Happy Days in AERU’s Lab!
In our previous newsletter we told you about the crowdfunding organised by Sara Larca, a volunteer who joined us for 4 weeks in March. During the two months of July and August Sara was able to raise $3,814 which is the equivalent to R55,000!!! We came to find that a lot of these donations came from you: our previous volunteers and guests to the park and for that, we thank you! We are so fortunate to have you all as our supporters and true AERU Ambassadors. Sara’s crowdfunding has enabled us to cover the expenses of measuring hormone levels in 2 ½ years’ worth of Keisha’s dung samples. Data from these samples will be compared to the observations volunteers have collected when they’ve done ‘Keisha Project’.
The aim of this project is to look at Keisha, a very sensitive elephant, and her stereotypical behaviour patterns and try to pinpoint potential triggers of this behaviour. Not only will this allow AERU to identify and possibly change those factors contributing to Keisha’s behaviour, it also has wider implications for other elephants in captivity all around the world. Understanding and reducing stereotypic behaviour in captive animals is a complex task, especially for large, intelligent animals such as elephants. Through this study, we hope to give insights to other zoo curators and captive facilities into potential triggers of stereotypic behaviour and offer advice on how to help reduce stereotypies in other animals. In turn, if this leads to them making changes to the management of their own elephants, then the welfare of those elephants could potentially also be improved and a single elephant, Keisha, could make a contribution to captive elephant welfare on a worldwide scale! As if that’s not enough, there is also funding to be able to include a full years’ worth of samples from Sally’s dung too! By including these samples, we will finally be able to conclude exactly when Sally is in oestrus.
That’s still not all!
After having all these samples processed there’s still a generous amount left. With this we want to upgrade Fiela’s Legacy Lab, the aim is to eventually be able to do our own hormone level assessments here at the park. Thank you to each and every one of you who donated towards making all of this possible. We can’t do what we do without the support from all of you; both from a distance and right here when you join our team to volunteer. This is a perfect example of what we can accomplish together. We are humbled and forever grateful for your never-ending support. To Sara Larca: a huge, elephant-sized thank you, without your initiative and hard work none of this would have happened!
A walk down memory lane…
On the 26th October the park celebrated its 24th birthday. We thought this would be a perfect time to reflect on the last two decades and where it all began! Let’s look at some of our best bits:
In 1994 Ian and Lisette Withers started the park when they took in two, four year old elephants, Harry and Sally.
In 1997 Harry became a well-known local celebrity, travelling round nearby schools to help educate and raise awareness on elephant conservation.
Geoff was employed in 1997, followed shortly by Mac in 1998, as handlers to help care for the two young elephants. The first of many guides to come through the park – and we can proudly say they are still with us today!
Sally’s now best-friend Nandi arrived back in 2002. Unbeknown to staff she came expecting a little gift and on 16th October 2003 Thandi arrived! The first baby to be born at the park, she was spoilt by humans and elephants alike – which may account for her rather mischievous attitude these days!
In 2004 the park received no less than five baby orphans! This included our beloved Keisha who came when she was a matter of weeks old. A crèche was soon created and the older elephants began assisting in looking after the babies – no mean feat!
New Year’s Day 2007 was a very special day as Shungu, the first calf to be conceived at the park, was born – an heir to Harry. 2008 would see the arrival of Mashudu and Thato. Mashudu was approximately a year when he arrived and Thato was just 6 months old.
Little Shungu Mashudu Baby Thato (right)
AERU was established in 2009 and would start its innovative work researching captive African elephants. It is still thriving today and welcomes volunteers from all over the world.
Thembi was born in 2013 to Harry and Tosha. Another special little girl with loads of character, she keeps mum and dad on their toes with her antics.
2016: Harry, Tosha, Gambo and Namib along with 5 youngsters were relocated to Plettenberg Game Reserve.
2017: Amari, Shanti and Madiwa arrive at the park.
Today, we have a family of 10 elephants here at the park. In total, we have had over 40 elephants through our doors, many of whom have been successfully relocated to other facilities and reserves. We are looking forward to seeing what the future will hold for the elephants currently residing here and where their stories will take them.
