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Elephant welfare depends greatly on social interactions, enrichment opportunities

A multi-institute study spanning over 255 African and Asian elephants in 68 accredited North American zoos has brought to light the factors that play a role in welfare of elephants.

Results indicate that while enclosure allotted to elephants in zoos do matter, factors such as social interactions, and enrichment and engagement opportunities play a greater role. Researchers found that primary importance is for elephants to spend time in groups, and not be socially isolated for greater well being. Further, human care takers also can play an important role in an elephant’s social life through husbandry, training and interactive sessions.

The researchers also found that for elephants, spending time alone was an important risk factor, while spending more time in larger social groups, particularly those that included young animals, had a protective effect. Additionally, having experienced multiple inter-zoo transfers increased an elephant’s risk of performing stereotypic behavior.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the new study is effectively a collection of findings of nine research papers that look into understanding and enhancing zoo elephant welfare. The project is the largest of its kind wherein researchers looked at various elephant welfare factors including behavior, body condition, foot-and-joint health, female reproductive function and walking distance.

Researchers were able to confirm that spending time on hard flooring was the one of the biggest risk factors for both foot and musculoskeletal health problems in elephants. Researchers were also able to unravel previously unknown links between elephant management and welfare. One of the studies found that more than three-quarters of the elephants studied performed stereotypic behaviors such as swaying or rocking – behaviors believed to be among the most important behavioral indicators that the welfare of a captive animal is compromised, but their causes are difficult to pinpoint.

The study did find that the quality of the space and management practices is important to elephant welfare. For example, the research demonstrated that decreased time spent on hard flooring significantly reduced the risk of foot and joint problems, which were found to be important health concerns for the population.

The authors interpret these results to mean that the social lives of elephants play a large role in their behavioral health and recommend that zoo elephant programs consider management changes to support larger, multigenerational social groupings.

The study also found that size of the zoo exhibit – effectively the space provided to the elephant – didn’t play as huge a role in elephant’s welfare as social factors and management practices such as enrichment programs. Authors reveal that female elephants who experienced a wide variety of enrichment opportunities and feeding options, such as puzzle feeders that require work to gain access to food, were more likely to have normal reproductive function. This particular finding indicates that day-to-day management practices could be an important tool in addressing the reproductive issues that are particularly common among female African elephants.

David Lintott is a freelance journalist, covering culture, sport and society. He hails from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, which he considers the source of his world-weariness.

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