Botswana’s Elephant-Back Safari Industry – Stress-Response in Working African Elephants and Analysis of their Post-Release Movements


Tanya Lama, UMass (Master's Thesis)

Date Published



Understanding how African elephants (Loxodonta africana) respond to human interactions in ecotourism operations is critical to safeguarding animal and human welfare and sustaining wildlife ecotourism activities. We investigated the stress response of elephants to a variety of tourist activities over a 15-month period at Abu Camp in northern Botswana. We compared fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations across three elephant groups, including: eight elephants in an elephant-tourism operation (Abu herd), three elephants previously reintroduced back into the wild from the Abu herd, and wild elephants. There were no differences in FGM concentrations between the three groups of elephants. The highest observed FGM concentrations were associated with episodic events (e.g. intraherd conflict, loud noise, physical injury) unrelated to tourist activities. FGM concentrations differed between the elephant-tourist activities with ride only and mixed ride/walk activities eliciting higher FGM concentrations compared to days when there were no elephant-tourist interactions.

The elephant experience tourism industry faces challenges in managing elephants who’s aggressive or unpredictable behavior makes them ill-suited to captivity, training, and interaction with handlers and tourists. Reintroduction of these elephants back into the wild may be a favorable solution if the welfare of released individuals, recipient wild animal populations, and human populations can be ensured. We describe the post-release movements of two African elephants, one female and one bull, from an elephant-back-safari enterprise in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. We compared the movements of the female with that of two wild females collared in the same wildlife management concession. We assess their home range size, proximity to human dwellings, and fidelity to their former home range as former members of their semi-captive, working herd from which they were released. We found significant differences between the home range size of our released elephant and that of the two wild elephants. Additionally, the released female and released bull occurred more frequently in close proximity (within 250 m) to tourist lodges throughout the Delta. The released elephants also frequented sites used by the working Abu herd with greater frequency than the wild elephants, and this visitation rate did not significantly decline during respective four- and two-year post-release monitoring periods, despite the positive growth in home range size.