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  • Georgina Ashby

Psychological Priorities of Captive Elephants: Enrichment and Mental Welfare


Asian elephant Yangniu plays with a ball in the Asian Elephants Breeding and Rescue Center in Southwest China's Yunnan province on June 5, 2017. Photo by Xinhua.


The psychological well-being of captive Asian elephants is as critical as their physical health. Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals. They live in large, fission–fusion matriarchal family groups and exhibit complex behaviors such as problem-solving, targeted helping, and empathy (Plotnik and Jacobson, 2022). Studies have shown that key aspects, such as socialization, enrichment, and exercise, are critical for maintaining elephants’ psychological health and aid in reducing stress-related behaviors when in captivity (Bansiddhi et al., 2019). 


Results from a recent survey found that the minority of camp managers and owners consider the importance of the mental health and psychological needs of elephants as part of welfare standards (Bansiddhi, Brown and Thitaram, 2020). However, there are camps that have worked to make changes for the psychological needs of their elephants. They have achieved this by moving away from scheduled, primarily solitary activities to allow more free time for elephants to interact and play, especially around bath time and other social activities, such as foraging. A recent study identified drinking and browsing/grazing as the most important behaviors for Asian elephants in captivity, not only for satisfying the physical needs but also psychological as well (Veasey, 2020). For example, providing browse may meet nutritional needs but does not fulfill behavioral or cognitive needs. Foraging involves social interaction, information gathering, decision making, and locomotion. It is preferable for elephants to engage in motivated behaviors themselves rather than having these needs met through human provisioning.


Sociality is a critical factor in the mental welfare of elephants. Studies have shown that social variables are significant predictors of welfare indicators and that social interactions with conspecifics and human caretakers can buffer stress and reduce the risk of developing stereotypic behaviors* (Greco et al., 2016; Meehan et al., 2016). For example, transferring elephants between zoos has major social implications, including separation from herd mates and known caretakers and introduction to unfamiliar elephants and humans. These conclusions for zoo elephants and their caretakers can be extended to elephants in tourist camps and their mahouts. Mahouts play an important role in the life of elephants and studies have found that positive mahout-elephant relationships can facilitate trauma recovery, highlighting the role of prosocial mahout interactions in the overall well-being of elephants (Rizzolo and Bradshaw, 2016). Positive mahout-elephant bonds undoubtedly have welfare benefits for both mahouts and elephants (Bansiddhi, Brown, and Thitaram, 2020). 

Enrichment activities are designed to stimulate the elephants mentally and physically, preventing boredom and promoting natural behaviors. These activities can include providing varied terrain, access to water bodies for bathing, and objects like logs or tires for elephants to manipulate. Engaging in such activities helps reduce stress and improve overall welfare (Mumby, 2019). Exercise is another crucial aspect, with camps encouraging elephants to walk long distances daily, mimicking their natural behavior in the wild. This practice benefits their physical health and supports mental well-being by allowing them to explore and interact with their environment (Bansiddhi et al., 2018). 


ACES standards emphasize aspects of enrichment. These include:

  • Food Enrichment: Providing food that encourages natural browsing and foraging behaviors, such as stripping bark off limbs and manipulating food with their trunks and feet. 

  • Supervised Roaming: Offering a separate supervised roaming space outside of visitor areas, allowing elephants to rest, move, and socialize in a natural environment.

  • Socialization: Ensuring elephants have daily opportunities to socialize with each other and actively supporting the socialization of compatible individuals (ACES, 2024). 


Understanding and addressing the psychological needs of elephants through informed management practices is essential for their overall welfare. By implementing standards like ACES certification and fostering positive mahout-elephant relationships, we can significantly enhance the quality of life for elephants in captivity.


* Stereotypic behaviors are repetitive, invariant behaviors with no apparent goal or function and for elephants these are usually constant swaying or head bobbing.


NOTES TO EDITORS

For media inquiries, please contact:

Georgina Ashby, ACES, georgina@elephantstandards.com 


About ACES

Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES) is the independent, reliable and transparent link between the tourism industry and captive elephant welfare. Our camp guidelines were developed in 2019 and after much consultation we developed in 2023 a set of over 222 strict camp criteria. All criteria have been independently validated by international specialists in elephant management, veterinary care and animal welfare. Our goal is to ensure Asian elephant welfare while meeting the needs of the community and tourism stakeholders.

For more information, please visit https://www.elephantstandards.com/



Citations:

Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES) (2024). Auditor Checklist. Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Bansiddhi, P., Nganvongpanit, K., Brown, J.L., Punyapornwithaya, V., Pongsopawijit, P. and Thitaram, C. (2019). Management factors affecting physical health and welfare of tourist camp elephants in Thailand. PeerJ, 7, p.e6756. doi:https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.6756.

Brown, J.L., Bansiddhi, P., Khonmee, J. and Thitaram, C. (2020). Commonalities in Management and Husbandry Factors Important for Health and Welfare of Captive Elephants in North America and Thailand. Animals, 10(4), p.737. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10040737.

Bansiddhi, P., Brown, J.L., Thitaram, C., Punyapornwithaya, V., Somgird, C., Edwards, K.L. and Nganvongpanit, K. (2018). Changing trends in elephant camp management in northern Thailand and implications for welfare. PeerJ, 6, p.e5996. doi:https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5996.

Greco, B.J., Meehan, C.L., Hogan, J.N., Leighty, K.A., Mellen, J., Mason, G.J. and Mench, J.A. (2016). The Days and Nights of Zoo Elephants: Using Epidemiology to Better Understand Stereotypic Behavior of African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) and Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) in North American Zoos. PLOS ONE, [online] 11(7), p.e0144276. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0144276.

Meehan, C.L., Mench, J.A., Carlstead, K. and Hogan, J.N. (2016). Determining Connections between the Daily Lives of Zoo Elephants and Their Welfare: An Epidemiological Approach. PLOS ONE, 11(7), p.e0158124. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158124.

Mumby, H.S. (2019). Mahout Perspectives on Asian Elephants and Their Living Conditions. Animals, 9(11), p.879. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9110879.

Plotnik, J.M. and Jacobson, S.L. (2022). A ‘thinking animal’ in conflict: studying wild elephant cognition in the shadow of anthropogenic change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 46(101148), p.101148. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2022.101148.

Rizzolo, J.B. and Bradshaw, G.A. (2016). Prevalence and Patterns of Complex PTSD in Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus). In: N. Bandara, T. Wickramaarachchi and H. Navoda De Zoysa, eds., Asian Elephants in Culture and Nature. Sri Lanka: Centre for Asian Studies University of Kelaniya , pp.291–297.

Veasey, J.S. (2020). Assessing the Psychological Priorities for Optimising Captive Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Welfare. Animals, 10(1), p.39. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10010039.

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