Physiological measure of animal welfare in relation to semi-captive African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) interaction programs
Elephant interaction programs, specifically ones that provide elephant back riding, have come under public scrutiny, and little information exists to show whether these activities affect animal welfare. This study examined the impact of human interactions and ride-based activities on physiological stress-related indicators in African elephants. Fifteen trained semi-captive elephants, as well as free-ranging elephants roaming under the same ecological conditions, were monitored. Faecal samples were collected over a nine-month period from both groups and these were analysed using an enzyme immunoassay detecting faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (fGCMs) with a 5β-α-ol-11-one structure. Elephants that participated in elephant-back-safari (EBS) activities showed significant decreases in fGCM concentrations when EBS were discontinued. Similarly, fGCM concentrations of the trained semi-captive individuals that did not participate in EBS showed decreased steroid concentrations over the same time. Overall, fGCM concentrations of the trained semi-captive herd and the free-ranging herd did not differ significantly. The collected data will help to better understand the physiological and behavioural requirements of semi-captive elephants with frequent exposure to humans. The findings will also help to optimise management strategies for wild elephant populations and elephants living in controlled environments on reserves exposed to wildlife tourism.
Keywords: conservation, elephant, endocrinology, faecal, physiology, stress