A case study on the phasing of captive Asian elephant management from free contact to protected contact in the Singapore Zoo: Monitoring changes in social group dynamics with the increase in time spent together as a herd (#862)
Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) currently manages a group of five female Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) of varying ages and relatedness in the Singapore Zoo. Historically, this has been conducted under a free contact system and the elephants have been used in various visitor engagement programmes such as rides, shows and public feeding sessions. In early 2015, WRS announced plans to phase out the free contact management, converting to a protected contact (PC) system.
While the five elephant cows will still be managed in a free contact program until adequate PC facilities are built, a first step towards the implementation of PC management was to discontinue all direct visitor interactions. With this, the animals have been spending more time together as a herd and informal observations over the last two months have already revealed changes in the group dynamics.
In the future PC system, physical contact between humans and animals will be constrained and the management will no longer rely on the trainers sustaining social dominance over the elephants. Positive reinforcement with target training will be the main method used for training and animal managers will not be able to physically intervene in the event of disputes occurring between the elephants.
It therefore became important for us to monitor the changes in the social dynamics within the group as they progress towards becoming a socially compatible herd, as well as between the elephants and the trainers. This allows us to anticipate potential social problems and explore protected contact techniques that can be used to mitigate such issues. Observations will be carried out in the next four months to assess the feasibility of managing a cohesive herd of Asian elephants with protected contact in captivity and to propose an optimal strategy for accomplishing the final conversion.