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ConservationJabulani HerdWorld Elephant Day

Student researcher, Chloe Grotto’s Elephant experience in Africa

By 10th Aug 2017 7 Comments


Many tourists travel across the globe for the interaction of a lifetime with the largest land animal on the planet: The African Elephant.

These experiences have given people from a variety of different backgrounds an appreciation, understanding and passion to protect this species. However, elephant interaction programs, specifically ones that provide elephant-back riding as a service, have come under great public scrutiny within the past decade, as animal rights activist have made a broad claim that captive elephants are “forced” to participate in these programs and experience “unnatural levels of stress” due to these interactions. Thus far, however, no comprehensive information exists to prove whether these claims are just. Therefore, well-defined studies need to be conducted to gather reliable information on the behavioural and physiological effects human interaction based activities have on these elephants in order to evaluate respective claims. The desire to discover the truth and answer this question once and for all is what inspired a research project here at Camp Jabulani, which I’m fortunate to be part of.

The Camp Jabulani herd is a researcher’s dream to study. Their unique social structure is one that you would not find in the wild, as fully matured bulls live happily alongside adult females and calves. The background of the herd, their desperate plight to be rescued from a culling operation in Zimbabwe, also sets them apart from their wild counterparts.
The focus of my research project is on fecal glucocorticoids, stress hormones, that are found in the dung of animals. Since January 2017, I’ve been taking weekly fecal samples from the members of the Camp Jabulani herd and monthly fecal samples have been taken from the wild herd members living on the Kapama Game Reserve.


The hormones extracted from these fecal samples will be compared to one another to see how the elephants living at Camp Jabulani compare to their Kapama wild counterparts. The fecal samples will be analyzed next year (2018) January when I’ll be returning to the laboratory at the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort to process the samples. It’s amazing how much poop can tell us about the health and well-being of an animal! However, when paired with behavioural observations, the research findings can be even more substantial.

With that in mind, according to some behavioural observations taken so far, it seems that the Camp Jabulani herd is displaying a large percentage of comfort, feeding and social behaviours. These behaviours can all be representative of comfortable, healthy and happy elephants. I’m excited for the research on the Camp Jabulani elephants to continue through to the end of this year and for the results to be published after analysis next year. Let us continue to strive at making the world a better place for our beloved giants and other wildlife. Happy World Elephant Day everyone!

More about the author:

Where are you from and what brought you to South Africa?

I am from Chicago, Illinois in the United States. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor in Animal Science. I then accepted an internship at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, working as their endocrinologist intern for seven months. There I studied stress and reproduction hormones on animals, ranging from red river hogs to African elephants. I even got to call the hormone drop (progesterone drop) on one of our pregnant female elephants before she gave birth a few days later.

My fellow intern and best friend at Animal Kingdom, Macie Smith, showed me this posting from the University of Pretoria saying that they were searching for a new master’s student. The programme focused on fecal glucocorticoids, and the same stress hormones I had experience with while working at Disney. I immediately applied for the position and was fortunate enough to be chosen.

I literally completed my internship at Disney a month after the University’s offer, packed my bags and traveled home for a few weeks to apply for my visas and get my travel vaccinations, and then was in South Africa the following month! Those two months were quite hectic, but it was so worth it in the end!


  • Hey Chloe, truly enjoy reading your blogs & seeing all the pics of your awesome adventures in South Africa. Yes poop can tell us so much! (As your Dad has probably told you). I’m so happy to see that this is being studied because I have mixed feelings about animals in controlled settings vs the wild. We do need to understand them more & respect these beautiful & gracious creatures. I almost did my Masters in Animal Science..maybe I can go back to it. I never say never. Good luck to you & I wish you all the best in your research & studies there. Will do my best to follow . Take care, Romaine

  • Dave Grotto says:

    Chloe. Terrific blog post!
    Your research is so fascinating. Question – have you observed situations of where stress hormones have become elevated in the domestic herd at Camp Jabulani? For example, would one expect that to routinely happen in situations such as illness, separation from the herd, encounters with predators, and so forth?
    Can’t wait until your next post!

  • Ted Fagenson says:

    Great article Chloe, and best of luck in your research.

  • Dear Chloe
    I am looking forward to reading about the conclusions of your ressearch I will be visiting my niece ,who lives Chicago ,the first weekend of October My niece and I were fortunate enough to visit Camp Jabulani the first of Feb this year. I saw Timisa the first time and just feel in love with her. I have since adopted her. She has brought me a lot of joy. My neice and I would love to take you out to lunch You can email me if this is something that interests you and you could fit us into your schedule

  • Chloe Grotto says:

    Thank you so much Mr. Fagenson!

  • Chloe Grotto says:

    Thank you so much Romaine! It is never too late to go back, I couldn’t agree more. There are plenty of animals out there that need our help. I truly believe you can never do enough research as there are always new questions to answer!

  • Chloe Grotto says:

    Thank you so much Kathleen! Timisa is such a special elephant and I am so glad you were able to make a connection with her and foster her. The results of the research will be published next year and I also am excited to see everything come together. I would love to grab lunch with your niece and you while you are in the windy city, but unfortunately I will only be heading home to Chicago in December of this year 🙁 Thank you so much for your kind offer though!

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