Glossary: What Do We Mean?

When writing about elephants, we occasionally use terms that some of our readers may not be familiar with. We thought we’d take some time to explain what they mean, so that perhaps it will help you understand elephant vocabulary a bit more.









STEREOTYPING: Elephants and other animals exhibit behaviors referred to as stereotyping, often as a method of coping with trauma. Examples of stereotyping may be swaying or weaving without picking up their feet, rapid circling of the head or swaying of the trunk, walking in repeated circles or patterns, while sometimes appearing in a trance-like state, disconnected from his or her surroundings. There are many reasons that elephants might exhibit this type of behavior, including separation from other elephants, physical abuse, and lack of stimuli. Elephants who are provided healthy opportunities for these things will often cease or decrease stereotyping behaviors.

BROWSE: Elephants are herbivores and can eat hundreds of pounds of vegetation each day. They eat quite a bit of grass, but also eat what is often referred to as “browse.” This consists of tree bark, tree leaves, twigs, shrubs, roots, vines, and natural fruits, depending on where they live. 

HYPSODONT: Elephants spend a large portion of their day eating. This creates a great deal of wear on their teeth. They have evolved to have teeth that extend far above their gum line, which allows more area for wear. Elephants have two molars on the top and two on the bottom. Over the years, they wear down and are replaced by new ones. 

CERRADO: The region known as the Cerrado is the largest savanna in South America, covering over 20% of the land area. It is a biome, or a community of vegetation and wildlife adapted to a specific climate. The Cerrado covers several central Brazilian states, including Mato Grasso, where Elephant Sanctuary Brazil is located. 

BULL: A male elephant

MUSTH: This is an annual hormonal cycle that naturally occurs in adult bull elephants, which can last anywhere from a few days to as long as several months. Physical and behavioral changes are characterized by secretion of a hormone-rich substance, temporin, from facial glands, possible aggressive behavior, and a steady trickle of urine down the bull’s back legs. 

COW: A female elephant

DUSTING: When an elephant dusts, he or she scrapes the ground to collect dirt or dust, curling the trunk around it and tossing the dust onto his or her body. Dusting is one of the many ways elephants keep themselves cool, but they also use dust as a form of sunscreen and bug protection. 

FOOT SOAK: Soaking an elephant’s feet helps cleanse and disinfect the area that needs medical care.. Elephants who have lived most of their lives in captivity will almost certainly have some form of foot damage. Lady is an example of an elephant with severe foot trauma that no amount of medical care can fully cure. However, we use specialized foot soaks to help maintain her foot health to the best of our ability and to alleviate as much pain and swelling as possible. Her foot soaks include things like betadine for abscesses, antiseptics and antimicrobial disinfectants to protect against bacteria, fungi, and yeast, and essential oils and herbal remedies to help with discomfort. 

OSTEOMYELITIS: This is a painful bacterial infection that can cause elephant foot bones to disintegrate, which can result in an elephant’s inability to walk or stand, and is almost always fatal. Captive elephants often suffer from foot disease as a result of the lack of space to move around and because they may be required to stand on hard, unnatural surfaces that are contaminated with urine and feces. If an infection enters the bloodstream through infected tissue, it can spread to the bone; infections can also begin in the bone if the elephant suffers a traumatic injury that exposes the bone to bacteria. 

PROTECTED CONTACT: Protected contact, as opposed to free contact, is a method of attending to elephants that allows them to be trained and cared for in an environment where the elephant and caregiver do not share the same space when in direct contact; there is a barrier between human and elephant, which reduces the chance of injury. Generally, protected contact encourages behavioral changes using positive reinforcement, and the elephant can choose to participate or may leave the space of his or her own free will. 

