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Keywords:

  • Conservation physiology;
  • disturbance ecology;
  • faecal DNA;
  • faecal glucocorticoid metabolites;
  • Gamba Complex of Protected Areas;
  • oil fields

ABSTRACT

Aim  Human activities are major determinants of forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) distribution in Gabon, but the types and intensity of disturbance that elephants can tolerate are not known. We conducted dung surveys within the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas in SW Gabon to examine (1) the feasibility of noninvasive faecal analyses for monitoring stress physiology, and (2) the influence of petroleum operations on stress levels in forest elephants.

Location  Gabon, Central Africa.

Methods  We identified multiple dung piles from the same individual by matching their eight-locus microsatellite genotypes, and measured faecal concentrations of glucocorticoid metabolites as an indicator of stress in areas subject to different levels of disturbance: (1) Loango National Park (2) an ‘industrial corridor’ dominated by oil fields, and (3) a nearby area of human settlements.

Results  We obtained unique microsatellite genotypes and faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations for 150 forest elephant individuals, which is the largest hormonal data set for wild African forest elephants to date. Adults exhibited higher mean FGM concentrations than juveniles, and in contradiction of our expectations of chronic stress around oil fields, elephants in Loango National Park exhibited significantly higher FGM concentrations than elephants in the industrial corridor.

Main conclusions  We argue that forest elephants in the industrial corridor of the Gamba Complex have become acclimated to oil fields, resulting in part from oil company regulations that minimize stressful interactions between elephants and petroleum operations. Our findings for a flagship species with substantial ecological requirements bode well for other taxa, but additional studies are needed to determine whether oil operations are compatible over their life span with rain forest ecosystems in Central Africa.