Heartbreaking Video Shows Elephant Calf Rescue Attempt Flight

An American missionary and pilot shows the sad tale of Max the baby elephant.

ByABC News
September 11, 2014, 2:24 PM

— -- It's not often a baby elephant takes to the skies above central Africa. The reason for this extraordinary flight is rooted in the ruthless decimation of the elephant population in Africa.

The story of the elephant video begins with Gary Roberts, 36, an American missionary and pilot at a remote hospital in Southern Chad. Roberts, a self-described "nurse by training and mechanic by default," has one of the few airplanes in the region. It was March 2013 when the director of Chad's national park contacted him to assist with a search for a lone elephant calf that was rumored to have survived the massacre of a 100-elephant herd at the hands of poachers.

After aerial searching and then a two-hour drive, the baby elephant, who Roberts named Max, was discovered tied to a tree and being taunted by some young villagers some 100 miles from the massacre site. Roberts took to the skies to bring Max to park wildlife experts with the help of his wife and a colleague.

"It was so far apart it couldn’t be true," Roberts told ABC News. "We followed the rumor for a couple days to pinpoint where it was."

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"We were trying to keep the elephant rehydrated. Early the next morning we were able to take off, when the video was taken," he said.

The video shows Max moving his trunk around the small four-person airplane. Roberts' wife is barely seen in the shot, sitting in the back with Max, as the human passengers try to give the nine-week old calf water.

"I grew up in Africa and enjoy animals. We’ve often helped out with different wildlife operations in Chad because we have the only or closest airplanes," he said.

Among the animals that Roberts have flown: monkey, goat, sheep, pigs and crocodiles ("mostly small ones in the cabin, but we carried larger ones in the belly of the airplane," he said).

Max's story has a sad ending though: he died about 10 days later. Roberts said he believes Max died due to lack of proper nutrition and care when he was first captured. He said there were indications Max was fed cow's milk, which can be unhealthy if not toxic to elephants. But he believes emotional stress was the main reason for Max's death.

"That one saw its whole family massacred - that was a huge contributing factor," he said, adding that elephants are hard to raise in captivity in the best of conditions. "The odds with this elephant were next to nil from the beginning."

While Roberts is back in the United States this month, he has been spreading awareness about the growing level of poaching that has brought the elephant population at Zakouma National Park in Chad from 4,000 to 450 in six years, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

As Roberts and his wife await visas to go to Chad or Indonesia, he occasionally fields calls about Max's video, which has made its rounds in the global media circuit, including The Smithsonian magazine and the BBC.

"I just hope to do anything to raise awareness of this," he said.