Why Do We Need Enrichments For Captive Elephants?

August 12, 2017 | By dw
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Elephants love food, and they love water. In the wild, an elephants entire day is spent foraging, grazing and searching for food and water. Their social interactions, their migratory pathways, their entire lives revolve around the search for the two things they love the most – and the things that are most vital to their survival. Their days are spent roaming through vast jungles, carefully aware of potential threats, and acutely aware of the herd that is their family, and on whom they rely for protection, comfort and love. In this pursuit of food and water, elephants may travel up to 30 miles in a single day! Depending on the season and the region in which they live, elephants eat a startling variety of foods – a range of species of grasses, shrubs, tree leaves and branches, and even fruit, tubers, vegetables and herbs. Using their immense intelligence and the generations worth of knowledge passed down from adult elephants in the herd, particularly the matriarch, elephants in the wild are attuned to managing their diets appropriately, and even self-medicating naturally when they are experiencing health trouble!

For elephants in captivity, however, the situation is completely different. Their diets consist of usually a single type of food, depending on what is available wherever they are kept, and this meagre quantity of food is generally tossed over to them on the ground wherever they are chained up. Captivity doesn’t just deny elephants their freedom to live as wild animals – it also deprives them of the chance to exhibit natural behaviours, or utilise their keen intelligence and social skills. Their food poses them no challenge, neither physical nor mental, while also providing them very little by way of nutrition.

When Wildlife SOS rescues elephants, we vow to do everything in our power to give them a life of freedom, health and companionship, and a chance to be elephants again. But with years of brutal captivity behind them, and having had their wild spirits broken through decades of systematic abuse, neglect and boredom, these elephants have lost a lot of their wild instincts. Accustomed to being given their food in a pile on the ground, and having gotten used to standing chained in one place for hours on end without any opportunity to move, these elephants have lost critical years of exercise and mental stimulation – resulting in a horrifying host of physiological and psychological issues.

At the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, we use enrichments as one of the key ways of helping our rescued elephants heal from their traumatic pasts through the stimulation of behaviours that are natural and instinctive to them. With the triple benefit of encouraging elephants to exercise, interact and think to obtain their food, enrichments play a vital role in teaching our elephants… to be elephants again!

A simple example would be hanging fodder enrichments like hay nets and suspended feeders, which allow us to hoist the elephants’ fodder way up, so that they have to reach up high to get to it. We also have cage feeders fixed on the outer ends of their enclosures which require the elephants to carefully navigate their trunk through ports and over obstacles to access their food. Food based enrichments are always great because there’s no incentive quite like a delicious meal to get the elephants on their feet and making an effort! Food based enrichments also provide a great incentive for the elephants to interact with each other, and even work with each other. We recently introduced an enrichment we like to call the Nutty Barrel to our two youngest elephants – Peanut and Coco – in the form of a rolling suspended barrel filled with peanuts that can only fall out if the elephants use their trunks to spin the barrel. Thrilled with their newest toy, the two young elephants spent quite a bit of time perfecting the process, eventually figuring out that if they work together, they can each get a delightful shower of peanuts to rain down on each other – saving time and building teamwork!

Enrichments don’t always have to be built though – even the long walks our elephants take every day provide vital enrichment to their lives, giving them a chance to engage their senses in a variety of new sights, smells and sounds. While encouraging the elephants to interact with each other and their surroundings, walks also provide a great form of exercise for the elephants, much like their pools do. Our elephants love their pools, and the addition of a fun tyre or floating tube only makes a splash in the pool that much more fun!

We at Wildlife SOS have lots of fun coming up with new innovative ideas to enrich our elephants lives, and take joy in knowing that as fun as enrichments are, they also give our elephants a much needed boost to heal both mentally and physically.

You can help play a role in our elephants’ recovery – consider a donation towards the care of our wonderful rescued pachyderms at this link.

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