While in Asia this past year I witnessed a serious health problem, rampant in captive elephants: colic. The individuals most affected are in middle to old age, in questionable health, poor drinkers, have tooth problems and a history of colic episodes. Colic usually affects an elephant when there is a sudden change in fodder. The fatal cases always involve lack of water intake or dehydration.
In Asia, like the US, captive elephants by and large receive their diets from keepers, as opposed to selecting and collecting their own vegetation from a variety of live sources. Even in the best of captive situations, hand cut grass, corn stock, banana plants and pawn frowns are fed, which means a change in food supply. In Asia, hay is seldom stockpiled so throughout the year the elephant is given different plants and trees collected from different sources.
Elephants not given the benefit of a gradual transition can suffer greatly from the switch between different fodder. Usually the transition goes smoothly, especially when the elephant has access to live vegetation. But in some cases, individuals experience difficulty on a regular basis. Observant keepers anticipate an elephant’s weakness for colic by adding probiotics to support healthy digestion and making a gradual change in diet. But even under the most attentive care, some elephants continue to experience painful bouts of colic.
My experience in Asia has taught me that dehydration plays a huge role in the onset of colic. A well-hydrated body has a greater chance of avoiding colic than a dehydrated one. An elephant’s inability to effectively digest what she consumes creates pain and distress. The lack of sufficient water intake slows the transit time of the consumed matter. When the digestive progress comes to a screeching halt, with little eaten and nothing eliminated, the elephant is in trouble. Acting immediately can mean the difference between life and death for the elephant. At the first sign of colic, when the elephant postures and then later refuses to eat or drink, a problem already exists.
One type of colic is a severe stomach ache caused by trapped gasses, as a result of poor digestion. In many cases, physical activity and a large volume of water help the elephant to pass the gas and poorly digested mater. But in cases when a lack of water consumption played a part in the colic, the situation can be dire.
Over a three-month period I observed several elephants suffer from colic. In most cases dehydration played a role. Poor digestion of newly introduced fodder was complicated by a lack of water intake, resulting in the development of a blockage of fodder in the intestinal track. The onset of symptoms — cramps and pain — leads to further dehydration as the elephant is unwilling to drink and in most cases will eat only a token amount of food. Intuition tells the elephant not to eat more fodder, which would only add to the blockage. The blockage, which forms a hard, dry mass in her intestinal track, becomes too large and dry to be eliminated. The longer the blockage remains lodged in the intestinal tract, the dryer it becomes as the moisture is drawn through the wall of the intestinal track.
In the cases I observed when the elephant eliminated the blockage and survived, she had been administered gallons of oil that literally lubricated the blockage so it could be passed. Sadly, in one case the blockage was too large and the oil administered too late to help the suffering elephant, who finally succumbed to it. Upon necropsy, a 50-pound mass of dried fodder was removed from her intestinal tract.
The pain and suffering of captive elephants is unfortunately one of the ways we learn how to help other elephants in our care. Every effort must be made, at the onset of colic symptoms, in order to prevent a tragedy from occurring.