We recently shared an updated photo of Guillermina comparing her weight and overall appearance when she arrived at the sanctuary and now. Many of you were thrilled with her progress and supportive of her journey, although some people voiced their concerns over several of our elephants looking “too thin.” In the past, we have discussed the false perception people have of what an elephant should look like due to how common obesity is in captivity, but for today’s EleFact Friday, we want to share one of the measures of body conditions that is not only used by us as part of the elephants’ routine exams but is a common measure throughout captive environments for elephants.
A body condition score (BCS) estimates adiposity based on visual or tactile evaluations of muscle tone and key skeletal elements. In some cases, these visual scales were validated using additional biological measures of adiposity. For example, ultrasound measures of actual fat thickness have been used to validate BCS methods for African elephants. The chart in this post and designed for this study was developed and tested for inter-assessor reliability and biological validity using serum triglyceride levels. Body condition scoring systems are routinely used in the management and care of many species, and a BCS at either end of the scale (i.e., very thin or very fat) can indicate compromised welfare. Obesity in elephants is associated with conditions threatening health and population sustainability, such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis and foot problems, and ovarian cycle abnormalities.
The body condition scoring (BCS) sheet seen in the graphic here is part of a study published in 2016 that examined the overall health and BCS of 240 African and Asian elephants in North American zoos. In both species, the majority of elephants had elevated BCS, with 40% having a BCS of 4 (overweight) and 34% with a BCS of 5 (obese). Only 22% of elephants had BCS 3 (ideal), and less than 5% of the population was assigned the lowest BCS categories (BCS 1 and 2/emaciated and underweight).
We write this post as a reminder to all of us, ourselves included, that what we see as “normal” in the majority of elephants, from behaviors to appearances, is generally a result of the negative impact of elephants being kept in captive environments. We want our supporters to feel confident in the care we provide our elephants – not just from an emotional standpoint but also a scientific one. At the current moment, all six of the sanctuary elephants score a 3 by the BCS standards (with Maia teetering on a 4, depending upon the month, and Guille arriving at a 5). We are grateful to have a sanctuary space for a small population of elephants to not only provide them with the healthiest conditions, but to continue to educate our supporters, followers, and people around the world about what elephants truly deserve and are capable of.
The study mentioned above and cited can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4944958/