Myanmar Timber Elephant Project

Jennie Crawley defended her dissertation in Biology 10 Dec 2021: ”The impact of human relationships on semi-captive Asian elephant health and welfare”

December 10, 2021

Read the digital copy of the thesis at UTUPub

Opponent: Associate Professor Lisa Yon, University of Nottingham, UK
Custos: Professor Hanna Tuomisto, University of Turku

The impact of human relationships on semi-captive Asian elephant health and welfare

There are billions of animals living in close proximity to humans around the world from pets and livestock to laboratory, draught and zoo animals. The interactions these animals have with humans in captivity influence their physiology, behaviour, reproduction, growth, morbidity, and mortality. The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is an endangered species whose close history with humans has led to >25% of its total population living in captivity today, mostly in Asia and cared for by traditional handlers (mahouts). This thesis focuses on the relationship between mahouts and their elephants in the largest semi-captive population of elephants, the logging elephants of Myanmar. Most past studies have focused on mahout-elephant relationships from a human perspective whereas this thesis investigates their influence on elephants through measures of their physiology, immunology and behaviour. In Chapter I, I investigate current and past mahout handling systems of semi-captive elephants in Myanmar. I then assess the impact of this handling system on the elephants in Chapter II, exploring how mahout-elephant relationships and mahout experience influence elephant physiology and behaviour. Chapters III-IV focus on early mahout-elephant relationships, studying how calf traits historically were associated with mortality during taming ages (Chapter III) and monitoring calves for the first time during their traditional taming procedure (Chapter IV).

Whilst vast changes to the mahout profession have been reported in recent decades in many countries across Asia, Myanmar is often quoted as one of the last remaining reservoirs of traditional mahout knowledge and expertise. This thesis shows that there have also been recent changes to the mahout profession in Myanmar, with interviews of >20 experts and >200 current mahouts finding that mahouts today tend to be younger, less experienced and to change elephants more frequently than in the past. Less experienced mahouts may maintain good quality care however, with indicators of physiological stress from >150 elephants not dependent on mahout-elephant relationship lengths or past mahout experience. Yet both specific relationship lengths with mahouts and total mahout experience had important implications for other elephant physiological measures and elephant behaviour, and I discuss potential management adjustments to account for these effects.

Juvenile mortality is one of the main factors limiting population growth of these elephants. I show a >50% increase in mortality between age three and the taming age of four years, suggesting taming as an issue of both individual welfare and population sustainability. Taming is highly criticized among welfare advocates and the media, yet it has never been empirically studied. I first investigate traits associated with historical taming-age mortality in >1900 calves, showing younger calves and those born to less experienced mothers to have higher mortality risk at taming ages. I also show recent improvements to taming practices, with the tamingage mortality of calves born after 2000 one third of those born in the 1970s. I next focus on the impact of taming today, collecting data from 41 calves undergoing traditional taming; I find evidence of acute stress, mostly over the first 10 days of the taming process, with one measure suggesting chronic stress lasting up to two months. I also emphasize that mahout safety should be at the forefront of decisions surrounding changes to taming methods. I hope this will be the start of many empirical assessments of how both mahout interactions in general, and particularly the taming procedure, influence elephant welfare. This will bring much needed evidence to these areas of research to optimize the management of thousands of captive elephants across Asia and around the world. This thesis contributes to a growing area of research studying the impacts of human interaction on animal health and welfare applicable across a variety of contexts and species as more animals face anthropogenic impacts worldwide.