Ethology and Training of Elephants

A review on the ethology, behaviour and training of a captive animal

BSc Zoo Animal Management Year 2
Word count: 2554 (not including table)


Summary | 3 |
Introduction | 4 |
Ethology and Behaviour in the Wild | 4 |
Training in Captivity | 6 |
Conclusion | 11 |
References | 12 |
Bibliography | 13 |

Elephant training is important within the zoo environment, as it aids in the husbandry regime, any medical and veterinary treatment and any daily health care, such as foot treatment for elephants. For successful training, you need to know how animals learn; this is usually through having a positive/neutral relationship with the animal and to use positive reinforcement training; and to give the animal something it desires such as food or something as simple as praise or attention from the keeper. The most frequent used methods to train animals in zoos are based on operant conditioning techniques; simply reinforcing a behaviour will increase the likelihood that it will occur again in the future (Hosey et al, 2009). The other type of method of training is known as classical conditioning; which is learning by the association of 2 or more stimuli which the animal has no control over the events.

Elephants have been trained by humans for many of years, even before zoos where established. However recently in the past 40 years hands on contact with animals were kept to a minimum, except for elephants and some marine mammals. ???The specifics of how an elephant is trained depend upon the sex, species, and individual personality of the elephant. Many trainers feel that African elephants, Loxodonta africana, are more difficult to train that Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, because of their more ???excitable??? nature??™ (Mellen J & Ellis S, 1996). Within elephant training, an elephant hook can be used to control, prod, signal, direct and / or to punish the elephant. Elephants are known to be clever animals and are able to remember events from the past; also elephant are able to learn from each other by observing another elephant, this is usually young elephants watching older, mature elephants eat in the wild so that the younger elephant knows what to eat and how.
Ethology and Wild Behaviour:
Fig.1. Asian Elephant Range (National Geographic, 2009)
Ethology is the known as the study of behaviour in the animal??™s natural environment. Elephants rarely forage in one area for more than a few days in a row (Ciszek D, 1999). The Asian elephants which inhabit the forest areas seek out shade to stay cool especially around midday, as Asian elephants are unable to cope with draughts and need constant access to permanent water sources unlike their African species. Asian elephants need a good source of food and water and with the forest having a more concentrated source than that of where African elephants inhabit, the Asian elephants have smaller ranges which can vary in size from 60 to 230 square miles. However, the population sizes of the Asian elephant are in decline due to habitat destruction, poaching and the increase in the human population.

In the wild Asian elephants are social animals which live in groups; known as herds, the size of a herd can vary from a small group to a large group. However the social lives of a male and a female elephant are completely different. Female elephants have strong bonds and live in matriarchal families; these families consist of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and their offspring. Male elephants occasionally would join a group of females, but normally male elephants are solitary or have a male only group. However ???social behaviour of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is not well understood in the absence of long-term studies of identified individuals. Adult Asian elephant females and their young of both sexes form matriarchal groups with pubertal males dispersing from natal groups, but whether these social groups represent families and males show locational or social dispersal is unknown??™ (Sukumar V.R, 2005). Asian elephants are mainly active around dusk, throughout the night until dawn. Asian elephants will travel far to find nutritious food and for a good water source within their habitat range; their diet consists of: soft grasses, banana stems, fruits and bark of latex producing trees. These elephants will forage during the cooler parts of the day and would then rest in the shade in the hotter times of the day. ???Asian elephants talk to each other by touch, sound, scent, and body language… Elephants also use a broad range of sounds to communicate, like trumpeting as a warning or greeting to other elephants nearby. They also produce low-frequency rumbling sounds, which can travel over great distances, reaching the ears of elephants several kilometres away. Elephants also communicate with infrasound, sounds inaudible to human ears??™ (Asian Elephant, 2010). An elephant??™s natural behaviour can either be a proximate explanation; meaning that the behaviour is triggered by a stimuli or a ultimate explanation; meaning that the behaviour is based on evolution, where the behavioural traits are genetic. Example behaviours of these explanations are:
Proximate: Self-grooming for young elephants is triggered by watching the adults using their trunks to spray water over themselves or to use their trunk to pick up soil to throw over the body.
Ultimate: Female Asian elephants mainly stay in herds as big families descending from grandmother to granddaughter, where as male Asian elephants will break away from the herd at a certain age either with another male or on its own and they will then go and find another herd to breed with.

