Grand occasion for SA vets as they save a stricken tusker
University of Pretoria team called to a zoo in Georgia to remove the infected tusk of an Asian bull elephant
Being forced to use a drug they are unfamiliar with has actually helped a veterinarian team from Pretoria assist a stricken elephant much more effectively.
When professor Gerhard Steenkamp and Dr Adrian Tordiffe from the University of Pretoria were called upon to ease the plight of an Asian elephant with an infected tusk at Tbilisi Zoo in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, they could not decline. So last week on Wednesday they tackled the intricate task of removing the tusk.
Steenkamp teaches veterinary dentistry while Tordiffe lectures in veterinary pharmacology.
Tordiffe‚ who gained experience in elephant immobilisations and anaesthesia while working at the Pretoria Zoo, said this procedure on Grand, a 23-year-old elephant bull standing 3.5m tall, was made difficult because Georgia had banned the use of opioids, the narcotics often used in anaesthetics.
Etorphine is an opiad used for the initial immobilisation as well as the maintenance of anaesthesia in elephants.
The drug Tordiffe used instead was a combination of butorphanol, azaperone and medetomidine (BAM), which is manufactured in SA at Wildlife Pharmaceuticals.
He said although BAM had no published studies of use in elephants, he found it particularly effective and would be using it in future procedures.
For the operation to be safely carried out Grand needed to be sedated and made to lie on his side so vets could access his tusk and his ear.
“We put a catheter in the ear veins [to administer medication]. When elephants sleep they often lock their legs and sleep standing up. In African elephants it is easy to get a catheter in the ear because their ears hang so low, but Asian elephants have smaller ears. If he remained standing after my initial drug dose, I would have had to reach his ears to get drugs into an ear vein to get him to lie down. Since he was very tall, this would have been difficult.”
So the team gave Grand a nudge in his back legs so his leg joints bent into a sitting position. He was then pushed onto his side. “It took four of us to flop him over and we had quite a time moving his leg out from under him.”
“Once the elephant was lying down, I gave additional drugs ketamine and medetomidine to keep the elephant asleep.”
Steenkamp has developed techniques to treat elephant tusks since 1998. “Once the elephant was asleep I used specifically designed chisels to painstakingly loosen the tusk. I then split the tusk and break it into pieces to remove it,” he said.
The root of the tusk was 35cm long. “It’s physically demanding and I have over the years developed special tools to help with the process.”
Local vets were worried Grand would have a hard time standing up after his operation, so a crane was on standby should he need help. But the new drug wore off quickly and Grand was standing soon after the operation.
Both of Grand’s tusks were injured when he arrived at the zoo. Vets suspect it happened in transport. The elephant had previously travelled from Moscow to Armenia and then to Georgia. “We can see the damage was done when he was an adult so we think it happened in 2013 when he travelled to the zoo [in Georgia],” Tordiffe said.
Grand had his left tusk removed in 2014 by a British team but the removal was costly and the zoo decided to keep the right tusk. The Pretoria vets were called when it became infected.
“We said we were happy to help and only asked that our flights and accommodation were covered,” Tordiffe said.
He said it was a blessing in disguise that they had to use the new drug because it “had better painkilling properties and we saw Grand’s recovery was much quicker”.
“I think forbidding the use of etorphine is a bit of an overkill, but I understand that authorities are afraid the drug can be used for crime or recreational drug use.”
Dr Cobus Raath, the managing director of Wildlife Pharmaceuticals, said the combination drug is in the process of registration but has been given permission for use.
“We expect the drug will replace many opioids currently used in zoos. The drug has a wider safety margin than many anaesthetics on the market, it is predictable and reversible and we have found it especially effective on zoo animals.”
Grand, however, now faces another battle. His body condition is poor, and he is underweight so Tordiffe gave the zoo recommendations for his diet.
“He is 3.5 tons but his ideal weight should be around 4.5 tons. It is really interesting because his mate is a healthy weight.”
He said the infected tusk would not have affected his eating in any way.
Grand was not the team’s most difficult case, “By far the hardest operation we did was on Ninio, an African elephant in Poznan Zoo in Poland,” Tordiffe said. Ninio also had a tusk extraction after splintering his tusk.
“Ninio is massive at 5.3 tons. At just 14 years old, he isn’t even fully grown yet. His tusk diameter was 110mm. His father, Yossi, is actually the biggest elephant in captivity, weighing 7 tons and living in Ramat Gan Safari in Israel.”
Tordiffe said bull elephants reached their prime at about 30 years old.
“The sheer size and inadequate equipment made the operation challenging. We have since modified our equipment and refined our techniques. It took three operations, four hours each to complete the procedure, but we learned a lot from it,” Tordiffe said.