Our facebook friends will have noticed that since November 2011 we have been increasing our range of enrichment activities for our elephants.
Many captive animals display behaviours known as stereotypies such as rocking, pacing, self mutilation and excessive sleeping. This is caused as a reaction to their unnatural environments that do not allow for natural behavioural needs.
Currently some of our elephants display stereotypical movements but we are hoping to change that.
40% of elephants in Zoos display stereotypies– some of the excuses we have heard for stereotypical movements in elephants in Sri Lanka are…
- The elephant is very happy
- The elephant is dancing (there was no music)
- The elephant has an ear / balance problem
- The elephants eyes are on the side of its head so it sways to see.
Research has shown that these behaviours can be reduced or eliminated with varied enrichment, larger and more stimulating enclosures and training.
MEF is adopting all of these methods in an effort to have happy, stimulated elephants! We are very excited to see what a difference it makes
We want to operate responsible elephant management by incorporating enrichment games, activities and challenges into the elephants daily routine. We are designing our enrichment program to incorporate activities that stimulate the elephants both mentally and physically. The challenges set will be designed around the natural behaviors such as digging, dust bathing, swimming, foraging, playing, and scent exploration.
The completion of our planned enclosure will hugely increase the elephants opportunity to explore their surroundings, forage and interact with each other in a much more natural way. We will be encouraging this behavior by creating and installing specially designed games and challenges. We have been taking advice from keepers at Melbourne Zoo and are very keen to work with the company Aussiedog who are animal enrichment experts and create great games and equipment to stimulate elephants. We also will be challenging our elephants minds with training exercises. They have all be trained to different levels and can complete different tasks. The new enclosure will mean that the elephants will have to be trained to come when called by the mahout.
The new enrichment program began in November 2011 with set socialising sessions, this is important because the elephants are not used to prolonged contact. The mahouts have been close by and overseeing how their individual elephants react to this new way of life. They are very supportive and very pleased with the results.
In the wild it is not normal for male elephants to spend a great deal of time with females, we are looking forward to seeing how our mixed herd of 3 girls and 4 boys interact and whether they will form a natural herd of defy tradition by forming a new kind of herd!
The elephants huddle close together and all forage for tasty roots in one corner of the field.
Rani repeatedly returns to her mahout without being called as if to ask if wandering away is OK.
The sessions are regarded a huge success with all elephants seeming very happy and comfortable with eachother although Lakshmi can sometimes get a bit jealous about Pooja (her daughter) and her relationship with best friend Rani.
Fun and Games
The volunteers have been busy designing and sourcing some toys and games for the elephants.
They started with a simple, strong canvas bag that was filled with nutritious grass that the elephants love and is very good for aiding digestion. The bag can also be filled with other tasty treats such as bananas as well as herbs and spices from the Eco-farm to stimulate the elephants sense of smell.
Pooja was the first to try out the bag game.
Hanging toys and games up high means that to get the food reward they have exercise and use muscles in their neck and trunk.
Rani is so tall that we hung the bag a little higher but with her dextrous trunk she soon mastered it!
Bandara also mastered the game. Hanging food mimics the way that elephants in the wild will forage for food from trees.
Other challenges that the volunteers have set have included hiding bananas under logs, rocks and wedging them in tree branches and other nooks and crannies!
The elephants have very quickly adapted to this new part of their lives. They very soon began to grow in confidence and really began to explore their surroundings and the variety of foliage on offer for them to eat!
There has been no signs of serious conflict.
The session is ended with a very brief training exercise, such as the elephant parade pictured above. This reinforces their training whilst acting as a stimulus for their minds.
Follow this link for footage of the elephants socialising:
January 2012 Update:
The elephant socialising and enrichment time is still going very well and the elephants are growing in confidence- almost to the point of boisterousness- Pooja and Rani got very silly charging around when a monkey came to join the fun and Nuan panicked when he thought Pooja had escaped when she was really hiding behind Rani!
Bandara will soon be taken off his chains and allowed to roam a bit, but he has not shown any interest in doing so so far, although he did manage to break the bag we had made to hang up in the trees! We didn’t mind as he had fun doing it! Seetha will also be included more, she is excellent at sniffing out the grass and treats hidden by the volunteers!
The volunteers collect the grass that the elephants love to eat and helps aid their digestion. As bandara broke the bag we used to use to exercise their trunks the dedicated and adventurous volunteers have taken to climbing the trees as well as hiding grass and fruit under logs and in other strategic places!
During their playtime, Pooja and Rani tend to run around together and being noisy while the older elephants such as Lakshmi and Raja observe from the sides while grazing on the shoots and vines available. Bandara is still shy and Seetha is a very curious elephant and keen to explore.
The elephants still seem to enjoy these sessions and the mahouts and volunteers enjoy it just as much!
The elephants have hidden talents that we like them to exercise.
We have created challenges that mimic natural behaviours of wild elephants.
Pooja is particularly talented and able to walk across a log, do a full turn on a flat rock and stand on her hind legs!
The elephants then walk trunk to tail to the river for their evening bath, after a food reward before they go to bed.
These exercises are all designed around natural capabilities of elephants and rather than more traditional practices that involve fear are encouraged using positive reinforcement. In line with this our elephants (and mahouts!) are undergoing Target Training.