Management of elephants in captivity

There are fewer than 1,000 African elephants in captivity, most of them in Western zoos. These constitute only a tiny fraction of the total population of Loxodonta, estimated at under 500,000; thus, the sustainable management of the captive stocks is not of immediate concern. The IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group has also indicated that this is not a priority issue for the conservation of the species.

On the other hand, about one-third of all Asian elephants are held captive, mostly in the range states, but also in significant numbers in zoos, circuses, safari parks, and other facilities around the world (fig. 9.8). An estimated 14,500-15,000 Elephas maximus are in captivity in the range states, chiefly Myanmar (over 5,000, with about 2,700 held by the Myanma Timber Enterprise and the rest mainly privately owned), Thailand (3,500-4,000), India (about 3,500), Laos (1,100-1,350), Cambodia (over 300), Sumatra (362), Sri Lanka (227), Nepal (171), and Vietnam (165). These elephants are scattered across different facilities—logging camps, nature reserves, village communities, temples, training centers, zoos, tourist resorts, and even individual households. Asian elephants are also kept in zoos and circuses across North America (350400), Europe (nearly 500), Japan, Australia, and elsewhere. Given the historical trend of the captive stocks of elephants being generally a drain on wild populations, the management of captive elephants in Asia obviously has a bearing on the conservation of the species. The IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group thus recognizes this issue to be of major concern.

There are several issues relating to the management of captive elephants. From a purely demographic viewpoint, it may be important to maintain a self-sustaining captive population, with births balancing deaths overall. Other issues, such as methods of capture, training, and husbandry pertain to the general welfare of this highly social, intelligent animal. Finally, we must consider whether the captive elephant has a future and, if so, what could be its utility to the conservation of the species.

Figure 9.8

Captive elephants kept in social groups in Asian timber camps such as this in Myanmar (top) usually show a better demographic record and need much less investment than those kept in western zoos (bottom).

Figure 9.8

Captive elephants kept in social groups in Asian timber camps such as this in Myanmar (top) usually show a better demographic record and need much less investment than those kept in western zoos (bottom).

Captive elephant populations, through history, have never been self-sustaining. The reason for this has mainly been the paucity of breeding, although a high death rate during the process of acquisition, training, and use has also been responsible. The lack of breeding under most captive situations is due to practical difficulties of elephant management, especially of bulls, even under traditional systems. When bulls are in musth (see chapter 3) and are most likely to mate with cows in estrus, they are segregated and restrained because of their heightened aggression and refusal to obey commands. Elephants are kept solitary in many situations, such as when they are under private ownership or kept in a temple. Temples in the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu prefer to keep only female elephants. The famous temple at Guru-vayoor in the neighboring state of Kerala is known for its stock of over 50 tusked male elephants. Obviously, breeding cannot occur under such situations. Even when male and female elephants are kept together, such as in logging or forest camps, the reproductive ability of a cow may be compromised by a heavy workload and poor nutrition.

Western zoos have invested in expensive physical barriers of elaborate design to maintain adult bull elephants. Even so, it may be difficult for them actually to breed elephants because of social incompatibility between a bull and the cows. Most zoos prefer not to keep bull elephants because of attendant risks, but send their cows to other facilities for breeding. The zoos also suffer from problems of infertile cows, the reasons for which are not fully known. Even when there is a successful birth, there is a distinct risk of rejection or even killing of the calf by the mother. Such aberrant behavior may be related to the inexperience of the mother, which has been raised solitarily or never observed another elephant giving birth. Much of postnatal behavior of the mother in this highly social animal could be learned behavior in the wild; a captive situation may not provide this enrichment. Zoos in North America also have had a preponderance of male calves over female calves, the opposite of the desired outcome.

While breeding is necessary to maintain self-sustaining populations of elephants in captivity, the survivorship of these elephants has not received sufficient attention. A stable population in demographic terms, after all, is a matter of births balancing deaths. Fewer births are needed to maintain a constant population size in situations in which captive elephants have high survivorship.

I looked at records of several captive elephant populations and found that only those held in seminatural situations, such as forest camps, are usually permitted to feed in the nearby forest at night when wild bulls may mate with cows in estrus. Mating also occurs between captive bulls and cows. Several cow elephants in these camps have lived beyond 60 years, including three cows that lived to 75-79 years, virtually unthinkable in a zoo. The captive elephants held in forest camps by the southern Indian states of Tamilnadu and Karnataka have shown an annual fecundity rate of about 0.1 per adult female during the twentieth century and 0.16 per adult female during the period

1969-1989. Given the relatively high survivorship rates (fig. 7.5), this population could maintain a low growth rate with the lower fecundity rate and a strong positive growth rate with the higher fecundity rate seen in recent decades.

Khyne U Mar has analyzed the records from the Myanmar timber camps (see notes to chapter 7, section 7.2). She reports reproductive rates that are under 0.1 per adult female per year, but given the large captive stock of elephants, a substantial number of calves are born. The survivorship rates are also lower than those in southern India. The timber elephants of Myanmar have been declining at a slow rate under the prevailing birth and death rates. While this decline has been blamed on insufficient breeding, a small change in the survivorship rate through improved health care and husbandry could help achieve the broader objective of a stable population size.

