Myanmar Timber Elephant Project

Future of elephants living in captivity is under threat- New paper by John and colleagues

March 28, 2019

Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published 27 March 2019

Research article DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.2810

John Jackson, Dylan Z. Childs, Khyne U. Mar, Win Htut and Virpi Lummaa

Almost a third of Asian elephants are in captivity in countries like India, Myanmar and Thailand, mainly being used in the timber industry to drag logs or for tourism. The sustainability of these elephant populations has always relied on the capture of their wild counterparts, but now they are a protected species their future is uncertain.

credit: Virpi Lummaa

In a joint research study, the University of Sheffield and the University of Turku, in Finland, working alongside the government of Myanmar’s Timber company, the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), investigated how trends in capture from the wild influenced birth, death and population growth in 3,500 working elephants over 54 years.

Using birth and death rates from years where wild-capture was reduced the scientists assessed the outlook for captive elephants in the future and found that the population is vulnerable to decline.

The research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that immediate population declines may be reduced if survival in juvenile elephants is improved.

This could involve improving welfare standards during the training period, as the elephants are separated from their mothers and trained for work around the age of four, which can be stressful for them, and identifying pregnant females earlier and improving their welfare so they can provide for and bond with their calf.

Professor Virpi Lummaa, from the University of Turku, Finland, – who led the research, said: “The dependence of captive elephant populations on capture from the wild in the past is truly alarming. The problem with elephants is that they take so long to grow and reproduce and have very complex social lives, making them vulnerable to population declines when disturbed.”

John Jackson, PhD researcher from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and lead author of the paper, said: “Our model suggests we may see declines in captive elephants for up to 50 years and we must now work to ensure that the captive population is sustainable”.

“One hopeful result is that we may see improvements in population growth if we are able to improve the survival of young elephants by just 10 per cent. This shows that we can really make a difference by improving welfare for these vulnerable individuals in captivity. “Many of us have the opportunity to visit captive elephants used in tourism, particularly in Southeast Asia. We all have our part to play to ensure that the welfare of captive elephants is improved and this may have a positive effect on Asian elephants globally.”