The elephant remained calm for most of her ordeal, patiently going along with the game plan devised to release her from her predicament.
Fears that the elephant would die from heat and stress spurred the Good Samaritans on, despite several obstacles, such as waiting for officials from Windhoek to arrive and come to her rescue.
When the Samaritans realised that the officials would not arrive in time, and that the elephant would have to be shot if she remained caught in the drain, they dug their heels in and began the long process to free her.
As told by Archie, a sea safari guide at Laramon Tours in Swakopmund, a herd of elephants had entered the White Lady Lodge at about midnight the previous night.
Several campers reported the next day that they had heard a commotion around that time, but thought it had been caused by one of the donkeys roaming the area. The next morning, at around seven, an employee told Archie about the elephant trapped in the drain.
On inspection, it emerged that she had stepped onto a drain cover, which had broken under her weight. Her body was stuck solidly in the 1.6-metre hole and she could barely move. By that time she had already been trapped for seven hours.
Despite nature conservation personnel saying they were unable to help until assistance from Windhoek arrived, Archie and other campers from South Africa and Namibia decided to take action immediately, knowing full well that on a Sunday the likelihood of help arriving in time was slim.
Their plan was to gradually fill the pit with sand and stones, 20 centimetres at a time, to enable the elephant to manoeuvre herself step by step onto higher ground.
Once she had eased her large body onto the higher elevation and had calmed down, they would add the next layer of sand and rocks. Every few minutes, someone would carefully hose water over the pachyderm, to ensure that she remained hydrated. In view of the searing heat, the stressed animal was most certainly kept alive by these thoughtful actions.
And so they continued patiently under the blazing son for the next three hours, the distressed elephant only centimetres away from them. Eventually, when she was standing about 70 centimetres deep, she was able to heave her tired body completely out of the drain that had become her living hell.
Archie said she was clearly exhausted and deeply stressed by the circumstances. At one point, with two legs out of the hole, she sat down and rested for an hour. Her rescuers remained close to her, dousing her with water every now and then.
Then, a mere two steps later, she was free!
A member of the Elephant Humans Relations Aid (EHRA) organisation, Wayne, who had also assisted with the rescue operation, later told Archie that the herd had remained in the vicinity.
They saw her standing on her toes – an elephant ‘smoke signal’ – to let her family know she was fine. These foot-induced ‘smoke signals’ can be heard up to 10 kilometres away.
In the afternoon, before Archie and his family returned to their home in Swakopmund, they took a last photograph of Ollie standing peacefully in the nearby bush, grazing as if her ordeal had never happened.