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Want happy elephants? Ask the experts

21 March 2018

Research captures the valuable experience and expertise of stakeholder groups to inform welfare assessment of captive elephants 

Concerns have been raised regarding the welfare of elephants in zoos – however up until now, few attempts have been made to capture the expertise of professionals working with captive elephants to inform decisions about elephant welfare. 

A new study worked with representatives from 15 UK elephant-holding facilities and other experts in the welfare and behaviour of captive or free-ranging elephants.  The purpose was to gather stakeholder’s opinions on potential measures of captive elephant welfare, and on resources thought to be of importance to elephants. 

The study was conducted as part of a research project commissioned by Defra and was designed to develop and validate a new behavioural welfare assessment tool for elephants, as well as to inform an evidence-based update of current management guidelines.

Using focus groups and workshops, participants identified behavioural, physical and psychological elements that could be used to assess elephant welfare.  Not surprisingly, the scientists found that natural behaviours such as social interaction, exploration, digging, swimming, mud wallowing and scratching were indicators of good welfare, with time spent by elephants sleeping or lying down to sleep particularly relevant. 

Choice and complexity where also thought to be important aspects of welfare for captive elephants.  The group participants stressed the importance of replicating in captivity the social groups that have been observed in wild elephants, with strong support for multi-generational family groups comprising a wide range of ages, and for housing social groups together day and night.  Participants were also of the opinion that, whilst enclosures should be as large as possible, they should also provide complexity and interest no matter the size.  This was reflected in the workshop results with participants advocating complex environments with a variety of terrain, free access between indoor and outdoor enclosures, a deep pool and places where elephants could hide should they choose to do so.  As one participant remarked: “You can never give them the space, an animal like this in the captive environment, so whether its 500 acres or 1,000 acres or only 50 acres to the animal itself it won’t make a big difference if it’s not challenging.  The habitat should be challenging so that they can interact with different items... they have to make choices.”

In a paper recently published in the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare’s journal Animal Welfare, the researchers concluded: “In advocating the use of expert opinion in welfare assessments, we recognise that opinion alone should not determine welfare measures, or inform husbandry guidelines.  Rather, stakeholder expertise should be considered alongside scientific evidence to develop a holistic approach to welfare assessment…. The stakeholder focus groups and workshops were invaluable in contributing to our understanding of the practical assessment of elephant welfare and resources of importance to elephants in captivity.”

Further information

The full paper Stakeholders Perspectives of Elephant Welfare was published in the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) journal Animal Welfare.  Subscribers to the journal will find this paper in Volume 26 issue 4.  The full abstract of the study can be read at UFAW’s website http://www.ufaw.org.uk/the-ufaw-journal/animal-welfare.

If you wish to read the full paper, you can visit ingentaconnect.com to access the paper for $25 (US) plus taxes.  http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ufaw/aw

Those purchasing the paper or choosing to subscribe to the Animal Welfare journal will be supporting UFAW’s work.