Asian elephants are highly intelligent social animals. That, along with their formidable strength, has been their undoing. From India to Cambodia, the region’s elephants have long served as beasts of burden, employed in highly dangerous activities like logging and forced to carry tourists on their backs.
With only a few thousand pachyderms left in the wild, elephants in Asia are facing a bleak future. And so are captive elephants, warn the authors of a new study.
A team of researchers from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom and the University of Turku in Finland set out to investigate how trends in elephant capture from the wild influenced the birth, death and population growth of 3,500 working elephants over 54 years, between 1960 and 2014, in Myanmar, which has the world’s largest population of wild Asian elephants.
The scientists relied on data involving birth and death rates to assess the outlook for captive elephants. Their findings indicate, not surprisingly, that in order to ensure the population growth of captive elephants, juvenile elephants must be better protected. “Importantly, wild-caught females had reduced birth rates and a higher mortality risk,” they observe in their paper.
“However, despite the disadvantages of wild-capture, the population may not be sustainable without it, with immediate declines owing to an unstable age-structure that may last for 50 years,” they add. “Our results highlight the need to assess the long-term demographic consequences of wild-capture to ensure the sustainability of captive and wild populations as species are increasingly managed and conserved in altered or novel environments.”
A key is to ensure better welfare standards for captive elephants, especially females and their calves, so as to reduce mortality rates and reduce the incentive for wild capture. “[A]s the elephants are separated from their mothers and trained for work around the age of four, [this] can be stressful for them,” the researchers say. Allowing captive mothers enough time and opportunity to bond with their calves is also important.
“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,” says John Jackson, a researcher from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences who was lead author of the paper. “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,” he adds.
As tourists, we can all do our best to help captive elephants in small ways. One way of doing so is saying no to elephant rides that are popular tourist attractions in countries like Myanmar and Thailand. These rides can take a heavy emotional and physical toll even on the strongest jumbos. “Many of us have the opportunity to visit captive elephants used in tourism, particularly in Southeast Asia,” Jackson says. “We all have our part to play to ensure that the welfare of captive elephants is improved and this may have a positive effect on Asian elephants globally.”
Simultaneously, conservation efforts aimed at protecting wild herds must be improved to ensure that no wild elephant is taken captive. “The dependence of captive elephant populations on capture from the wild in the past is truly alarming,” notes Prof.Virpi Lummaa, a scientist at the University of Turku. “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.”
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