Scientists have shown captivity might be causing elephants painful foot problems.
Kemal Atlay

5 Oct 2016 - 2:01 PM  UPDATED 5 Oct 2016 - 2:01 PM

Do you get sore feet from being on your feet at work all day? How about a long walk on the concrete paths at the zoo?

You might want to think twice before complaining about sore ankles within earshot of elephants – a new study has shown they have it much worse.

An international team of scientists, led by Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou from the University of Queensland, have found that African elephants held in captivity are more likely to develop debilitating foot disorders than their counterparts in the wild, which can seriously hamper conservation efforts. The study was published today in Royal Society Open Science.

“If you take these animals and you expose them to flat concrete for long hours every day, then you assist this accumulation of pressures on the outside part of the foot and this will cause the diseases to flourish,” Dr Panagiotopoulou tells SBS Science.

The researchers collected foot pressure data from elephants held in safari parks and zoos in South Africa and the UK, and found that the animals mostly loaded their massive weight (up to 3000 kilograms) on the lateral, or outside, part of their feet.

Sturdy elephant feet up close.

These turned out to be the same parts where foot diseases, such as osteoarthritis, nail cracks and infections, predominantly occurred.

“Once these diseases are developed, they have very detrimental consequences for the animals,” says Panagiotopoulou. “They are extremely painful and in extreme circumstances cannot get treated, hence the animals have to be euthanized.”

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is listed as a ‘vulnerable’ species and it is estimated that around 415,000 individuals live in the wild, with numbers steadily increasing thanks to crackdown on poaching and the international ivory trade.

However, the study presents new challenges for conservationists – if the aim of captivity is to ensure the animal’s longevity, then zoo or safari habitats must be made suitable to prevent disorders like this from occurring.

This type of foot disease has also been found in other large animals kept in captivity, such as the rhinoceros, racehorses and even pigs and cows – the pressure placed on certain parts of the animals’ feet coupled with exposure to hard ground increases their chances of developing painful disorders. 

Aside from completely overhauling elephant enclosures to improve conditions, Panagiotopoulou explains that preventative treatment – such as removing specific parts of the sole of the foot or creating special braces – is crucial to stopping the development of foot diseases. She thinks zoos should use similar equipment from her study to monitor foot pressure patterns and identify early signs of disease.

Panagiotopoulou says the next step in the research will look at ‘trimming’ methods, which are essentially pedicures for elephants, that seek to emulate the effects of the natural wear and tear on the elephants’ pressure pads and nails.

“I also want to collect some data before and after trimming to see how by changing the trimming protocols, we can change the mechanics of the foot and change the distribution of the foot pressure – this is very important to know in cases where we have to use trimming as a preventative approach,” she says. 

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