An Update on Elephant Bull Fishan who Fractured his Leg in 2018
Fishan is one of the older bulls of the Jabulani Herd and has become well-known for his brave journey of recovery over the past 2 and a half years.
In late September 2018, Fishan stepped into a deep hole out on the reserve, which was hidden by a puddle of water in it. He fractured his lower ulna bone in his left front leg.
He was about 5 kms way from the stables area when it happened, and could only move with very small steps. Elephant manager Tigere stayed by his side - and that night they remained out on the reserve together.
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Our team brought them everything they would need, including anti-inflammatory and pain medication from Wildlife vet Dr Peter Rogers as well as food, water (in a bath) and food. Tigere was incredible, insuring that Fishan was doing okay.
The next day, it took an entire day to get back home - with a lot of patience and teamwork from our elephant care team. They arrived back very tired, after 36 hours had passed from the time Fishan had hurt his leg.
When the elephants returned that evening, there was a lot of rumbling and a special moment with Bubi who approached him gently and touched his leg tenderly with her trunk.
Shortly after Fishan had rested, the team started hydrotherapy on the leg, which seemed to give him relief. Over the following few days, his appetite was good and he remained in good spirits, while our team considered the way forward.
X-rays were taken by wildlife vet, Dr Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors, which revealed a fracture in the bull's lower ulna bone.
A team of highly respected wildlife veterinarians and elephant advisors researched the procedure options for treating a fractured leg on a four-tonne elephant.
There are very few records on file pertaining to the treatment of fractures and broken legs in elephants. Most recorded incidents relate to much smaller elephants, with the final results unavailable. Prosthetic work studies were more commonly found but very little was revealed about the effectiveness of casts.
Fishan had to remain in the stables during the coming months as the rest of the herd spent their days out on the reserve. But he was never alone. Our amazing carers kept by his side, keeping him company and reading to him continually - something Adine thought would help him stay engaged and feeling included, and it worked. The team also ensured that Fishan had lots to eat and plenty of healthy treats such as cabbages and butternuts too.
The First Procedure - October 2018
Our "Project Fishan" team incorporated wildlife vet, Dr. Johan Marais, who specialises in treating large wildlife; wildlife vet Dr. Peter Rogers; Brett Mitchell from The Elephant Reintegration Trust, as well as Adine Roode and our elephant care team. Together they discussed options of how to treat Fishan.
First, X-rays were taken of both Fishan and Jabulani, another bull in the herd, to have a healthy leg X-ray as reference.
The first attempt was to build a fibreglass cast around Fishan's fractured leg, reinforced with steel rods, which were contoured into the shape of his leg. The cast was placed from the foot to the middle of the carpus and elbow and incorporated the full foot too.
It was important that the cast would not break under the pressure and weight of the four-tonne elephant, and we had to ensure there was some movement allowed in the cast without being too restrictive.
Fishan underwent full sedation for a total of 3 hours, overseen by Dr Rogers. We had a large team, each with important roles to play to ensure the work was carried out efficiently without delays. There were some challenges but the cast was set and the team was happy with the result.
When Fishan woke from the sedation, it took him about 15 minutes to get up - but he managed to do it without damaging the cast. He started drinking water and eating bana grass which was a great sign.
After a month that passed, although he showed relief, the cast was not wearing well - it was starting to break, so the team had to reconvene to consider the next step.
The Second Procedure – 07 November 2018
Our "Project Fishan" team returned for a second procedure on Fishan's injured leg. They decided to design and build a custom-made contraption for his specific needs and weight, of the perfect size to hold the splints, made from pipe connectors, and padding to the leg.
The procedure did not start well, as Fishan lay down on the wrong side of his body during sedation, so the team had to improvise quickly, using ropes, a tractor and a Landcruiser to turn him over, without losing too much valuable time from his sedation. Fortunately, they managed to get it right in just an hour, and continued with the procedure.
The contraption had to be manipulated using various clamps until they found the perfect fit for his leg.
