Pretoria vets get to the tusk at hand in 4-hour operation on elephant in Georgia

Dr Adrian Tordiffe (in green shirt) monitors Grand during the surgery.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe (in green shirt) monitors Grand during the surgery.

Two world-renowned University of Pretoria (UP) veterinarians last week performed intricate dental surgery on an elephant in Georgia.

Professor Gerhard Steenkamp and Dr Adrian Tordiffe performed the surgery to remove an infected tusk, UP said in a statement on its website on Monday.  

According to the university, the surgery was conducted at the Tbilisi Zoo in Georgia, a small Eurasian country nestled between the Caucasus mountains, on October 31.

Steenkamp, who teaches courses in animal dentistry and maxillofacial surgery at UP's faculty of veterinary science, said: "The zoo experienced tremendous heartache three years ago when it flooded within minutes and lost about 300 animals. They currently have a pair of Asian elephants and a 23-year-old bull, Grand, was a gift from the Yerevan Zoo in Armenia four years ago."

When Grand was transported to the Yerevan Zoo from Russia he fractured both his tusks, and had the left tusk removed in 2014 by a British team.

'Chronically infected'

Due to complications, the right tusk could not be removed. It became chronically infected and bacteria could have entered the bloodstream, which may have been life-threatening, according to the statement.

"Grand's previous surgery had many complications. One of them was a protracted recovery time, and the zoo was reluctant to operate on him soon after that procedure," Steenkamp says.

However, Tordiffe, who gained experience in elephant immobilisations and anaesthesia while working at the Pretoria Zoo and has vast knowledge of anaesthetising elephants in small spaces, was the perfect choice to perform surgery on Grand.

Steenkamp has been developing techniques to treat elephant tusks since 1998. He has been able to refine his instruments and methods, which are based on work he completed for his MSc on the morphometrics of African elephant tusks.

The entire procedure from dart in to standing took four hours and 15 minutes.

Dr Adrian Tordiffe with the ventilator as Prof Ger

Dr Adrian Tordiffe with the ventilator as Prof Gerhard Steenkamp gets to work. (UP)

Of this, just over three hours was actually surgery time. A crane was parked in the vicinity to move the 3.5t elephant, in the event of it being in an inconvenient position for surgery, Steenkamp explains.

"The anaesthesia and surgery went according to plan, and everyone was relieved when Grand stood on his legs four hours and 15 minutes later. His previous recovery from anaesthesia was very stormy, and was about six hours, and he took about 12 hours to stand. It was humbling when the whole crowd burst into applause when he stood. It was clear that this elephant meant so much to the people of Georgia, and they were so relieved for him."

'Extremely nervous'

Steenkamp says the medical team "was extremely nervous, as the drug we would normally use, etorphine, is forbidden in Georgia. We had to use drugs we were not experienced in. The danger of the surgery is mainly to make sure that all the people involved are safe, as we are working with a dangerous animal. The surgery itself is not dangerous, but difficult and physically demanding".

Grand has become a celebrity in Georgia, and on the day of the operation, a crowd of international news crews descended on the zoo. The surgery was filmed by the BBC as part of its new series Big Animal Surgery.

"Elephant immobilisation is taken for granted in southern Africa, as our veterinarians are often called to perform these procedures. Keeping an elephant anaesthetised for long periods of time is not so common and to gain experience in this takes time. When we look to zoos elsewhere in the world elephant anaesthesia is not performed commonly at all. Dr Tordiffe therefore stands out as a leader in this field, and it is a privilege to work with him," said Steenkamp. 

Zoo and wildlife dentistry is in its infancy within the international veterinary community and here Steenkamp is again a leader, according to UP.

He recently became an organising member of the Zoo and Wildlife Dentistry Certificate under the auspices of the American Veterinary Dental College. He is one of 15 people in the world who holds this certificate, which recognises vets with expertise in zoo and wildlife dentistry. His expertise in the field, especially regarding elephant teeth, is well established worldwide.

He and Tordiffe have travelled the world treating elephants in Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe.

Dr Adrian Tordiffe with the ventilator as Prof Ger

The surgery was not dangerous but was difficult and physically demanding. (Supplied)

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