On the 24th of October we were very pleased to welcome a new addition to our resident zebra family – Mica had given birth to a beautiful baby girl! Unfortunately the new baby sparked some fighting between the rival males and a few days later Martin, one of our bachelors, “stole” Mica, her son Molo and the new baby away from their original herd. This herd reshuffling and confusion unfortunately caused Mica to reject her 4-day old baby which resulted in AERU stepping in to care for her. We named the baby Mala, and when she arrived with us she was hungry, scared and had many wounds. Looking after any baby animal is a lot of work and Mala was no different. For the first few days she required 24 hour care and attention. Despite zebras being strong animals that are born “ready” – as in they are able to stand just 20 minutes after birth and able to run a mere hour afterwards, they are dependent on their mothers for their survival and remain with her for at least their first year.
As we were stepping in as her “family”, for the first few weeks Mala needed a constant presence and comfort source – which meant that someone had to be around at all times! Mala also needed regular feeds – drinking approximately half a litre of milk every 2.5 hours. As our AERU team worked round the clock with Mala giving her lots of love, care and treatment, she turned into a feisty little zebra with lots of energy and a huge appetite!
As Mala got bigger and stronger, she was moved out of her little stable pen into a bigger outside pen where she has more space to run about and play. We also made the decision to get her a four-legged companion so that she had a furry friend instead of bonding too tightly with humans. This led to us getting a little goat named Bokkie! Bokkie was loaned to us from Renè at Plett Pancake Paradise at The Manger, who homes one of our other rescue animals – Stanli the pig. Mala and Bokkie were introduced and given the time to get to know each other. After a few days it was clear they were becoming good friends and are now regularly seen spending time eating, sleeping and playing together!
AERU still continues to watch over Mala and her progress – still making sure she gets her regular milk feeds. A huge thank you to the AERU team – staff and volunteers who have been incredible in Mala’s young life and helped out with being a companion, “watcher”, or “food-bringer” to Mala. Once again, we could not have done it without our wonderful volunteers!
In our last newsletter we introduced you to Muddy Pooches, a local community-run project aimed at educating children of a nearby location on how to care for their dogs and be responsible pet owners. Off the back of this we had made the decision to make 20 kennels to help do our bit. Here are some of the owners receiving their kennels…
A Dose of CHILL for Mashudu
It’s hard for some of us to believe, but Mashudu and Shungu are both now over 11 years old. After the two boys finally sorted out between themselves a couple of years ago that Mash is the more dominant, he went through a growth spurt associated with a surge of testosterone, and began to look and behave more like a mini bull elephant than a juvenile. This is a normal stage in the life of a young male, but Mashudu’s adolescence has one important difference from wild elephants: there are no mature bulls around to keep him in check! A wild male, as he grows up, naturally disperses from his mother’s herd and joins other males in a bachelor group. These groups are often led by a mature bull whose role is to set an example to the youngsters and teach them manners as well as skills. The teenagers always know their place!
Without this older male role model, Mashudu’s hormones were starting to take over. His brain had recognised that Mash himself was the dominant male around these parts, and was valiantly preparing his body for the responsibility of attending to all these females! But testosterone also affects elephants’ behaviour in predictable ways. Recently, Mash was becoming noticeably more cocky, more likely to take risks and test boundaries. This new “I’m my own man” attitude was not entirely welcomed by humans or elephants! Keisha was definitely not a fan – as a naturally gentle and peaceful elephant not much larger than Mash, she was an easy target for his less polite behaviour such as pushing her away from the barrier.
Fortunately, research again had a solution. For several years, AERU has been involved with the GNRH project led by German specialist Dr. Imke Lueders and South African wildlife vet Professor Henk Bertschinger. This exciting study has been testing the use of a contraceptive jab for male elephants, which works by reducing testosterone production. And that means some very useful side-effects for males whose hormones are causing behaviour problems – even wild adult bulls with dangerous levels of aggression. Without such a hormone flood in his brain, Mashudu should start to feel much calmer and more chilled out.
