Two members of an anti-poaching team were on an early morning scouting mission in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe last week when they came across a ghastly sight, as reported by National Geographic.

"To our surprise we noticed four extremely large grey legs sticking out of the manmade water trough, which is there to supply clean drinking water," Tom Lautenbach told National Geographic. "We then realized that the legs were of an elephant."

Lautenbach and Gift Kgadima, drone pilots from the anti-poaching team of Air Shepherd, believed the young elephant had been killed by poachers, who are known to drop a few kilos of cyanide into watering holes to poison elephants.

But the sad sight turned hopeful when the upside-down elephant began thrashing about. It wasn't dead after all, but it was about to drown.

"One of the guys held its trunk out [of the water so it could breathe] and [another] went for help," one of the rescuers said in an Air Shepherd post on Facebook. "If we had not seen it, [it] would have been dead 20 minutes later."

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The drone pilots initially attempted to rescue the elephant by tying a rope around its foot and dragging it out of the water with their vehicle. That didn't work so they called in staff from the national park. With another rope and a team of rescuers, they managed to pull the elephant to its feet.

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“He was of course exhausted and frightened and was not able to stand for a while,” says Lautenbach. “We waited for a bit for the elephant to regain his strength and then we decided to push him out from the one end out to the shallower end, where he could easily walk away, which he did.”

[Otto Werdmuller] Von Elgg [director of Air Shepherd] says Air Shepherd crews have been using drones to fight poachers in South Africa for about four years, starting in the iconic Kruger National Park. The team uses small, silent drones and often flies at night, so the craft are very hard to detect. Still, word of their use in a particular area tends to spread quickly among poachers’ networks, often driving the would-be criminals away.

During the dry season, which is happening now, animals tend to concentrate around watering holes, where they can be sitting ducks for poachers. So Air Shepherd patrols those areas heavily, particularly the watering holes that are closest to villages or easiest for poachers to get to.

Fortunately the poachers didn't get this young elephant, who, along with its rescuers, enjoyed a happy ending.

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