Behavioural Development and Play in Elephant Calves — ASN Events

Behavioural Development and Play in Elephant Calves (#172)

C. Elizabeth Webber 1 , Phyllis C. Lee 1
  1. University of Stirling, LONDON, United Kingdom

African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants in the wild are currently assessed as vulnerable and endangered, respectively (IUCN Red List). Management of ex-situ elephants aims for coordinated captive breeding to produce a sustainable population of elephants, and to educate the public about conservation issues.

Our understanding of early elephant development is limited, and we especially lack studies on normal social and physical development of wild Asian elephant calves. Given recognised problems of sustaining captive elephant populations into the future, with problems of welfare and wellbeing, we urgently need to understand the welfare status of calves in captive facilities.

Activity such as play, and associations such as those with mothers and others, can be used as welfare indicators. Analyses of observations on wild Asian calves (n=100) described four distinct categories of play (escalated contact; gentle contact; lone locomotor; and object play) with a decline in the total time that calves spent playing over their first 18 months of life, in patterns comparable to those for wild African calves. Male calves in both species also appear to have higher levels of play, play with more vigor and with diverse partners.

Understanding the complex processes involved in the successful rearing of elephant calves is of major importance for the in-situ and ex-situ conservation of elephants. Physical development, mother-calf bonding and the establishment of motor and social skills are thus all essential for normal calf development and these are assessed for calves in captivity. These captive data are compared against baselines derived from wild calves in order to develop welfare indicators for calves in captivity. Captive African and Asian elephant calves were studied in three UK zoos; wild Asian elephants in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka; and we have access to existing datasets of wild African calves from Amboseli, Kenya.