Mash had his first jab recently, and AERU volunteers are now helping us to monitor the changes in his behaviour – as well as Shungu’s! As Shungu has not yet had a jab, we need to keep a close eye on when he notices the change in his playmate, and whether his own behaviour will change as a result. Watch this space…
Entertainment for Elephants
If you spent time with AERU over the winters of 2015 or 2017, you’ll probably remember our student projects investigating the potential for classical music as a form of environmental enrichment for captive elephants. Those projects, plus a kind donation, have now resulted in a regular program of musical entertainment for our ellies! It started back when the elephants were kept in individual pens at night inside the boma. What if, besides physical ‘toys’ to stimulate the elephants mentally and stave off boredom, we offered sound as a different type of enrichment? Scientists had already found positive effects in some other species as well as humans. Enter 2015 student Brooke Reilly, whose placement with AERU involved playing a variety of carefully chosen music and sound effects to the ellies on different nights. Brooke found that white noise and natural savannah animal sounds did not reduce the occasional stereotypic behaviours the penned elephants were displaying… but the classical music did! What’s more, out of the two music playlists – one at a slow tempo, one fast – the slow playlist was associated with a greater proportion of sleep-standing behaviour from the ellies. Fast-forward to 2017, when Hannah Hurt arrived to continue the music project from a different angle. By now the ellies had enjoyed the open boma for some time – would the music still have a beneficial effect? Hannah created four playlists of instrumental classical music and had humans assess the mood of each one. And the ellies definitely had their preferences! Sad music had a similar effect to Brooke’s slow music: more restful behaviour like sleeping. But calm and playful music were also popular, with an increase in behaviours like peacefully foraging and just standing to listen to the music. Both student studies required connecting spools of cable to the speakers every evening, and error-prone CDs which had to be manually changed. This is why it was never practical to make music a regular feature of the enrichment calendar. But this year, thanks to the generosity of the Aldridge family, we now have a tiny (but extremely powerful) battery-powered speaker… plug in a flash drive with the music on, and we’re ready to go! Now, if you stay in the Lodge on a Thursday, you’ll be treated to the unique pleasure of watching elephants enjoy their weekly musical entertainment as they browse and snooze… tracks collated by our research students and chosen by the ellies. Thursday night is karaoke night!
Mala @ Midnight
As I snuggle down under my blankets and look up at the stars, I am slightly amused by my surroundings. I am currently on a small mattress, on my colleague’s stoep, with a baby zebra to my right. I never imagined I would be here. I’m actually surprised at how comfortable I am and how easily I manage to drift off. Roughly two hours later I awake to the sense that someone is watching me. I open my eyes and my gaze is met by Mala, who is almost muzzle to nose with me. I swear I can feel her breath. I look at the time and gather by the faces that Mala is pulling – and the close proximity, it must be time for a feed! I reach round to the bottle I have stashed away and start the process of cooling it down, all the while Mala is watching my every move with her big, wide eyes. She starts gently nibbling at my hand and suckling on my finger. I reassure her that the milk is coming and I am going as fast as I can. In what seems like an eternity (I am sure for the both of us) the milk is cool enough for her to drink. Mala guzzles it like she has never been fed! After her feed Mala moves away, circles a few times and finds her bed once more in the sawdust. The next time I am to be woken by Mala it is again with her stood over me but this time it is her back legs, I move myself and my blanket just in time before she pees! Oh the glamour!
Roll forwards a few weeks, Mala has become stronger and we’ve decide it is time for her to sleep in her bigger pen. I am on duty and can see that as it is getting dark she is a little unnerved by the new bed time routine and larger surroundings. I decide to pull out the small wicker couch so although I will be on the other side of the fence I am in sight. This works and within minutes Mala is crashed out asleep – I’m glad one of us managed to sleep that night! The next task we try and conquer is getting Mala to use her shelter. One particularly rainy night, I find myself in the early hours (approximately 1:26, but who’s counting) in said shelter with Mala and Bokkie, the pygmy goat. The baby zebra won’t come in from the downpour unless one of her humans sets an example first, so here I am, huddling on the sawdust with the rain hammering on the low roof. I can feel Mala’s whiskers snuffling at my hands (milk? milk?) while Bokkie chews the cud and fixes me with an unbroken stare. I’m definitely being judged by a goat right now. As the zebra and her four-legged nanny get more and more fond of each other, Mala starts to sleep near the goat and give me a little breathing space. It’s bittersweet – for all the lost hours of sleep, this quirky infant has given us some absurd, delightful memories.
One final message to all of you across the globe, with love from all of us here at AERU: