Besides education, conservation and recreation, scientific research belongs to Birmingham Zoo mission fundaments, as do all self-respecting zoos. Although most research that is funded, supported or driven by zoos focusses on how to improve species conservation, animal health and welfare is addressed as well. An example of the latter is the innovative procedure that has been developed by Birmingham Zoo staff and the University of Alabama (UAB) to repair a crack in the tusk of a bull elephant.
Bulwagi, the Zoo’s 35-year-old African bull elephant, had a long-term crack in his tusk. Elephants use their tusks for digging, lifting objects, gathering food, stripping bark to eat from trees and for protection. Through these actions, their tusks become worn and can break or crack. A cracked tusk can become infected as a tusk is basically a tooth. It therefore pose problems for an elephant and can be rather painful.
Tusks with cracks that are left untreated may ultimately have to be removed. Cracks in elephants’ tusks have historically been repaired by adhering a metal ring to the tusk in order to stabilize the crack and prevent it from growing any farther up the tusk. But research staff at UAB developed a different procedure.
On Thursday, 5 November, Bulwagi underwent a procedure to prevent the crack in his tusk from growing which would happen if left unattended. This procedure was done in conjunction with a team led by Brian Pillay, Ph.D.
The research team was able to create a specialised resin and application process — lighter, stronger and tougher than steel — in hopes of preventing the crack in Bulwagi’s tusk from getting wider and longer. Due to the slow growth rate of the tusk, it will take months to assess if the application was successful. If successful, this may prove to be a new way to treat cracked elephant tusks in other zoos and elephant facilities.