An Update from the Elephants…by Fiona Sach

Elephants within the Kruger National Park
The last year has been an absolute whirlwind of activity involving fieldwork at five UK Zoos, in the Kruger National Park and at a nearby mine in South Africa. There has been seemingly endless sample preparation, sample analysis and now, just recently, I have started to analyse the data generated. It is tremendously exciting to see these data from the UK zoo elephants, their diets and their environments and to use this information to identify the best matrix for reflecting mineral levels in free-living counter-parts. This unique, interdisciplinary project involves environmental geochemistry, plant science, and animal health between a range of partners including BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN) through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, South African National Parks Authority (SANParks), South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and Elephants Alive (EA). Read more about the project in a previous blog here.

The working hypothesis for this project is that African elephants (Loxodonta Africana) are being drawn towards a mining area just outside the Kruger National Park in South Africa, due to the unique geochemistry of the area. Previous studies have suggested that the soil in areas surrounding the mine, and associated plant and elephant faecal samples may be low in minerals such as phosphorus, causing a deficiency in the plants, and driving the elephants to seek these minerals elsewhere. It is therefore thought that the elephants may be attracted to the mining area due to the mineral provision in the plants, soil and water. Unfortunately, elephant incursion into the mine and nearby human settlements has resulted in human-elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and loss of income. It is hoped that the results of the project may help to inform key locations in the elephants’ home range where mineral-supplemented forage or mineral licks may be placed to reduce the drive to seek additional sources of minerals, thereby reducing human-elephant conflict.

African elephants on land next to direct mine site
Last summer I spent a fantastic month in South Africa on fieldwork sampling soil, water, elephant faeces and plants (from the 6 key browse species consumed by elephants) in the Kruger National Park, Associated Private Nature Reserves and directly on and around the mine. In addition, dust samples from the plants in the mining area were collected. These samples have been processed and analysed using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) to give a suite of 55 elements (to account for any nutrient interactions).

The project is very fortunate to have access to banked blood and tail hair samples from the Kruger National Park BioBank, collected opportunistically from elephants within the Kruger National Park, banked tail hair, toenail and blood samples from collared elephants monitored by Elephants Alive (EA), as well as tracking data from seven animals collared by EA on the mine site. These data greatly inform elephant movement and thus the sampling strategy for environmental sampling in the area, as well as providing a baseline level for minerals in African Elephants (Loxodonta Africana). I am very much looking forward to processing and analysing these samples in the coming months and pairing the data with the appropriate environmental samples.

I would like to thank the fantastic field team and especially our game guard Desmond who gave great reassurance during long bush walks – his knowledge and experience was phenomenal. I would also like to thank all of the staff at SAEON who gave up vast amounts of time to assist with fieldwork, scientific services and Peter Buss & the veterinary department at SANParks (KNP) and collaborator Michelle Henley from Elephants Alive.

I would like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to all five of the UK zoos which have assisted with this project to date; Colchester Zoo, Knowsley Safari, Twycross Zoo, Noahs Ark Zoo Farm and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, to all the elephant keepers for collecting the samples and acting as an endless bank of knowledge for the animals they care for, the vet and research teams for assisting with logistics, and of course the elephants themselves. I am enormously excited to visit each zoo in the coming year and explain the results obtained, to provide a profile of the mineral status of each animal and hopefully give the zoos valuable data, to aid them in continuing to advance the captive care of these phenomenal animals.