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Society and communities

What would he tell you about his zoo?

You could say that it’s the elephant in the room.

Thousands of us love to see majestic wildlife, up close and personal, in our local zoos. But can we be sure the creatures we’re admiring are happy and healthy, and at ease with their captive surroundings?

Ten years ago, the UK Government wasn’t convinced. In the case of captive elephants, its research raised concerns. In response, it gave our zoos ten years to show evidence of improving welfare. It also tasked the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) Elephant Welfare Group (EWG) to help zoos show documented improvements by 2020.

At the University, a team led by Dr Lisa Yon has developed a new concept in monitoring behavioural welfare: the Elephant Behavioural Assessment Tool. This gives elephant keepers a rapid and effective way to monitor behavioural welfare, and provides evidence of improvements they’re achieving.

Dr Yon developed the project as head of the EWG’s Behaviour Subgroup. She says: “We found that current techniques gave an objective record of what an elephant’s doing at a given time. But if one day he’s just standing immobile and passive, is he depressed and distressed or happily chilling? This tool helps us to interpret, not just report.”

The tool (see panel) is used by keepers to submit data to the EWG, contributing to an ever-growing knowledge base on the 64 elephants held in 14 UK and Ireland zoos.


92% of British and Irish zoos adopt BIAZA Elephant Management Guidelines 

Source: British & Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums Elephant Welfare Group May 2016

64 elephants in UK and Ireland zoos and safari parks.

Source: British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums

10% - percentage of  bodyweight eaten by elephants every day, so around 360kg for an adult

Source: National Geographic

16-18 hours - time spent daily foraging and eating for food by Wild Asian elephants 

Source: National Geographic

Up to 7.5m in length, 3.3m high at the shoulder, and 6 tonnes in weight, African elephants are the planets largest land animals

415,000 - population of wild African elephants (as many as 3-5 million in early 20th century)

Up to 40,000 muscles in an elephant trunk. A human body has more than 600 muscles

22 months - the longest gestation period of any mammal. Females give birth every four to five years.

Source: WWF

The tool has three focus areas, and asks detailed questions about each elephant’s behaviour at given times.

“We also look for ‘stereotypies’: abnormal behaviours in captive animals linked to negative welfare, either in the past or in the present. In elephants, this can include head bobbing, swaying, or repeatedly walking in a figure of eight. While this behaviour may relate to a negative issue in the past, we need to be aware of it, and find ways to encourage morenatural behaviours.”

By capturing everything from comfort behaviours (such as wallowing and throwing dust or water over themselves), to social behaviour (sharing food, touching each other, sitting on each other) and ‘agonistic’, or aggressive behaviours (trunk smacking, jabbing with tusks), the tool shines a light on both contentment and welfare issues.

Until early 2022, the tool was completed over multiple days using separate sheets of paper, scores were manually entered into excel, and limited results were provided by the spreadsheet. A new ground-breaking android tablet-based app has been developed to replace the tool in its current format.

The app will enable keepers to rapidly complete the tool on a tablet, and they will be emailed with their results. Additionally, this exciting development for this welfare assessment tool will enable elephant carers in zoos and other captive elephant settings worldwide, to get instant reports tracking the welfare of their elephants.

On the app, Dr Yon says: “Whilst the initial feedback has been great, we wanted to make the tool even easier to use. We started developing the app earlier this year. Keepers can use it to guide them through the process and it also reduces paperwork and the time it takes to input the observational data, which will make it faster and easier for them.

“The app really will make our tool easy to use, and many of our colleagues all around the world are keen to adopt our app for use with their elephants. However, in order to encourage the use of our app by these different elephant-keeping facilities, it is essential that we make it freely available, as there are so many places with elephants that have very limited funding, that just couldn’t afford to pay for it."

The app requires substantial ongoing costs associated with the maintenance of the database that will house the data from all the app users, creation of an online dashboard so that app users can create customised reports of their data, and potential creation of a separate version of the app for use on Apple ipads (iOS).

The team have set up a JustGiving page for donations to support the app.

The team also reviewed the Secretary of State’s Modern Zoo Practice guidelines on keeping elephants. The majority of their revisions have been adopted by both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Irish Government. Jonathan Cracknell, Chair of the EWG, remarks: “These have had more of an impact on elephant welfare improvements than any other document in the last 40 years.” He added that Dr Yon’s work also had “far-reaching impacts as a model for other mega-charismatic species in the UK’s zoos”.

The tool was successfully trialled in five UK zoos and is now used by every zoo that houses elephants in the UK, as well as numerous other facilities around the globe. Dr Yon adds: “One respondent said that he doesn’t call himself a keeper any more, but a manager of the environment for elephants to encourage natural behaviour. That’s exactly the type of thinking the EWG seeks to promote.”

The Elephant Behavioural Assessment Tool

The assessment tool is designed to be used at least every three months, with data entered by the elephants’ keepers.

It has three focus areas:

Qualitative behavioural assessment

This asks the keeper to assess an elephant’s emotional state, in each of four time-blocks on a given day.

Daytime activity

A five-minute assessment, every day for three consecutive days, with specific questions on behaviours including stereotypes, feeding and foraging, interaction with the environment and agonistic displays.

Night-time activity

Review of overnight video, sampled at 30-minute intervals, again recording specific behaviours including lying down, comfort/self-maintenance, socialising and stereotypes.

Dr Lisa Yon

Dr Lisa Yon is a Lecturer in Zoo and Wildlife Medicine in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science. Her research focuses on the health, welfare and conservation of captive and free-living wildlife.

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