Training in Captivity:
The training of Asian elephants in captivity is very important for the elephant as well as for the keepers. New training and handling sessions for the elephants is a main result of public pressure and is to prevent any accidents occurring and to improve the keeping conditions of the elephants. Tools in training include the ankus (elephant hook), vocal commands, Bridging; which is a signal used to notify the elephant that the behaviour performed was correct and a whistle/clicker. A bridge is also a stimulus that is connected with a primary reinforcer; food, through classical conditioning (learning by association of 2 or more stimuli). There are 4 types of contact training with elephants:
-Free contact/Hands on: direct handling of an elephant with a keeper within the same space.
-Protected handling: the handling of the elephant with a keeper when they do not share that space between them
-Confined contact: Handling of an elephant through a protective barrier where the elephant is spatially confined (Schmid J, 1998)
-No contact/Hands off: there is no contact when handling an elephant, unless the elephant is under sedation.

Free contact with elephants is a common management system in a majority of zoo across the world. Free contact is considered to be a traditional method of training which evolved from elephant management techniques used with the Asian species for about the past 5000 years (Guerrero D, 1997). With free contact, the elephant keeper must have sufficient training and an excellent understanding of elephant behaviour, handling and training methods. Also there should be a good relationship between the keeper/s and the elephant to gain successful training and handling. Elephants in captivity need a good skin care regime in place and this is only possible with the elephants having contact with the keepers in a free contact management system. Within the free contact management systems elephants are trained to put their foot onto a pedestal enabling the keeper to carry out the necessary foot treatments, also keepers can trained the elephants to become used to routine medical treatments such as the taking of blood or examining the teeth, all without causing stress towards the elephants. In free contact systems the keepers can lead the integration and prevent fights and injury to the animals (Schmid J, 1998). With training elephants for handling has its advantages, training can also be used to stimulate the animal mentally and physically. In zoos having a free contact management system allows them to keep a lot of animals within a restricted space and also because many zoos are unable to expand their elephant houses, the free contact management system is the only real practical solution. The training sessions can also be shown to the public giving them an educational experience and increase the public??™s interest towards the elephants. However this could also be a disadvantage, if the public would rather see the typical natural behaviour of the elephants when in its enclosure without the contact with the keeper. Overall with a free contact management system there is one major disadvantage which is having qualified elephant keeper staff; good elephant keepers are rare (Schmid J, 1998) and with not having good qualified staff can lead to accidents and bad publicity for the zoo.

Protected contact and confined contact is where training sessions between keeper and elephant happen through a protective barrier or with a restraint. ???Protected contact is defined as a system, where the handlers/keepers are not in the same enclosure as the elephant…separated by barriers??™ (Guerrero D, 1997). The skin care, foot treatment and medical treatment that are carried out within the free contact can still be done with protected contact and also decreases the risk of injury to the keeper. But handling through a protective barrier is only possible if the elephants are trained to obey adequate commands (Schmid J, 1998).
???There are eight elements that, when implemented, define Protected Contact (PC) with elephants:
1. Facility design orientated towards the goals of the elephant programme
2. Safety, which if approached correctly will in itself define the facility design
3. Clear behavioural goals, husbandry and medical, that implement elephant welfare
4. Training techniques with written protocols
5. The use of the trainer??™s body positioning and technique timing
6. Keeper training
7. Tools used to access the elephants
8. Documentation ??“ clearly written institutional and industry guides??™ (Roocroft A, 2009).
Within zoos facilities for elephants, their in-houses are designed pacifically for protected contact and for Asian elephants having a less flexible trunk; their behavioural access space can be wider than that of a wall space for an African elephant. The wall space must have clear visibility for both the elephant and the keeper, so that for successful training the elephant must be able to see what the keeper is doing at all times. A training tool that can be used for protected contacts as well as free contact is ???the guide??™ or otherwise known as the ankus or bull hook, this is used as an extension of the keepers arm during training and also used as protection for the keeper but it is unacceptable to use the ankus as a punishment tool. When training an elephant in protected contact, there are five tools that can be used:
1. A target, which is a training support tool which is used in many animal training scenarios.
2. Having food rewards that the elephant desires
3. A food pouch to hold the rewards
4. Body language towards the elephant
5. The wall design, which is the most important