Fishan managed to get up much more easily after this second treatment and was soon on his feet again. He adapted well to the new contraption, though the swelling remained a concern.
The week that followed showed no ease in the swelling, and with the intense heat that we were experiencing in the middle of summer, we decided to remove the contraption completely and let his leg rest naturally and see it if would react better, having had a few weeks of support. The swelling started to dissipate.
During this time of healing, Fishan was administered painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication. We also gave him Dicalcium phosphate (CaHPO₄) and Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) daily. MSM is used as a natural healing solution and provides biologically active sulfur. The sulfur compound lowers inflammation and helps to increase bodily tissue. MSM also increases immunity and energy levels and is used as a popular joint health supplement. The CaHPO₄ provided additional calcium for the huge bone structure.
By mid-December, we started to leave the gates to the stables open for Fishan to decide if he would like to try walking with the herd. He attempted a few times, and returned after a short walk, as it was too painful still to walk far distances. He (and we) had to be patient.
At the end of December (three months after he had initially fractured his leg) we decided to stop giving him pain and anti-inflammatory medication as it could cause an adverse effect on this stomach.
Previously, Fishan had shared his stables with Bubi and Zindoga, but during these months, Adine decided to move Fishan into the stables where Tokwe stayed with Timisa, Pisa, Limpopo and Kumbura, as he loves being with the young elephants, and they would make a fuss of him having not seen him during the days. We moved Somopane from Tokwe's stable to Bubi's, with her son and he didn't mind at all. They have stayed that way ever since!
Fishan started walking around the stable gardens a lot more - further and further with each day. We started taking him on small walks out the stables and back - a little further every day.
Fishan joined the herd for the first time out on the reserve, for a few hours. He went slow and he was exhausted when he got back and slept well, but we believe he was quite proud of himself.
From February to March, Fishan took alternate days out in the wild, until they become more frequent. And by April of 2019, he was in the wild daily again with his herd, from dusk to dawn. He took his time in the walks and often lagged behind, but he built his strength up and proved many people wrong. Fishan chose to survive!
Since injuring his leg, Fishan loves to swim more than ever, taking his time to wallow and enjoy the waters which gave him a lot of relief during his time of healing. You will very rarely see Fishan miss an opportunity to get into the water.
We are now at the end of March 2021, and his recovery over the past year has continued day by day Fishan will most likely have a limp for the rest of his life, but his walking has improved continually. The winter may bring some stiffness, which is natural for any bone injury.
Fishan developed a pressure sore on the upper side of his fractured leg over the elbow joint, after an extended period of laying on the injured leg. He chooses to lie on that leg as it is easier for him to use his healthy leg to be able to move and bend to help him get up. Pressure sores can occur when a heavy animal frequently lies on an area of their body where there is little muscle, such as a joint. In Fishan's case, it is an elbow joint.
There are tendons that run over the joint, or bone, and are very close to the skin. Fluid is created by a bursa in between the tendons that keeps them lubricated. When Fishan continually laid on that area with ongoing pressure, the bursa produced more fluid than normal until such time that the skin at the top became like a lump that eventually releases and drains the excess fluid.
The pressure sore, if continually laid upon will create scar tissue - which it has in Fishan's case - and it will most likely be there for a long time to come, though the hole may eventually close, leaving just the scar.
Every morning the elephant carers clean the wound thoroughly by flushing it, to ensure any pus that may be caused by bacteria is removed. Our trusted vet, Dr. Rogers is happy with the wound, confirming that Fishan experiences no pain from it. We will do a full interview with Dr Rogers in the coming days.
It has been an incredible journey with Fishan, and it has been amazing to see how determined he was to never give up. He inspired us every day! But we know that he knew we were beside him every step of the way - he even seems to have a closer bond with some of the carers now.
Seeing him today out in the wild, keeping up with the herd, in a very humble yet proud manner, is heart-warming for all of us.
A special thank you to everyone who was involved in his care and treatment, from our carers, to the vets and advisory team, and to our donors and followers too, who still to this day ask how Fishan is doing. May he continue to go from strength to strength!