Key Factors Impacting Domestic Asian Elephant Welfare (Part I)
In Thailand, according to a 2020 study, there are approximately 7,000 Asian elephants, with just under 4,000 being domestic or captive, and the remaining 3,000-3,500 being wild. Domestic elephants comprise a significant and highly important percentage of the overall elephant population, and as such, their welfare must be a considered a priority to ensure effective conservation of the species. Nowadays, most domestic elephants in Thailand are used in some way in the tourism industry. Roles for elephants in the sector include riding, shows and other performances, no riding walking tours, Mahout (or caretaker) training tours, observation, and other ride- and performance-free activities, such as guided tours in which tourists can bathe or swim with and feed elephants. In some of these roles, the nature of the tasks necessary for the elephants to perform may inherently have a negative impact on elephant welfare, whereas in others the welfare of the elephants involved depends primarily on the husbandry skills and training of the Mahouts and the overall management of the operation. In this article, we will discuss some of the key factors which can play a role in determining the overall health and wellbeing of domestic elephants engaged in tourism activities, and how some of the associated risks may be mitigated.
In order to maintain acceptable elephant welfare standards, the needs of an elephant must first be understood. These needs can be separately, broadly, into three categories: physical, physiological, and psychological. Physical needs include such factors as good body condition (maintaining a healthy weight), foot and toenail health, adequate physical activity and exercise, a healthy and varied diet, and appropriate professional veterinary treatment for illnesses and wounds. Mahouts and elephant camp managers can ensure elephants’ physical welfare needs are met by implementing frequent routine physical examinations, monitoring elephants carefully at all times, both at a short and long distance, and inspecting and evaluating the elephants’ environment for factors which may impact physical health. Diet should also be carefully monitored and controlled. An elephant’s physical needs can be said to be adequately met if that elephant is not undernourished or overweight, displays no signs of illness or injury during regular physical examinations, and demonstrates normal behaviours.
Both physical and psychological health problems can have a detrimental impact on an elephant’s physiological wellbeing. Some of an elephant’s physiological needs are demonstrably being met when the elephant is able to undergo naturally occurring physiological phenomena, such as an oestrous cycle or musth, in an appropriately timed pattern. Physiological wellbeing can be assessed by testing for biomarkers, such as glucocorticoids and cortisol. The allowance of certain behaviours, such as the freedom to rear a calf for females, has been shown to have physiological health benefits in domestic elephants. Thus, when an elephant’s health is sufficient for their body to follow naturally occurring hormonal cycles and other physiological rhythms, and these natural cycles are allowed to be expressed, that elephant’s physiological needs are likely being met.
The psychological needs of domestic Asian elephants are somewhat more difficult to meet and monitor than their physical and physiological needs. Elephants are highly intelligent and complex creatures with widely varying personalities, and as such, what works for one elephant may not necessarily work for another. Generally speaking, however, to maintain their psychological health, elephants require a stimulating environment, freedom to roam and forage independently, and a strong, caring bond with their Mahout. In addition to the needs resulting from their high level of intelligence, elephants are very social animals with intricate familial structures and well-defined hierarchies within herds. As such, ensuring elephants have adequate opportunities to socialise naturally is imperative for their psychological health and overall wellbeing. Their environment should also be free from danger and any stimuli which may cause fear or distress. The various behaviours demonstrated by an elephant are often directly linked to their psychological health level, and these can be monitored and interpreted to form a rudimentary assessment of their mental state. Elephants may display differing behaviours during activities such as feeding or socialising, or while close to their Mahout or other humans, and therefore they must be monitored throughout the day in various situations.
Elephant behaviour may be monitored and interpreted to check for issues in an elephant’s daily care and environment. Nutrition, environmental factors, and physical health are some of the factors which may affect the expression of normal behaviours in elephants. In addition to the absence of certain behaviours potentially indicating health problems, poor husbandry and welfare practices can sometimes result in the development of abnormal behaviours. One important behavioural indicator of problems in an elephant’s care is the development and expression of stereotypic behaviours, often caused by a form of zoochosis. These stereotypic behaviours can include repetitive swaying from side to side, rocking, bobbing of the head, or tugging at the nipples with the trunk. These behaviours are commonly associated with excessive chaining of the elephant, confinement in a small space, isolation or lack of social interaction, and a lack of environmental stimuli or enrichment. Stereotypic behaviours such as these indicate simply that a problem exists, and it is the responsibility of caretakers and management to identify the cause and rectify the issue. It must be noted that these repetitive behaviours are frequently habitual, and once formed they may still be expressed even years after the improvement of environmental circumstances.
Elephant behaviour can be a valuable indicator of not just psychological wellbeing, but physical and physiological – and, indeed, overall – health. In some situations, each of these factors may be inextricably linked, and a failure to appropriately care for any one component of elephant wellbeing can affect the others in a cascading manner, ultimately resulting in a serious detrimental impact on overall welfare. It is for this reason that proper elephant care must involve a multifaceted approach, with careful planning and monitoring, and must be implemented by a dedicated and adequately trained team.
You can read Part II of this article HERE.