Elephants have been living alongside people for thousands of years in South East Asia and, while their proximity can often lead to conflicts over food and territory, the relationship between the two species is deeply ingrained in the culture of the region.
Now, as the Asian elephant stands on the brink of extinction, an academic at The University of Nottingham, and a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving welfare for captive animals through environmental enrichment, are joining forces with those who care for these endangered animals in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia in a bid to improve the welfare of elephants living in captivity in the region.
Dr Lisa Yon, a Lecturer in Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, in the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, has developed a workshop in collaboration with colleagues Valerie Hare and Deb Ng from the non-profit organisation ‘Shape of Enrichment’, which trains people in developing environmental enrichment for animals living in captivity, along with Gail Laule from the Singapore Zoo, an expert in animal training methods. Together, they are working with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) in Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, to develop a new workshop centred around elephant welfare and wellbeing.
The five-day workshop, taking place at GTAEF from 7 to 11 June, will bring together mahouts, owners and veterinarians from the region’s elephant camps to explore ways to more effectively meet the physical and emotional needs of elephants in captivity. The workshop will cover positive training methods, behaviour and welfare assessment, and environmental enrichment.
Dr Yon said: “There are centuries of tradition involving elephants in this culture – they were originally used by humans in Southeast Asia on the battlefield in warfare and, more recently, in the logging industry, though this was banned in Thailand in 1989.
“We are very grateful to have this opportunity to exchange knowledge and with the owners, mahouts and veterinarians at these elephant camps. Much of the work with these elephants is based on cultural traditions handed down for centuries. We also hope to share a variety of ideas and approaches with them from our international work on elephants.”
It is estimated that there are between 3,470 and 4,200 Asian elephants – Elephas maximus - living in captivity in Thailand, with the majority working in elephant camps, where tourists can pay to feed, help care for, and in some cases ride, the elephants.
While many animal welfare groups and those in the tourism industry are critical of elephant tourism in Thailand and the wider region, the issue of elephants in captivity remains a very complex one.
When logging was outlawed in 1989, elephant owners and their mahouts needed to find other ways of financially supporting themselves and feeding and caring for their animals, so they turned to tourism.
Working together for positive outcomes
Dr Yon added: “There is not a simple answer and we are not trying to solve all the problems at once but we feel that the elephant camps are well placed to be at the forefront of trying to improve the lives of these captive animals.”
The workshop will look at ways in which some of the elephants’ natural behaviours in the wild could be accommodated in camps. Asian elephants in the wild roam over thousands of square kilometres and develop complex social relationships while living in multi-generational herds of up to 60 animals or more. While this is clearly not practical in the camp environment, the workshop will discuss changes that can be made to improve the elephants’ emotional wellbeing.
Dr Yon said: “We want to work together with the mahouts and elephant camp owners who are working to ensure the positive wellbeing of these elephants.
“The elephant is endangered, and within a few decades these animals could become extinct in the wild. The only ones we would then have left on the planet would be those living in captivity – we need to give those animals the best welfare possible.”
The workshop has also been supported by GTAEF, Asian Elephant Support, RSPCA, Singapore Zoo, and UFAW (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare). Accommodation for the delegates is being generously provided by the five star Anantara Golden Triangle Resort.
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK for research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.
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