WHAT happens to translocated elephants that have been moved hundreds of kilometres away from their homes, due to human-elephant conflict? A number of things: some elephants might find a new herd, some might try finding their way back to their home, whilst others might just wander alone, like Mak Jalong, an elephant that was translocated from her home a year ago, due to crop-raiding behaviour.
Only time will tell whether she integrates to become a reproductively healthy member of the local elephant population. But now, for the first time since translocation began in the 1970s, a systematic effort is being made to keep track of what happens to elephants once they are released.
We may not be able to read an elephant’s mind, but we can analyse the hormones in their poo. Aside from keeping track of their movements via GPS satellite collars, analysing glucocorticoid concentrations contained within elephant dung can help us understand how these animals are responding to translocation.
Glucocorticoid is a hormone that increases in response to stress. The problem is that samples need to be fresh, and analysed quickly, because faecal metabolites degrade due to microbial activity and changes in the natural environment. Keeping them frozen helps, but there is only so much a hand-carried cooler can do whilst trekking in the jungle.
Which is why Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) researcher Wong Ee Phin is in the midst of adapting a field-hormone extraction method to enable on-the-spot hormone analysis in the Malaysian rainforest. She is tweaking the technique, developed by biologist Sue Walker and her team at Chester Zoo in England, to work in local conditions.
It consists of a self-made hormone analysis kit that looks like a rectangular block, full of little wells of gel containing antibodies designed to bind specific chemical compounds. Wong plans to use special cartridges to inject purified hormones from dung samples into the wells, which will change colour to indicate the presence, and concentration of specific hormones. Wong also look at parasite loads in the dung, which provide an indicator of an elephant’s health and environment.
The principle behind hormone analysis are not new but applying it to field work in the jungle is. Currently, Wong’s hormone analysis is restricted to dung samples found at the forest edges as she has to rush back to the lab refrigerator before her samples degrade.
If it all goes well however, MEME will soon be providing data, through makeshift labs set up right in the middle of the jungle floor. This means researchers will be able to compare things like stress levels and health conditions of elephants living deep within the rainforest, as well as those living at the interface between forest and human-dominated landscapes.