Digestive problems are extremely dangerous in both wild and captive elephants – did you know that something that seems as ‘ordinary’ as constipation or diarrhoea can kill an elephant? Read on to see why…
For any elephant, maintaining a healthy digestive system is not easy, but it is so important. Because of their plant-based diet, elephants need a healthy gut, containing a range of helpful microbes which slowly digest plant fibre (cellulose). This produces fatty acids, which the elephant can absorb for energy. If an elephant eats too much fibrous material at once, this can slow digestion so much that it can diminish appetite and prevent them from eating enough.
If an elephant eats lots of starchy foods like bananas, these are digested very quickly, producing excess gas which can bloat and damage the gut and cause constipation. It is also very uncomfortable and can cause a lot of pain. It is a bit like some forms of colic in horses, and also occurs in ruminants like cattle and goats. It can be fatal, so it is vital to provide a balance of tough, fibrous foods and only give bananas and other easily-digested foods as a treat.
With captive elephants, colic can also be caused by feeding too many or badly formulated supplements or pellet balls, and also by internal parasites, or sudden changes to either diet (upsetting gut bacteria) or routine (upsetting the elephant). Elephant care is a challenge requiring complete dedication, observation and sensitivity.
Caring for domestic elephants:
Kwan-chaangs (elephant carers, also known by the Hindi word ‘mahout’) need to ensure that bananas or pellet balls are fed sparingly and that a variety of roughage is available for their elephants to slowly graze on throughout the day. This mimics an elephant’s natural feeding strategy. If changes to diet or routine are necessary, these have to be phased in over several weeks, while kwan-chaangs monitor their elephants’ stance, body condition and mood to ensure they are comfortable. Kwan-chaangs should also inspect their elephants’ faeces daily – it is not a particularly glamorous job, but this helps detect early signs of digestive disturbance or infection.
It is important for elephants to be allowed to roam freely and get plenty of exercise to stimulate motility in the gut and keep their metabolisms working. It also helps keep them in shape – a big concern surrounding captive elephants is overfeeding. Obesity can lead to overheating problems, joint problems, inflammation of the toenails, reduced mobility and infertility, so, once again, sugary foods like bananas must be given as treats only. Elephants can actually be weighed regularly (there are special measuring tapes and formulae for doing this) – the healthy range is about 2500-5000 kg for adult females and 3500-6000 kg for adult males.
Each kwan-chaang should also inspect his elephant’s dental health daily, which requires a very trusting relationship! Elephants have six sets of teeth throughout their life. They must eat enough fibrous roughage to naturally wear down each set and work out old teeth to make room for the new ones.
Find out more:
Phang Nga Elephant Park (2015-2019). Appearance and Intelligence. See: https://phangngaelephantpark.com/appearance-and-intelligence/
Saint Louis Zoo (2003-2019) See: https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/mammals/asianelephant/elephantedibles
Association of Zoos & Aquariums (2012). AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care. 2nd ed. USA: Association of Zoos & Aquariums. p28.
Hatt, J.M; Clauss, M. (2006). Feeding Asian and African Elephants in Captivity. International Zoo Yearbook. 40 (Elephants and Rhinoceros), 88-95.
Hile, E.M., Hintz, H.F., Hollis, N. (1997). Predicting body weight from body measurements in Asian elephants (Elephas maximas). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 23, 205-210