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Volunteers help protect African elephants

  Volunteers at the Thanda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, are conducting important elephant research to help Space for Elephants (a non-profit conservation, research and educational foundation) understand the long term effects of immuno-contraceptives on elephants and the unique situation of wildlife fencing in Southern Africa.   A bit of background   In areas across Africa the elephant population is decreasing significantly, except for South Africa where the population is actually rising. This increase is largely due to South Africa's fenced off game reserves which restrict elephants from migrating to new areas in search of water and vegetation.   Space for elephants and the introduction of 'corridors'   As an elephant can eat up to 400kg a day, herds can become very destructive and harmful to their environments. Their natural migration is therefore important because it allows vegetation to regenerate in areas where the elephants have migrated from. Furthermore the journey they embark on during migration helps to eliminate weak, old and young elephants. This naturally controls population numbers and helps to ensure that their habitats do not become overpopulated. As these benefits of migration are no longer available due to fenced environments, Space for Elephants is trying to introduce 'corridors' to facilitate the movement of elephants between reserves by dropping fences. In the long term this will lead to natural population management, but the introduction of 'corridors' is a complex task due to the risk of poaching, man-made barriers such as roads and urbanisation, and gaining consent from the local people living amongst these corridors. For these reasons the 'corridor' project is going to take many years to implement and a short term solution to the population problem has to be devised.   Immuno-Contraceptives as a short term solution   Contraceptives have become the most popular short term solution to the population crisis as previous methods such as culling elephant herds have raised serious ethical concerns. Although some forms of hormonal contraceptives have been given to elephants in the past, they have had negative affects on female elephants because they constantly come into oestrus leading to them being continually pestered by males. To prevent these negative effects from occurring a new form of contraceptive has been devised. This is an immuno-contraceptive called Porcine Pellucida (PZP) which targets an elephant's immune system instead of changing their hormone levels. In essence, this form of contraceptive produces antigens which bind the sperm receptors on the membrane of the egg cell, thus allowing oestrus cycles and mating to occur naturally but contraception will not.   As there has not been any long term studies on the effects of PZP African Impact at Thanda, a big 5 game reserve with two elephant herds, are in the perfect position to monitor any behavioural changes between elephants when the females are on PZP. In particular, researchers are monitoring whether PZP will affect the behaviour towards younger calves as females are unable to produce offspring to take their place. This could cause them to receive the attention from the whole herd, being molly-coddled so to speak. Bulls may leave herds earlier as a result and it may also have an effect on musth cycles. This could greatly alter group dynamics and herd structure, two aspects which African Impact are researching at the moment.   It is very exciting to be a part of the work at Thanda because their studies are making a real contribution to elephant research. For your chance to monitor elephant behaviour and help find the most effective population-control solution for South African elephants come to Thanda and volunteer on their Elephant and Rhino Project!

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