The breeding herd of 1.3 African elephants at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo was transitioned from a traditional zoo diet consisting of large proportions of concentrates to one with predominately forage (hay and browse), with produce and concentrates used only as training items. Body weights were taken on a regular basis, and two of the females conceived while on this diet. Weight gains for the pregnant females were relatively small, but positive on this feeding plan. Both calves were delivered without complications, and each female has lactated normally. Blood samples on the adults were collected weekly for hormone analysis and serum banking. Retrospective analysis of essential fatty acids, minerals, and fat-soluble vitamins was conducted on an opportunistic basis as sampling allowed. Comparisons are limited on certain parameters, but they can be made before and after the diet shift and compared to accepted norms. Feeding a forage-only diet to African elephants appears to be beneficial as it has been in gorillas and white rhinos fed in similar fashion. Improvements in hydration and possibly renal health are noted changes. Potential benefits include weight management, and more appropriate fatty acids may lead to better health of the digital cushion and skin. Increased feeding times can lead to less stereotypy. A decrease in dietary fats has potential to lessen effects of adipose-derived, detrimental hormonal effects (leptin). It may also improve thermoregulation, specifically as it pertains to heat stress and reproductive health.
We would like to thank Maura Davis, Chris Massaro, Mike Burns, Matt James, Alli Nall, and Kate Ranos of the elephant management team at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo for their support and contributions to this effort.