Myanmar Timber Elephant Project

Jonathan Webb has graduated, congratulations! Read his Master’s Thesis on the utility of behavioural observations in the welfare assessment of Asian elephants

August 12, 2019

Jonathan Webb, University of Sheffield:

The utility of behavioural observations in the welfare
assessment of semi-captive Asian elephants

Recognising stress is an important component in maintaining the welfare of captive populations, but while we understand much about physiological responses to stress, comparatively little is known about stress behaviour in non-humans. Almost a third of Asian elephants are found in captivity, yet evidence for commonly cited stress behaviour remains unverified by empirical physiological data. This study aims to use physiological markers of stress to test the validity of behavioural observations in elephant welfare assessment, by studying a large population of semi-captive workin elephants in Myanmar. (a) To evaluate the consistency of behavioural observations, three independent observers used a newly constructed ethogram to record potential stress behaviour exhibited during a novel task, where elephants were commanded to pick up a known or novel object. The majority of ethogram behaviours between observers were highly repeatable, implying that potential stress behaviour can, at the least, be reliably identified. Next, (b) to validate whether behaviour was related to stress, the effect of the physiological makers, faecal cortisol, heart rate and systolic pressure, on six ethogram behaviours was analysed. However, no effect of physiological stress could be found, calling into question the legitimacy of behaviour included on zoo behavioural assessments. Finally, (c) the relationship between personality and physiological markers of stress was examined, and it was found that more sociable elephants were associated with increased cortisol, a result that disputes previous research. In general, these findings highlight the need for greater research into Asian elephant behaviour and the formulation of evidence-based approaches to welfare.
Key words:
Stress, ethogram, cortisol, heart rate, displacement behaviour, personality.