Are land-use decisions by African elephants influenced by environmental geochemistry?

African elephants at Knowsley Safari Park
African elephants at Knowsley Safari Park

This is a unique, interdisciplinary project involving environmental geochemistry, plant science and animal health between a range of partners, including the BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN) to address research questions that have important and practical implications for wildlife health and conservation.

The working hypothesis is that the elephants in the study group in a South African National Park are deficient in phosphorus, owing to a deficiency in the (soil and) forage in the park. This drives the elephants to supplement their phosphorus from the water, soil and forage on land surrounding a phosphate mine in close proximity to the National Park. Elephant incursion into nearby human settlements has resulted in human–elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and lost income.

This project may identify 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 phosphorus; this could reduce human–elephant conflict. This project provides opportunities for varied work: fieldwork in UK zoos and South Africa for environmental/biomonitoring analyses of wild elephants, specialist laboratory and data-interpretation training at the BGS and UoN, and translation into advice to relevant stakeholders. The multi–element capability of inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP–MS) for measuring environmental and biomonitoring samples enables an estimation of mineral balance and potential metal uptake.

In the first phase of the project, mineral levels in a range of biological samples (serum, hair, nails) from elephants at five UK zoos will be measured to validate their use as possible biomarkers of mineral status in wild elephants. The mineral content of food, soil and water consumed by these elephants will be determined. The second phase of this project will apply these validated methods to a study of wild African elephants.

Sample collection

Tail hair sample

The first sample collection was undertaken at Knowsley Safari Park in Merseyside in April 2016. The keepers were extremely interested in the possibilities of the project and enthusiastically shared their immense knowledge on the measures they undertake to ensure the welfare of their elephants, the individual elephant dietary intakes and idiosyncrasies of each elephant. We initially started with an evaluation of food and water intake through sample collections. These samples will be measured for 'essential' mineral content (e.g. zinc, iron) to determine dietary intakes and possible seasonal changes in forage and hay over the next 12 months. These data will be related to mineral measurements in the elephants' toenails, plasma, tail hair and faeces to validate methodologies for use and comparison with wild elephants.

The second set of smaples was taken at Knowsley in June 2016. It was especially exciting to collect a longitudinal toenail sample from one individual, which will be analysed by spatial analysis using techniques such as laser ablation coupled to ICP-MS or ion-beam analysis to give an indication of mineral status over time in that elephant.

We then moved on to Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire for the first very successful sample collection at this facility.

Funding and partners

This work will be focused on a PhD project from the NERC Envision Doctoral Training Programme, with additional support from the Hermes Trust and the Royal Society International Exchange scheme.

The project is based on a Centre for Environmental Geochemistry collaboration between the inorganic geochemistry (led by Michael Watts) and stable isotopes (led by Melanie Leng) teams at BGS, and the Schools of Veterinary Medicine and Science (led by Dr Lisa Yon) and Biosciences (led by Prof Martin Broadley) at the University of Nottingham.

The collaboration is further strengthened by partners in five UK zoos and with partners in South Africa who have been studying elephant populations there for the past two decades, tracking elephant movements using GPS and GMS to better understand their habitat use.


African elephant keepers

We would like to thank Stephen Cunningham and his team at Knowsley Safari Park for their enthusiasm and collaboration, particularly as part of the launch of the project and helping us to improve our planned methodology for sample collection and interpretation of data as the project proceeds.

We would like to thank all of the elephant team at Twycross Zoo, especially team leader Andy Durham, and the veterinary team for their assistance.

And of course, we thank the elephants for their ongoing cooperation.


Please contact Michael Watts for more information.