AboutZoos, Since 2008


New method to repair ele­phant tusks has been developed

pub­lished 22 Novem­ber 2015 | mod­i­fied 22 Novem­ber 2015

elephant tusk repairBesides 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.

elephant tusk crackBul­wagi, 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.

When the team at the Zoo asked me to cre­ate this metal ring, I thought, ‘we can do better,’
Brian Pil­lay, leader research team, direc­tor Mate­ri­als Pro­cess­ing and Appli­ca­tions Devel­op­ment Cen­ter, UAB »

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.

(Source: Birm­ing­ham Zoo press release, 13.11.2015; UAB news, 17.11.2015)

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