PhD: Are Land Use Decisions of African Elephants Based on Environmental Geochemistry
British Geological Survey
Email Fiona Sach at British Geological Survey
I have been working for four years at the Zoological Society of London, London and Whipsnade Zoo where I was the Nutrition and Research Officer. My role included maintaining accurate diet records for all the animals within the Living Collection, reviewing animal diets based on clinical need, working with the procurement team to source the myriad of food items needed to feed a zoo and working with keepers to implement diet changes. In addition to this I am the Nutrition Adviser for the EAZA Elephant TAG (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) and a Research Adviser for the BIAZA Elephant Focus Group ( British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) . This experience has put me in touch with the global captive elephant community and given me an insight to the work zoos can do to benefit wild counterparts, a vitally important role of the modern zoo.
This is a unique, interdisciplinary project involving environmental geochemistry, plant science, and animal health between a range of partners, including BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN) to address research questions which have important and practical implications for wildlife health and conservation. 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 bio markers of mineral status in wild elephants. The mineral content of all food, soil and water consumed by these elephants will be determined.This is a brilliant example of the contribution captive animals can make to directly benefit research on their wild counterparts.
The second phase of this project will apply these validated methods to a study of wild African elephants. The multi–element capability of ICP–MS for measuring environmental/biomonitoring samples enables an estimation of mineral balance and potential metal uptake. The working hypothesis is that the elephants in this study group are deficient in phosphorus, owing to a deficiency in the (soil and) forage in the Kruger National 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 BGS and UoN and translation into advice to relevant stakeholders.