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Many tourists travel across the globe for the interaction of a lifetime with the largest land animal on the planet: The African Elephant.

These experiences have given people from a variety of different backgrounds an appreciation, understanding and passion to protect this species. However, elephant interaction programs, specifically ones that provide elephant-back riding as a service, have come under great public scrutiny within the past decade, as animal rights activist have made a broad claim that captive elephants are “forced” to participate in these programs and experience “unnatural levels of stress” due to these interactions. Thus far, however, no comprehensive information exists to prove whether these claims are just. Therefore, well-defined studies need to be conducted to gather reliable information on the behavioural and physiological effects human interaction based activities have on these elephants in order to evaluate respective claims. The desire to discover the truth and answer this question once and for all is what inspired a research project here at Camp Jabulani, which I’m fortunate to be part of.

The Camp Jabulani herd is a researcher’s dream to study. Their unique social structure is one that you would not find in the wild, as fully matured bulls live happily alongside adult females and calves. The background of the herd, their desperate plight to be rescued from a culling operation in Zimbabwe, also sets them apart from their wild counterparts.

The focus of my research project is on fecal glucocorticoids, stress hormones, that are found in the dung of animals. Since January 2017, I’ve been taking weekly fecal samples from the members of the Camp Jabulani herd and monthly fecal samples have been taken from the wild herd members living on the Kapama Game Reserve.

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The hormones extracted from these fecal samples will be compared to one another to see how the elephants living at Camp Jabulani compare to their Kapama wild counterparts. The fecal samples will be analyzed next year (2018) January when I’ll be returning to the laboratory at the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort to process the samples. It’s amazing how much poop can tell us about the health and well-being of an animal! However, when paired with behavioural observations, the research findings can be even more substantial.

With that in mind, according to some behavioural observations taken so far, it seems that the Camp Jabulani herd is displaying a large percentage of comfort, feeding and social behaviours. These behaviours can all be representative of comfortable, healthy and happy elephants. I’m excited for the research on the Camp Jabulani elephants to continue through to the end of this year and for the results to be published after analysis next year. Let us continue to strive at making the world a better place for our beloved giants and other wildlife. Happy World Elephant Day everyone!

More about the author:

Where are you from and what brought you to South Africa?

I am from Chicago, Illinois in the United States. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor in Animal Science. I then accepted an internship at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, working as their endocrinologist intern for seven months. There I studied stress and reproduction hormones on animals, ranging from red river hogs to African elephants. I even got to call the hormone drop (progesterone drop) on one of our pregnant female elephants before she gave birth a few days later.

My fellow intern and best friend at Animal Kingdom, Macie Smith, showed me this posting from the University of Pretoria saying that they were searching for a new master’s student. The programme focused on fecal glucocorticoids, and the same stress hormones I had experience with while working at Disney. I immediately applied for the position and was fortunate enough to be chosen.

I literally completed my internship at Disney a month after the University’s offer, packed my bags and traveled home for a few weeks to apply for my visas and get my travel vaccinations, and then was in South Africa the following month! Those two months were quite hectic, but it was so worth it in the end!

 

 

 

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