To us at Camp Jabulani, the physical and emotional well being of our elephants is of the utmost importance. For this reason we conducted a pilot study to assess the stress levels of our semi-captive elephant herd since there are perceptions that captive elephants are generally stressed by their routines and because of their contact with humans.
Determining the stress levels of elephants can be done in several ways. Firstly, by studying their body language that may be indicative of them being stressed– tell-tale signs include behavioural patterns such as ear-flapping, elephants swinging their feet at a disturbance, head shakes, tails sticking out horizontally, mock and real charges, and secretions from their temporal glands. This type of observation is rather crude and these behavioural patterns are only rough indications of the presence of stress but do not quantify the levels of stress that may be present.
The levels of stress hormones – cortisol – levels in the blood are accurate indicators of stress and these can be detected in blood samples taken from the animals at the time of observation. However, obtaining a blood sample from wild elephants can be stressful, it is expensive, and collecting a blood sample is easier said than done. In addition, immobilising an elephant in itself is a stressful situation, and the levels of cortisol in blood collected under these conditions, may be elevated and no conclusion on their relevance can then be made.
Fortunately, researchers found that specific glucocorticoids, metabolites of stress hormones, are excreted in elephants’ urine and faeces, and that their concentration there can similarly be used as indicators of stress. By collecting elephant dung after an elephant has defecated and moved on, researchers can be relatively sure that they have not stressed the elephant in the process of collecting a sample, and that the corticoid levels in the faeces will be an accurate indicator of the stress levels of the specific animal.
Dr André Ganswindt, Professor and Head: Department of Anatomy and Physiology, at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, conducted such a study at Camp Jabulani.
The aim of this pilot study was to examine the feasibility of faecal sample collection from elephants housed at Camp Jabulani, and from the wild herd roaming freely on the Kapama Private Game Reserve. The collected material was analysed and the resulting faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGCM) concentration from the Camp Jabulani and wild elephants compared. Hormone analyses were conducted using an established method, including an enzyme-immunoassay detecting fGCMs with a 5β-3α-ol-11-one structure (11-oxoetiocholanalone EIA).
Samples from 14 Camp Jabulani elephants were collected between 8 and 25 May 2016 (n=5 samples per individual), and from the free-roaming population from 26 May until 17 July 2016 (total of 20 samples). This procedure was repeated again in November 2016, and January 2017.
There were no significant differences between overall fGCM concentrations of the two groups. In terms of glucocorticoid levels done on elephants elsewhere, the concentration of glucocorticoids in the captive and free-ranging herds of elephants on Kapama, was low, indicating that neither group was stressed. To us this initial finding is important as it indicates that the way in which we keep and manage our semi-captive herd, in addition to their contact with tourists, do not stress them unduly.
Watch the clips below as Dr André Ganswindt explains the dung collection process and how stress levels are determined:
What we hoped to learn from this study
Camp Jabulani, with its trained elephant group as well as surrounding free-ranging elephants on the reserve, offers a unique opportunity for addressing proximate and ultimate questions concerning regulative endocrine mechanisms, which in combination with other factors, like social or ecological changes, influence and control animal behaviour
The possibility of frequent non-invasive sample collection from the trained animals, as well as sample collection from their free-ranging counterparts offers a rare opportunity to monitor alterations in hormone concentration in a longitudinal and comparative approach to examine reproductive function and responses to stressors in this flagship species
Sample collection process
Collecting the samples correctly were very important and Dr André Ganswindt spent time showing and explaining the collection process to the staff. This included:
- Approximately 50g of homogenized (well-mixed) elephant droppings had to be collected, ideally directly after the elephant has defecated and moved away, but within 30 minutes of doing so.
- The person collecting the dung had to use gloves and collect material from the centre of the dung pat to avoid cross-contamination with urine, soil or other faecal material in the area. Each glove was to be used only once, and the sample container to be filled only 2/3.
- It was important that samples were frozen immediately after collection to limit degradation of metabolites by bacterial enzymes. If logistically impossible, the samples were to be placed on ice immediately and frozen within a defined time after collection (e.g. within 1 hour of defecating).
- The samples had to be stored in a freezer until analysed (including transportation to the laboratory).
- Labelling was also very important
Watch below clips on how sample collection should be done:
In November 2016, a further 50 samples were collected from the Jabulani herd and another 50 samples in January 2017. The results are still outstanding.
Hormone extraction and analysis will take place at the Endocrine Research Laboratory of the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort.