Cascade Spotlight: Elephant Welfare Project

A project started at Nottingham, and funded by generous donations to the Cascade programme, is helping to improve the lives of elephants in captivity around the globe, as well as giving students valuable career opportunities.

Three elephants in mud facing the camera.

The Elephant Welfare Project was started by Dr Lisa Yon, Associate Professor in Zoo and Wildlife Medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, based at the Sutton Bonington Campus. Dr Yon serves on the Elephant Welfare Group, which was tasked by UK government to work in partnership with colleagues in UK elephant holding zoos to assess and improve the welfare of UK zoo elephants. Dr Yon recognised that there was no validated behavioural tool that could be used to show how steps being taken by zoos were improving the lives of elephants in captivity.

“If we were going to determine if things had improved, or identify areas that would benefit from further work, we first needed a scientifically developed way to measure that,” explained Dr Yon. “As part of this work, I led a team which developed a behavioural welfare assessment tool, that was then legislated for use by the UK government. The tool was designed as a relatively quick, but scientifically robust way to detect if there have been changes in an elephant’s welfare.

“The elephants become their own baseline – rather than comparing them to other elephants. Each elephant is completely different, so we need a way to accurately measure an individual elephant, which takes into account their age, personality, location, etc.

After receiving a lot of positive feedback from the UK zoos that had used the tool, Dr Yon wanted something that could be used to monitor elephants around the globe.

This led her to secure funds via Cascade to create an Android app version of the tool and take the project global. “We made our app free for anyone working with elephants, since we didn’t want cost to be a barrier preventing people from making use of the app. Since we released it, the app has been used by facilities in France, Italy, the UK, Ireland and the USA, and we’ve had further interest from facilities all around the world (including Mexico, India, Thailand, Australia, South Africa, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Uganda, Indonesia, the Netherlands, UAE, Poland, Austria and Myanmar). When we created the app, I was hoping that it would be used widely, but I never expected it to be this successful. It’s really encouraging to see where we are today.”

For some time Dr Yon had been looking for ways to support and encourage student interest in wildlife. Cascade funding created the ideal opportunity for her to integrate her elephant welfare research programme more fully into the learning opportunities for students. Thanks to support from Cascade, there has been ongoing development of the project, providing more opportunities for students to get involved, which enhances their experience at Nottingham.

This includes opportunities for collecting and analysing data on elephant behaviour and welfare from our partner facilities worldwide, so that students can be involved as co-authors on scientific publications. Student involvement has included relatively short term research projects of a few weeks weeks to a couple of months, and one student who took a year out from her veterinary studies to undertake an Intercalated year-long Masters in Research programme.

“Student involvement has been wonderful in so many ways,” explained Dr Yon. “I’ve been working at the vet school for more than 16 years, and our students are really enthusiastic and highly motivated, which is great to see and a pleasure to work with. Many of them are really interested in zoo and wildlife work, but it’s a very difficult field to break into.

We were previously really struggling for students to get access to funds for things like travelling to zoos to see the elephants and speak directly with the keepers, and that’s when we heard about the Cascade programme. I’ve now got a team of students volunteering with me, who helped develop the content for our website. They’ve helped create promotional material about the project, and helped identify and develop fundraising opportunities. The students also created and posted material for  the project’s social media accounts to promote our work and raise public interest, and they have been an enormous help at public outreach activities, including the Wollaton Hall ‘Science in the Park’, an event held on 11 March 2023, which involved four Higher Education Institutes across the regions, and attended by more than 1,000 members of the public. 

The students have been involved in speaking about our project with members of the public across a wide range of ages; this has provided them with an opportunity to further develop their communication skills, which are essential for their future careers.
Dr Lisa Yon

"The students have been involved in speaking about our project with members of the public across a wide range of ages; this has provided them with an opportunity to further develop their communication skills, which are essential for their future careers.  In addition, the project has helped them build their professional network – as part of this project, I’ve been able to introduce them to colleagues in the UK and internationally who work with elephants."

However, there’s still work to do. Dr Yon is working to make the app even more accessible by launching a mobile version that can also be used on smartphones, and she hopes to raise funds to create a version for Apple (iOS) as well. Plus, she has been approached by other institutions that are keen to make use of lessons learned from the EBWAT and the app, to monitor the welfare of other animals, such as marine mammals, and a master’s student has made a similar behavioural welfare tool for giraffes using the template from the development of the EBWAT.

“Some people that say that elephants shouldn’t be in captivity and that they belong in the wild,” added Dr Yon. “But given that elephants have a lifespan of 60-70 years, even if we banned keeping captive elephants tomorrow, we’d still have to look after the thousands of elephants already under human care. So I feel we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do our utmost to monitor and improve their welfare. And sadly, it’s important to recognise that, at present, both African and Asian elephants are endangered, meaning that they are going extinct out in the wild. This means that we need to look after them better in captivity if we want to continue to have them living on the planet with us at all.”

Find out how to support the Elephant Welfare Project on its website, or learn more about student-led Cascade projects.