Captive Elephant Care by Stress Management

Nilanjan Das, Nilansu Das, Ratan Gachhui, Janine Brown, Susan Mikota,     
Jacob V. Cheeran, SubrataPal chowdhury, Ujjwal K. Bhattacharya.

India harbours more than 20% of the captive elephant
population of Asia housed in various temples, zoos and
forest camps. Captive Elephants are known to aid human
civilization for a long time. These captive elephants are an
indispensable workforce, keeping a constant vigil against
poaching, illegal felling of trees, depredation of crop and
wild elephant driving operations to reduce human elephant
conflict (HEC) round the year, as well as tourism in reserve
forests and national parks.

Management of captive elephants depends largely on the
traditional knowledge and skills of mahouts, which has
faced a sharp decline over a few decades because of
invasion of alternate lucrative professions. Conditions
leading to physical, physiological and psychological stress
of these captive elephants need to be identified for better
management practice. With the advent of modern science
we now have the tools at hand to scientifically evaluate the
well being of the captive elephants. Non-invasive
measurement of urinary cortisol level is a well-accepted
indicator of acute stress. Any condition leading to an
elevated urinary cortisol is identified as “stressful” to these
gentle giants.

Stress is a result of a series of complex internal chemical
reactions that occur in response to certain events and
situations. All animals including humans have evolved
defensive systems that protect them from dangers, which
threaten their existence. One of these systems is the
stress mechanism.

Stress conditions in the captive elephants are primarily
due to its forceful adaptation in different environment and
role. The complex social behavior of the elephants needs
to be further researched upon for a better understanding
of their management. Stress-related studies of captive
elephants may actually help us to understand elephant
behavior as well as the need to devise scientifically
designed management policies.

Stress related behaviors are found in both male and
female elephants although reasons, which cause stress,
are not well understood. We have classified stress of
captive elephants primarily into 3 categories: viz.
Physiological stress, Physical stress and psychological
stress. Musth in adult males and pregnancy and calf
rearing in female elephants are examples of physiological
stress whereas housing (living conditions in camps),
workload and injuries and disabilities are the examples of
physical stress. Psychological stress may be caused
during isolation, weaning and improper behavior on the
part of the mahout to these highly social and intelligent
animals.
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