Last Thursday a research concerning the zoo elephants welfare was published in PLoS ONE Journal. Zoo animals health is becoming more relevant especially after tragedies that occurred in the past few months.

It was believed that zoo animals only needed a proper space to live in the zoo, but the research proves that wrong regarding the elephants. Elephants are a high-profile zoo animal. They are also the biggest land mammal and one of the smartest. The study titled “Determining Connections between the Daily Lives of Zoo Elephants and Their Welfare: An Epidemiological Approach” found that social interaction is more important that the housing space, although the housing space is never out of the question.

Studies on different species have shown that isolation and exposure to unnatural groups can damage their welfare, while exposure to native groups will benefit their well-being. Image: Infinite Fire.

Regarding the zoo management; feeding, husbandry, training, exercising and environmental programs are mandatory for American Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) there haven’t been enough research on this matter and their effect on Zoos animals and particularly Zoo Elephants.

The study showed that two particular reproductive issues such as Ovarian acyclicity and hyperprolactinemia on female African Elephants kept in zoos, which lead to reduced fertility, can be prevented by proper feeding and enrichment programs.

Feeding programs can include hiding the food inside the enclosure, presenting it above the enclosure or having puzzle feeders inside the enclosure to motivate the elephants to find their food. These exercises have protective benefits against the hyperprolactinemia.

African Elephants reproductive strategy consists of studying the available resources such as water or food to find the perfect time to mate. 

“For African elephants in zoos, it may be that low diversity of enrichment, including feeding options, signals an environment poor in resources, even though food and water are not limited,” the study concluded.

Flooring type was also an important topic in the research.

Researchers divided the flooring type into two categories: Hard (Concrete, Stone), Soft (Sand, Rubber, Padding, Grass). They found that Time spent in environments with 100% coverage of hard flooring was the greatest risk factor for musculoskeletal health problems and the second greatest risk (after advancing age) for foot health problems.”

Due to the unique anatomy of elephants they have a predisposition against the hard flooring. Researchers also found that spending time on hard flooring may affect elephants sleep pattern.

Additionally, the study regarded aspects such as life history events (i.e., transfer between zoos) and demographic factors such as age, species, and sex.

The study was able to pinpoint that “Female African elephants were more likely to be affected by ovarian acyclicity and hyperprolactinemia than Asian females”. Researchers also agreed, that stereotypical behaviors, duration of rest, walking patterns are different between species.

It was also found that female elephants are more likely to be obese than male elephants, also that age is a risk factor for reproduction.

Lastly, even though demographic factors can’t be directly modified, a better understanding of these factors will lead to a better management in zoos.

Source: Plos One