March 2005

Teamwork of elephants and handlers sends spirits soaring

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Medical Observer, March 2005


News Source: Medical Observer, March 2005
By: Professor John Pearn and Dr Vlas Efstathis, Field Health Team Foxtrot, Banda Aceh

In addition to the medical and rescue teams deployed to communities in tsunami-hit Sumatra, a special contingent of workers of another kind was also brought in to help.

Six working elephants – with the skills and flexibility to work among the huge piles of debris – were transported by the Indonesian authorities to Banda Aceh from the Sumatran Elephant Foundation.

Each elephant came with its own ‘mahout’ – its keeper/driver – and its handling team, and they were accompanied by a German vet, Dr Christian Stremme, from Medan, the capital city of northern Sumatra.

Two animal experts from Australia Zoo at Beerwah – veterinary surgeon Dr Jon Hanger and senior ‘big cat’ handler Giles Clark – also flew in to help.

The Sumatran elephants worked tirelessly to drag logs, cars and metal wreckage – and of course human bodies – from the destroyed suburb of Lam Jamee.

The task of disentangling massive piles of debris containing the wreckage of houses and vehicles and the bodies of humans and animals had become enormous. The elephants could sense especially where bodies were buried in the debris.

The Balai Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam (the provincial nature conservation agency) asked physician professor John Pearn and GP Dr Vlas Efstathis of Field Health Team Foxtrot from Australia to establish a daily immunisation and treatment clinic for the mahouts and the animal teams. Both the elephants and the mahouts had suffered multiple minor injuries from the metal in the debris. The mahouts had not previously been immunised for tetanus.

Professor Pearn and Dr Efstathis immunised 80 team members for tetanus and diphtheria, undertook minor surgery on infected wounds, and supplied medicines and dressings (supplied by Queensland Health and the AMA).

Everyone who witnessed the teamwork between humans and animals had their spirits lifted from the otherwise depressing scenes confronting them as they faced the challenge of rehabilitating the shattered city.