TRAINING BRIDGE: A training bridge is part of positive reinforcement training, which is used as a healthy way of teaching elephants to exhibit specific behaviors such as the ones necessary for medical treatments. Because elephants are among the most intelligent animals on earth, they tend to understand what you are asking of them relatively quickly, if you are teaching in a consistent manner that takes into account their emotions and physical challenges. A “bridge” is a signal that indicates an elephant has successfully completed the requested action. The bridge needs to be executed the very second the “correct” behavior is performed since the food reward comes at a delay. In many cases, a caregiver might use a clicker, whistle, or a spoken word to “bridge”. During early training of a behavior, a bridge is used to let an elephant know they are getting closer or heading in the right direction. This helps to encourage them to continue on in a similar manner and also prevents frustration. While the food reward is the real motivation (and for some elephants, verbal praise or affection) the bridge is what lets them know they did the behavior correctly.

BULLHOOK: A bullhook, also known as an ankus or elephant hook, is a tool used to control and discipline elephants through fear and dominance. It has a handle with a sharp hook at the end, usually made out of steel or bronze. The hook end applies pressure or punctures soft or vulnerable spots on an elephant’s body, like the ear, where the skin is very thin, or around the trunk, which has lots of nerves. The handle can be used to strike the animal, particularly in areas where there is not much tissue between the skin and bone – like a wrist or an ankle. It is effective because it instills fear in elephants, which allows handlers to obtain unnatural and/or desired behaviors. 

CITES: CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It was created to ensure that international trade of selected species is authorized and licensed. It’s purpose is to ensure that moving certain wild plants and animals from one region to another does not threaten the survival of native species. Roughly 5,000 species of animals are protected by CITES. Locations like zoos and ecoparques that house elephants that will come to sanctuary must obtain the proper licenses (which are valid for 6 months) from CITES before they can be transported. 

SEMA: SEMA is an acronym for Secretaria de Estado de Meio Ambiente. It is the state’s environment authority that carries out inspections, undertakes actions linked to the preservation of the environment, and oversees state environmental licensing regarding the use of natural resources. There are four stages of licensing that must be followed in order to bring elephants to sanctuary. Once organizations like GSE have completed new habitats for incoming sanctuary residents, we must apply for SEMA licenses that ensure we meet all applicable codes. 

If you want to explore terms that relate to African elephants more deeply, we recommend the glossary created by Dr. Joyce Poole and her team at ElephantVoices. They have spent decades researching African elephants in the wild and are highly regarded for their expertise. We respect the work her organization has done to create better lives for elephants across the world. If you have any questions about language that you’ve wondered about in the past, please feel free to leave notes in the comments section and we will try to address them.


  1. REPLY
    Debbie Sides says

    Very informative thank you

  2. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    That is a year’s worth of Friday Facts! Thanks 🤗
    Elephant Voices is a phenomenal organization!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      They certainly are. We have a great deal of respect for their work.

  3. REPLY
    Mollie says

    Thank you! Much appreciated for my ignorance of these definitions – especially the definitions (and the processes you must go through) with CITES and SEMA. I then spent time visiting Elephant Voices – incredible. I’m hooked 🙂 Thanks for all you do, while I can’t donate much – I do give what I can when I can – and I feel great when I can!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      We are thankful for all of your support, in whatever form. It is definitely difficult to keep all of the agencies straight. Hopefully we can link back to this when things come up or people have questions. And, yes, ElephantVoices has done remarkable research. Their knowledge of African elephants is essentially a lifetime’s work.

  4. REPLY
    Bill says

    This is exceptionally great information. You may need to repost it periodically for us old geezers or new followers. Thanks again

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      We will definitely link back to it if we talk about some of these terms.

  5. REPLY
    Alana says

    Thanks for the info. I did learn some things, can’t wait for more.

  6. REPLY
    Kenneth B. Newman says

    I asked several days ago if you could provide an update on the coronavirus situation at the border of Argentina-Brazil……..And how are the barn / fences, etc.. being prepared for Pucky, Kenya and the other African elephant moving along? What about Tamy enclosure? Any plans set for Tamy’s and other Asian elephants barn? How about the fence posts for Tamy’s, etc… area? Finally, are there any other elephants in Brazil that GSE might be able to obtain?

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Kenneth, if you will look back at your post you will see that we responded to your questions. Any other updates that we get will be posted as soon as we know more.

  7. REPLY
    Greg B Everett says

    Thank you.

  8. REPLY
    SHEILA says


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