Pretorius, Y., Eggeling, T., Ganswindt, A. 2023. Identifying potential measures of stress and disturbance during a captive to wild African elephant reintegration. PLOS ONE 18(10), e0291293.

There is increasing evidence of compromised welfare for elephants managed in captivity. Should such facilities eventually close, more elephants will need to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into the wild. The goal of such reintegration would be to restore any physical or psychological aspects of the elephant that may have been compromised in captivity, followed by introduction into a free-roaming system where they can interact with other elephants. However, to achieve this goal, the reintegration methods implemented need to be assessed to ensure that welfare remains the priority. The objective of this study was to test whether parameters generally associated with stress and disturbance in African elephants, respond to changes in potentially stressful environmental conditions, assessed at multiple temporal scales ranging from minutes to months. The main changes in environmental conditions that were investigated included the different phases of reintegration of a group of elephants from captivity into the wild. Stress and disturbance related parameters used for comparisons included physiological responses, namely the extent of temporal gland secretions (eTGS) and faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGCM) levels as well as behavioural responses, namely the display of stereotype and stress-related behaviours. Results showed that eTGS significantly increased during the initial release of the elephants compared to when in captivity. Stereotypic behaviours were only recorded during the captive phase and immediately ceased after release. Faecal GCM levels spiked in the first year after release before decreasing back to pre-reintegration levels during the third year. These findings indicate that fGCM levels, the eTGS and disturbance related behaviours all proved effective in explaining the changes in stress and disturbance experienced by elephants during the initial years after being reintegrated from captivity into the wild.

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