Captive elephants dying out due to stress of young being taken from mothers for training

‘With so many Asian elephants in captivity, we must safeguard both captive and wild elephant populations’

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 27 March 2019 07:11 GMT
Elephants exported illegally from Laos to China for the tourist industry

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Populations of Asian elephants being held in captivity are slowly fading away due to high death rates among calves that have been taken from their mothers.

Prioritising the welfare of these young elephants, as well as pregnant females, would not only help preserve this endangered species but also the industry that relies on them, scientists say.

In countries like India, Myanmar and Thailand, elephants are used in the timber sector to drag logs, or else as tourist attractions.

Currently a third of all Asian elephants are held in captivity in these nations, but the sustainability of their populations has always relied on handlers capturing them from the wild.

The scientists worked alongside the Myanmar Timber Enterprise to track how trends in elephant capture influenced a population of 3,500 working elephants over 54 years.

“Our model suggests we may see declines in captive elephants for up to 50 years so we must now work to ensure that the captive population is sustainable,” said John Jackson from the University of Sheffield, who led the study.

“With so many Asian elephants in captivity, we must safeguard both captive and wild elephant populations and the people living and working alongside them for the future of the species.”

In practice, this means improving captive elephant welfare standards and reducing mortality rates in the young.

Calves in Myanmar are taken away from their mothers at the age of five so they can begin training, learning commands and undertaking light carrying work. This process is stressful and is thought to contribute to the elevated death rates.

The scientists suggested that helping to improve infant survival by just 10 per cent could mean a growing rather than declining captive elephant population.

This could be achieved by modifying the training process to make it less traumatic, as well as reducing stress in reproductive-age females and monitoring newborn calves.

Given that taking elephants from the wild in Myanmar has technically been banned since 1994, such measures would also benefit the people who continue to use them for labour by ensuring they still have working elephants in the years to come.

Villagers knit jumpers for Indian elephants to protect them from near-freezing temperatures

Previous work revealed that taking elephants from the wild drastically shortened their lives.

“The dependence of captive elephant populations on capture from the wild in the past is truly alarming,” said Professor Virpi Lummaa from the University of Turku, who led the research.

“The problem with elephants is that they take so long to grow and reproduce and have very complex social lives, making them vulnerable to population declines when disturbed.”

With tourists often encountering captive elephants on trips to southeast Asia, the scientists noted that everyone can play a role in supporting high welfare standards among these populations.

Their results were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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