A Giant toothache: Elephant bull gets a visit from the dentist

Early in May the Welgevonden Conservation Team together with specialist veterinarians and lucky guests were involved in a novel elephant intervention.

Hardy blowing dust into the wound from his broken tusk to relieve the irritation © Charles Theron.

One of Welgevonden’s oldest bulls, known as Hardy, had broken his tusk (likely from fighting with other males) and the wound had become infected. He had been showing signs of pain and irritation and this had started to affect his behaviour. After some consideration, it was decided – Hardy needed a dentist.

During discussions with Dr. Peter Caldwell, one of the Reserve’s go-to vets it was realised that a specialist would be needed to perform the surgery. Luckily for us, Dr. Caldwell was able to put us in touch with Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp from University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, Onderstepoort, one of the few veterinarians in the world who works with elephant ‘dentistry’.

Vets control which side the bull falls on to allow them to operate on the injury.

On the day of intervention, the eager participants waited in the wings as Hardy was expertly ushered, by helicopter, down the mountainside to a safe location. Once Hardy was under anaesthetic Dr. Steenkamp began assessing the broken tusk.

“If the tusk was fractured and the pulp wasn’t exposed then we would just leave it and the tusk would continue to grow. The infection usually lies in the pulp. Once we clean out the infection, an elephant this size probably has a root of about 60 cm in his skull, so there is a lot of pulp behind there. With chronic infection the infection continues upwards, but if we catch it early, we can just remove the front bit.” Dr Steenkamp explained. “By putting in Calcium hydroxide, which has a pH of nearly 12, this stimulates the cells lining the pulp to form more ivory, so in time new ivory will seal it off. The filling we placed in, which is just a very hard plastic, will have a new tusk grow in behind it and eventually will fall out.” (Check out the video on instagram or facebook).

Dr. Steenkamp assesses the extent of the infection spread during the second intervention.

While this may seem like an awful lot of effort for a toothache, the reality is that the severe infections that can develop in such instances can lead to septicemia (blood poisoning resulting from bad bacterial infections), and this could lead to death due to septic shock.

Now, let’s take a moment here to talk about the importance of older bulls in elephant society. Elephant bulls disperse from their natal herds when they are between 10 -20 years old and establish themselves in a separate bull society. Leaving their natal area means that bulls now need to learn the dispersal of resources in new areas, and perhaps the best way of doing this is by becoming apprentice to an older, larger bull. As such, bulls in male society become divided into “leaders”, your older and wiser bulls, and “followers”, called askari, those still learning the ropes. Once they reach their late twenties, bulls start to experience their first stable cycles of musth, a temporary heightened reproductive state where the males seek out receptive cows for reproduction. In younger bulls, musth lasts only a few days while in 40 year old bulls it can be up to four months! In natural, stable populations, larger bulls delay the onset of musth in youngsters through aggressive interactions, after which the young bulls reduce physical signs of musth. Because musth cycles do not always align (where males would aggressively compete for females) this opens up the opportunity for males to ‘socialise’ and facilitates the flow of information from “leaders” to the askari.

The broken tusk with the initial filling.

So, it appears that older bulls are critical for the maintenance of order and hierarchical structure in male elephant society (for an interesting article read here). In the 1990’s Pilansberg National Park bore witness to this when the introduced bull elephant population, consisting of only young adolescent bulls, were immediately entering musth without any older bulls present to suppress it. The bulls were seeking to mate with the females but as they were far too young, the females rejected them. As an outlet for their hormonal rage, the young bulls began to viciously attack and kill rhinos. The introduction of older bulls into Pilansberg solved this problem quickly and effectively.

Last year Welgevonden’s oldest bull was lost to an unfortunate lightning-strike incident, reducing the number of old bulls, above 35 years old, to only five. With the ratio of old bulls to young sitting at 1:8, the loss of another old bull could destabilise the male social structure in the Reserve, with potentially devastating consequences, and therefore management deemed it necessary to call in the vets for Hardy’s toothache.

During a recent follow-up the filling was removed to examine the extent of the infection. The infection was localized to the filling/cavity interface, and after removing the Calcium Hydroxide plug all infected tissue was removed and the plug and filling replaced. After a further dose of antibiotics and pain relief Hardy was sent on his way. He will continue to be monitored to assess his condition and any signs of discomfort. Should the infection continue, it is possible the remaining tusk piece lodged in the skull will need to be extracted.

Dr. Steenkamp [left] and Dr. Caldwell [right] after Hardy’s second intervention ©Pip Davidson-Phillips.

Read more about Welgevonden’s elephant management here.



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