Garai, M. E., Roos, T., Eggeling, T. et al. 2022. Developing welfare parameters for African elephants (Loxodonta africana) in fenced reserves in South Africa. PLoS ONE 17(3), e0264931.
South Africa has many fenced reserves harbouring small to medium sized populations of African elephant (Loxodonta africana), most of which have been translocated. Elephants on fenced reserves may be exposed to various management interventions and practices (translocation, hunting, darting, high tourism impact, contraception programs, disruption due to infrastructure maintenance, etc.). These factors may impact the welfare of elephants. Poor elephant welfare may have serious consequences such as increased inter- and intra-species aggression that could result in fatalities. This is the first study to attempt to define behavioural and physiological welfare parameters for free-ranging elephants on small to medium sized reserves. The eight study sites incorporated reserves with different social structure combinations, elephant life-histories, reserve sizes, habitat, management, and tourism intensity. Data collection consisted of behavioural observations (10-minute videos) as well as faecal samples. By incorporating both behavioural and physiological (faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGCM) concentration) parameters, we aimed to investigate whether the two parameters showed similar trends. Five behavioural categories were identified (Arousal, Assessing, Ambivalent, Ambivalent/ Body care, and Frustrated behaviour), with various detailed behaviours demonstrated by the elephants that may indicate the influence of anthropogenic disturbance and possibly impact on animal welfare. The study showed significant differences between the selected detailed behaviours, behavioural categories and fGCM concentrations of elephants across the eight reserves. History seemed to be a decisive factor, as reserves with predominantly ex-captive elephants showed higher frequencies of certain behaviours as well as higher fGCM concentrations. Age, sex, reserve size and season were also found to contribute to our defined welfare indices and fGCM concentrations. This indicates that behavioural parameters, indicative of certain behavioural states, are valuable indicators of welfare, as supported by the physiological response of the elephants. The results also highlight the importance of taking multiple specified behaviours from a category into consideration when evaluating the welfare of elephants, to account for individual variation.