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Abstract on Sinya, a wounded elephant calf: An ethical discussion

Self-medication with an eight-month-old orphaned African elephant calf (Loxodonta africana): C Ingraham

An African elephant calf (aged 8 months) was found trapped in a well and separated from the rest of the herd, near the Kenya–Tanzania border. Her physical condition was severe. On arrival, she was emaciated and had obvious large wounds. There was a 20cm-diameter elevated area of skin flap on her dorsal-lumbar area, as well as skin flaps on her submandibular area and fetlocks, all of which were underrun by pus and necrosis. Her trunk had been mutilated by hyenas, including puncture wounds, lacerations and loss of some tissue, with severe damage to the tip. All wounds were infected and contained much necrotic tissue. The possibility of Klebsiella pneumoniae infection was also a concern. She had already been given two sets of antibiotics and the vets were reluctant to prescribe another. The first antibiotic used was amoxycillin for seven days and the second antibiotic, clauvulanate amoxycillin, was prescribed for a further seven days. Sinya suffered from a loss of appetite and was generally withdrawn and depressed.

A month after her rescue she was still in a bad way. There were concerns that septicaemia would set in and she was still very depressed. It was decided that she should be given the opportunity to use a self-medicating regime with essential oils and herbal extracts, whereby she determined the substance, the route of administration and the respective dosage. A total of 14 substances were chosen over the course of her 14-day treatment, the most prominent being illite clay (wounds), garlic and clove essential oils(infection) and violet leaf absolute (anxiolytic / anti-anxiety). Approx. 25ml of undiluted garlic essential oil was ingested over this period, with a range of approximately 2ml-5ml per offering.

After the first day of treatment, the operation scheduled to clean her wounds was cancelled and, by the end of the two weeks, her wounds were clean and healthy, no longer showing signs of infection and exhibiting no further necrotic tissue. Instead, they had formed healthy granulation tissue, providing a protective covering. Sinya’s behaviour had become comparatively playful during the second week of treatment. Eleven years on subsequent correspondence has not reported any relapse in any of the conditions.


An obvious criticism that will be directed at this study is the potential generalisation of the results from one individual, rather than a controlled study. True, we could have set up an experiment with a group that received prescribed medication, one that self-medicated and a control, but we could not set up very stringent controls. For self-medication to work, there must be some criteria that animals work by to distinguish among harmful, neutral and beneficial substances. If a sick individual were shown to forage selectively in a novel environment then this would suggest that the ability to self-medicate is innate. This would also work in the opposite scenario, where a healthy individual would avoid plants containing potentially toxic metabolites.

Sinya was treated for approximately two weeks using a self-medicative regime, using herbal extracts, minerals and essential oils, whereby she determined the substance, the route of administration and the respective dosage. The clay was applied topically and the oils were inhaled and ingested. She cleared black discharge from her trunk by both ingesting and inhaling deeply into the garlic and clove bottles, and no signs of Klebsiella pneumoniae developed. In the afternoon of the fourth day, she picked up a branch in her stable and began to play with it, showing greater interaction with her surroundings.

Sinya illustrated that it is possible for elephant infants to discriminate between plant-derived compounds that they have not encountered before, as shown by her rejection and acceptance of various oils. In addition, this shows that the perception of the same oil can vary, as shown by Sinya accepting different quantities of oils each day before backing away, and her final rejection of the plant extracts once her conditions had cleared. The case study therefore not only lends support to the hypothesis that self-medication is innate but also illustrates how olfactory association through smell and/or taste aids in the selection of medicinal compounds.

After her first day of treatment with the extracts, the operation scheduled to clean her wounds was cancelled by the vet. The antibacterial effects of garlic are well known and an investigation showed its efficacy against K. pneumonia.

Appropriate plant extracts were offered one at a time, Sinya’s perception of each remedy was inferred from her reaction to the substance, such as backing away, indifference, prolonged smelling or ingesting. If Sinya attempted to ingest or rub the substance on her skin she was not prevented. All essential oils were used undiluted. A similar approach was used with topical applications such as illite clay.If Sinya backed away while being offered the clay, the application was stopped;if she allowed it to be applied then this was followed through.The time frame between application and effect was often short enough for the vet to infer what problem the substance may have targeted.

Sinya became noticeably calmer after the inhalation of anxiolyticoils such as violet leaf and mimosa. Her behaviour had normalised by the end of the treatment, to the extent that she was feeding well and became playful. There was a clear connection between the application of illite clay (green clay) and the rapid healing of the wound.The behaviour displayed when Sinya pushed my hand holding thegarlic oil to the anterior portion of the roof of her mouth is of particular interest, since many vertebrates contain a structure at the proximal end of the nasal cavity called the vomernasal organ.

We concluded that this case study suggests an ability for elephants to self-medicate and for this to be explored further for potential use by wildlife vets. We postulated that as the calf had realistically never come into contact with most of the substances, her self-medicative behaviour in respect to the essential oils was innate.

Eleven years on there has not been any relapse in Sinya’s condition. As a result green clay is now used as a healing mechanism for wounded elephants, rhinos, lions and other park animals, used by KWS (Kenya wildlife Service).

No ethical concerns can be raised from this method, as firstly, the risk of prescribed conventional medicine was extremely high, and secondly, Sinya had the opportunity to distance herself from all the substances offered.