The keepers training the elephants through protected contact still require qualifications and adequate training and successful training of any elephant requires on the availability of good elephant trainers. Therefore within training there are three questions that can divide your programme of training:
1. What can you achieve through protected contact training
2. What do you do in an elephant restraint chute
3. What requires standing sedation or total immobilization
Elephant Restraint Chute (ERC) is generally used when an elephants needs to stand completely still for minor invasive procedures such as injections, biopsies or wound treatment (Roocroft A, 2009). An example of protected training of Asian elephants that has taken place is at Chester Zoo, ???Chester Zoo was the first institution in Europe to build a completely specially designed safety wall so that they could perform PC training on a routine basis with their very large Asian breeding bull, Chang …. As the elephant program at Chester matures, which for any institution is an ongoing process, comprehensive husbandry access to all elephants becomes the top priority, along with safety and communication??™ (Roocroft A, 2007). Overall for protected training and confined contact, the main disadvantage relating to this system is down to welfare.

No contact or otherwise known as Hands off is where there is no contact between the keeper and the elephants. Within no contact systems, there must be adequate enrichment items for the elephants and there should be enrichment in place for skin care, due to the keepers providing skin care for the elephants in not possible and the same goes to foot care; as the treatment cannot be carried out so the necessary wearing out of the elephants soles and nails must take place in the natural way by movement. However in some cases human intervention is necessary for foot care and medical treatment, but these procedures will have to involve the elephant being under anaesthetic; which can be very risky for the elephant. An anaesthetised elephant lying down in sterna recumbency can suffer progressive respiratory impairment due to the animal??™s weight on the sternum and diaphragm, which limits the air exchange (Bush M, 1996). In a no contact management system there is a precaution of keeping a well socialised group of elephants and has an advantage of keeping the elephants under nearly natural conditions. Therefore the social needs would be keeping the elephants in family groups, just like in the wild. For the keeper, the risk of being injured or killed by an elephant would be minimised (Schmid J, 1998), so having special qualifications to become an elephant keeper would not be necessary in this case. The major disadvantage for zoos financially to develop and construct an adequate indoor and outdoor enclosure to keep the elephants in, if the zoo decided on a no contact system, and both enclosures would have to have enough space to meet the animal??™s requirements.

Table 1: Characteristics of the different elephant keeping systems (Schmid J, 1998)
(+ = take place or necessary; +- = possible; – = unnecessary or impossible)
| Free Contact | No Contact | Protected Contact | Confined Contact |
Enclosure | | | | |
Enrichments for: | | | | |
-Physical and mental occupation | +- | + | + | + |
-Skin care | +- | + | +- | +- |
-Wearing down of feet | +- | + | +- | +- |
Separate keeping of bulls | + | +- | +- | +- |
Shackled keeping | + | – | – | – |
Restraining chute | – | – | – | + |
Handling | | | | |
Training | + | – | + | – |
High risks of accidents | + | – | – | – |
Treatment without anaesthesia | + | – | + | + |
Intervention in social conflicts | + | – | – | – |
Visitors | | | | |
Direct contact with the animals | + | – | – | – |
Observation of species-typical behaviour | +- | + | + | + |
Zoo Management | | | | |
High financial investment | – | + | +- | +- |
Qualified keeper | + | – | + | – |
Elephants | | | | |
Sufficient movement | + | – | – | – |
Variation and occupation | + | – | – | – |
Nearly natural group structure | – | + | + | + |
Main behavioural needs met | +- | + | +- | +- |

In any training with elephants whether its hand??™s on, protected or hand??™s off contact, positive reinforcement is important when the behaviour wanted is performed, whether this be food or praise. Within training an ankus or otherwise known as an elephant hook can be used to assist the keeper with training the elephant i.e. touching the elephant??™s leg with the hook to make the elephant lift up its leg. However, it may not be right to use the elephant hook as negative reinforcement due to elephants having an unpredictable and sometimes aggressive nature. Each contact management system has its disadvantages and advantages, whether it??™s relating to health and safety or to keeper training. Also these contact management systems mentioned, one may work in one zoo but may not in another. ???The safety of man and animal has to be the first principle, though there will always be some degree of risk in handling elephants, even in ???no contact??? systems, because no one can ever totally exclude human carelessness or risky behaviour??™ (Jorg Adler, H. 1996). The only major recommendation on a whole for elephant training, is to actually train the keepers on how to train elephants whether its hands on contact or protected, this is so training can be carried out safely and that the keeper knows what he/she is doing and that all the right behaviour is being taught.


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