A Scientific Look into Elephant Welfare

In our 18th Anantara Hotels Resorts & Spas #ElephantProfessional lecture, Dr. Pakkanut Bansiddhi explained the findings in her published research after accessing 122 elephants in 15 Northern Thai elephants camps for a year.

Bansiddhi and her team made use of both qualitative and quantitative methods to piece together the puzzle of elephant welfare.

The team made direct observations of the elephants, recording and quantifying their stress level (via glucocorticoids), body type, foot health, physical wounds and stereotypic behaviour.

To supplement the data, they also conducted interviews with camp owners, veterinarians and management about mahout and elephant management.

The big reveal

Photos of elephants participating in a variety of activities with tourists. Screenshot from Bansiddhi’s lecture.

Contrary to the belief of some animal activists, Bansiddhi and her team found that making an elephant participate in tourist activities did not necessarily lead to poor welfare in the animal.

Instead, elephants that took part in less activities became fatter or even overweight, and had a higher stress level than the elephants that had a longer duration and distance of walk.

Photos of elephants walking on concrete. Screenshot from Bansiddhi’s lecture.

But Bansiddhi also noted that depending on the substrate, walking on concrete floors could actually cause more foot problems than on natural substrate, and walking long duration and distance could also cause more foot problems.

On the other hand, while elephants displayed more wound problems in places where mahouts were allowed to carry hooks, Bansiddhi and her team argued that hooks and chains were not stress factors for the elephants.

In contrast, the elephants participating in activities that the tourists claimed comparatively ethical, such as feeding the elephants, were more likely to be obese due to the oversupply of food supplement and sugar-rich food like bananas and sugarcane, according to Bansiddhi.

However, they also observed that elephants had a higher stress level during high tourist season in general.

Summary of possible elephant welfare management practices. Screenshot from Bansiddhi’s lecture.

Besides elephant camp activities, the team also found other correlations worth exploring further. For example, elephants that displayed stereotypic behaviours showed a lower stress level than those without; and tethering elephants in the forest correlated to a lowers stress level than tethering them in the camp.

Having started this research since five years ago, Bansiddhi is still passionately involved in the long term planning of welfare assessment for the captive elephants in Thailand and beyond.

Read her research work here to find out more about captive elephant management in Thailand.

Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily represent Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.