African elephants are the largest land mammal. They stand at 8.2 to 13 feet tall and weigh up to 2.5 to 7 tons. Although elephants are naturally enormous, they can still be overweight.
This extra weight can be damaging to their health and wellbeing. That is why elephant conservation in zoos is so important. Take a look at why these animals need healthy diets and how poor diets are affecting zoo elephants.
The diet of a wild elephant vs. a zoo elephant
Wild elephants spend much of their day looking for food. They can walk up to 194 km (120.5 miles) a day just to find food. On average, a wild elephant can eat 200 to 600 pounds of food each day. Their diet consists of leaves, bark, twigs, shrubs, bushes, fruits, roots and flowers.
In contrast, zoo elephants do not have to travel long distances to get food. Zookeepers provide elephants with the food they need. The diet of a zoo elephant is a little different than that of wild elephants. Zoos feed elephants hay, pellets, fruits, vegetables and available trees and shrubs.
Why do zoo elephants need nutritious diets?
A nutritious diet is essential for all living things - especially zoo elephants. A healthy diet helps ensure the overall health of an elephant. Elephants with poor diets face health issues that include dental, skin, foot, circulatory, metabolic conditions, and body condition issues, such as obesity.
Dr. Morfeld, President and Founder of For Elephants, shared how elephant body condition affects zoo elephants in the For Elephant Show episode called "How do you tell if an elephant is fat?"
Dr. Morfeld developed a body condition scoring system for African elephants ranging from one to five - one being underweight and five being overweight. She compared zoo and wild African elephants' body conditions through photos provided by zoos and Elephants Alive.
Through the body condition scoring system, she discovered that wild African elephants had an average body condition score of two (lean). However, only five percent of zoo African elephants had a body condition of two. Female zoo African elephants oftentimes have a body condition score of five (overweight).
This scoring system has helped zoos understand how elephants should look. It has also helped improve elephant conservation in zoos.
The problem zoo elephants are facing.
Right now, zoo elephants are not self-sustaining. The zoo’s most beloved animals are at risk of captive extinction in U.S. zoos. African elephants in zoos have high infertility rates. For every three births, there are five deaths annually.
In Dr. Morfeld’s research, she found there was a correlation between ovarian acyclicity and a high BMI. Elephants with body condition scores of five had three times higher risk of being non-cycling.
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