Social groups in South African captive elephants — ASN Events

Social groups in South African captive elephants (#666)

Barbara De Mori 1 , Greg Vogt 2 , Antoinette Kotze 3 , Simona Normando 1
  1. Department of Comparative Biomedicine and Food Science, University of Padua, Legnaro, (PD), Italy
  2. Knysna Tourism, Knysna, South Africa
  3. National Zoological Gardens – National Research Foundation, Pretoria, South Africa

In South Africa there are around 120 captive elephants (Loxodonta africana ) in facilities offering âelephantsâ experiencesâ to tourists. The way elephants are kept varies: some live in large tracts of land and are lured by high-energy food rewards to come in for interactions, others are stabled in pens and/or buildings for part of the day and are herded to the bush to forage for the remaining non-show/interaction time. They are usually managed as a group or divided into two or more smaller groups, if problems of compatibility arise. However, the smaller groups are usually stabled in the same facility, one near the other (e.g., in adjacent pens). Wild African savannah elephants form social groups called families, composed by related females and their offspring1 . Different families can coalesce and split in a fission-fusion society. Pubertal (9-18 years) male elephants gradually (during up to 4 years) leave their natal group, becoming solitary or associating among them away from their natal range. They associate with females when in musth for reproduction.  The aim of the study was to investigate captive elephant groupsâ composition. We gathered data concerning 49 elephants in 12 South African facilities offering 'elephant experiences'. In 33.3% of facilities adult (>22 years) male elephants coexist with females differently to what found in the wild. Moreover, in other 25% of the facilities there are peri-pubertal males together with females, and it is unlikely that the males will be moved in the next years. We conclude that the social grouping of captive elephants in facilities is a potential source of welfare concern and warrants further investigation. Tracking relationship in the captive South African elephant population and thus managing the population collectively rather than only within the facility concerned, as in European zoo welfare strategy, should be priorities.

  1. Vidya T. N. C., and Sukumar, R. 2005. Social and reproductive behaviour in elephants. Current Science 89(7): 1200-1207.