In contrast to the Asian forest camps, elephants in Western zoos are declining at an alarming rate as a result of low birth and high death rates. The North American zoo population of Asian elephants, for instance, is intrinsically declining at about 8% per year. Victoria Taylor and Trevor Poole have compared these situations through a questionnaire survey. They found that only 34% of adult females in the zoos have given birth at least once compared to about 90% or more in Asian forest camps. Further, the low fecundity rate (<0.05 adult female per year), a high rate (25%) of stillbirths, and high juvenile and adult mortality all contribute to the intrinsic decline. Fred Kurt believes that the overweight condition of captive elephants in zoos, by as much as 33%-78% compared to wild elephants, is responsible for much of the reproductive and disease problems. Ultrasonographic examination of zoo elephants by Thomas Hildebrandt and associates revealed that uterine tumors and endo-metrial and ovarian cysts were responsible for disruption of the estrous cycle. The incidence of such pathologies increased sharply from age 30 years onward, with a corresponding decline in reproduction. Similar examination of male elephants showed much lower incidence of pathologies even in older animals, although semen quality varied widely in ejaculates collected from the same bull and different bulls. Social factors seem to influence the breeding status of these bulls.

Research in Western zoos for nearly two decades on artificial insemination finally succeeded with the birth of an Asian elephant calf in November 1999 at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri. Since then, there have also been the births of several African elephant calves conceived through artificial insemination, while six more African cows were pregnant at zoos in North America and Europe (in May 2002). The use of ultrasound technology, which allows the monitoring of the insemination catheter for proper placement of the semen in the female's reproductive tract, has contributed to the successful conceptions.

In the management of captive elephants, equally important issues relating to their training, welfare, and husbandry must be considered. Traditional systems of training and husbandry vary widely across Asian countries and regions.

Some of these systems clearly have undesirable elements that inflict unnecessary cruelty on this highly intelligent animal. Similar issues continue to plague zoos, in which elephants are often confined within small spaces. The Western zoos have also been debating the "protected contact" versus "free contact" system of managing their elephants.

It is beyond the scope of this volume to go into a more detailed discussion of these issues. While there cannot be a uniform system for managing elephants globally, it is imperative that minimum standards for their welfare are developed based on scientific principles. Richard Lair has long advocated the registration of all captive elephants, both in range states and outside, as the first step toward preparing a global plan for their management. Implanting microchips that can be read electronically is one option for marking and registering elephants, although this may be impractical in many parts of Asia. India has begun the process of marking captive elephants with microchips.

What is the relevance to conservation of the captive elephant today? A charismatic animal such as the elephant, which appeals to the sentiments of people, obviously has the potential to act as an ambassador of goodwill and to raise funds for its own conservation as well as for the conservation of other creatures that share its habitat. The birth of an elephant calf in a Western zoo increases visitor numbers and revenue as few other animals do. Zoos have the potential for educating the public not only about elephants, but also about the broader conservation issues. The sacredness associated with the elephant in some Asian countries has undoubtedly contributed to its survival in the wild. I doubt if the elephant would have survived in relatively large numbers in a densely populated country such as India but for its sacred connotations. Thus, elephants kept in temples or participating in cultural or religious festivities can reinforce this sentiment of sacredness among the people. Research on captive elephants has also helped in understanding the biology of the species, especially relating to reproduction and diseases.

However, I think that the captive elephant has a more direct role in the management of wild elephants in Asia. The management of elephant-human conflict can be greatly facilitated through the use of trained captive elephants for chase or capture of marauding wild elephants. Captive elephants can also be used for patrolling protected areas and other forest habitats to deter poaching. The traditional role of elephants in logging has declined in many Asian countries. The ban on logging in Thailand, imposed in 1989 after devastating floods in the country, led to a crisis for captive elephants employed in this industry. The familiar spectacle of the "street elephants" of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, used for begging or to greet visitors to hotels, has been widely reported by the media. In India, the timber elephant also is largely a phenomenon of the past, but the animal has been partly absorbed into other roles, such as tourism in wildlife parks. Only in Myanmar has the timber elephant retained its original character along with the traditional skills of mahouts in handling the animals.

There is also the possibility of captive elephants going back to the wild. Such natural experiments have undoubtedly occurred several times in history with a successful outcome. Over large areas in Southeast Asia, there is still sufficient habitat, but a lack of elephants. A major hurdle to reintroducing captive elephants into the wild is the risk that these animals may come into conflict with human settlements. In recent times, one experiment with releasing seven captive elephants (six adult females and one 2-year-old male) into Thailand's Doi Phameung Wildlife Sanctuary produced promising results. More such experiments are needed to evaluate the feasibility of restocking natural habitat with some of Asia's large numbers of captive elephants. When hand-reared elephant calves are to be reintroduced into the wild, under experimentation at Tsavo in Kenya, several precautions have to be taken. They have to be brought up in an environment with minimum contact with humans, especially visitors, and encouraged to learn wild-type behaviors, possibly through contact with wild elephants. The comparative behavior of captive and wild elephants has to be understood before reintroduction programs can be undertaken on a larger scale.

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