Oduor, S; Brown, J; Macharia, GM; Boisseau, N; Murray, S; Obade, P (2020). Differing physiological and behavioral responses to anthropogenic factors between resident and non-resident African elephants at Mpala Ranch, Laikipia County, Kenya. PEERJ, 8, e10010.

Background: Heterogeneous landscapes like those of Laikipia County, Kenya consist of a mosaic of land-use types, which may exert differential physiological effects on elephants that occupy and traverse them. Understanding behavioral and physiological states of wild African elephants in response to the challenges of living in human-dominated landscapes is therefore important for conservation managers to evaluate risks imposed by elephants to humans and vice versa. Several conservation physiology tools have been developed to assess how animals respond to both natural and anthropogenic changes, and determine biological impacts. This study investigated how migratory and avoidance behavioral to vehicle presence, and vegetation quality affected fecal glucocorticoid (GC) metabolite (FGM) concentrations in African elephants at Mpala Ranch, Laikipia County, Kenya. Methods: The study compared adrenal glucocorticoid activity of resident elephants that live within Mpala (n = 57) and non-resident elephants whose space use patterns overlap several ranches (n = 99) in Laikipia County, Kenya. Fecal samples were collected for a 4-month period between April and August for analysis of FGM concentrations. Behavioral reactions to research vehicles and body condition also were assessed. Satellite images from Terra Moderate Resolution Imaging (MODIS MOD13Q1) were downloaded and processed using Google Earth Engine to calculate a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) as a measure of vegetation quality. Results: As expected, there was a positive correlation between avoidance behavior to vehicle presence and FGM concentrations in both resident and non-resident elephants, whereas there was an inverse relationship between FGM concentrations and NDVI values. Our study also found a positive influence of age on the FGM concentrations, but there were no relationships between FGM and sex, social group type, herd size, and body condition. However, contrary to our expectations, resident elephants had higher FGM concentrations than non-residents. Discussion: Findings reveal elephants with stronger avoidance responses to research vehicles and resident elephants with relatively smaller home ranges exhibited higher FGM concentrations within the Mpala Ranch, Kenya and surrounding areas. Higher vegetative quality within the ranges occupied by non-resident elephants in Laikipia may be one reason for lower FGM, and an indication that the non-residents are tracking better forage quality to improve energy balance and reduce overall GC output. Additionally, our study found a positive influence of age, but no other demographic variables on FGM concentrations. Finally, adrenal glucocorticoid activity was inversely related to vegetative quality. Our findings can help conservation managers better understand how behavior and environment influences the physiological states of African elephants, and how management intervention might mitigate negative human-elephant interactions.