Elephants stressed due to poor management practice

Higher violence in the stressed animals has resulted in human casualties too. In the state of Kerala which has a long tradition of keeping captive elephants. (File Photo)

Elephants are an integral part of human culture and mythology in Asia. More than 20% of Asian elephants live in captivity and are an indispensable workforce for forest departments, tourism, and religious purposes. This includes increased use of non-traditional or unskilled and inexperienced mahouts.

The different physical and physiological stresses influence the behaviour, welfare and long-term survival of the captive populations. Their fertility is compromised, thus threatening the long term survival of their populations.

Higher violence in the stressed animals has resulted in human casualties too. In the state of Kerala which has a long tradition of keeping captive elephants, 274 cases of manslaughter by captive elephants have been recorded between 1989 and 2003 (an average of 10 man-slaughters/year).

The present study led by  Dr.G.Umapathy, Principal Scientist, Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species, CSIR- CCMB examined the physiological stress response of captive Asian elephants. They studied the health of elephants under different working conditions.

They checked for glucocorticoid metabolites (stress hormones) levels in 870 dung samples of 37 captive elephants (24 males and 13 females) from 4 elephant facilities - Mysore Zoo, Mysore Dusshera Camp, Mudumalai elephant camp and Bandhavgarh elephant camp. 

The other members of the research group involved in this study that is published in a recent issue of journal “Animals” includes Vinod Kumar, Muthulingam Pradheeps, Adiseshu Kokkiligadda, Rajashekhar Niyogi from LaCONES, CSIR-CCMB.
 
Elephants involved in public procession in Mysore Dussehra festival had significantly elevated stress hormones compared to their counterparts at Mysore zoo.  Elephants born in the wild and females had significantly higher stress level when exposed to various physical activities and different husbandry practices.

A previous study by this group has demonstrated that chronic stress affected female reproductivity cyclicity and thus reproduction in elephants.

The study suggests minimizing the participation of elephants in religious activities, processions and forest department activities. Females with reproductive age (20 – 55 yrs) should not be used for stressful activities to not affect their reproductive cycles. Adult male elephants may be used for tourism and patrolling activities that involve 3 to 4 hours per day in the forests with adequate rest on alternate days.

Periodic monitoring of health and reproductive status by outside experts should be done. These with educating the elephant handlers regarding the welfare of elephants is of utmost importance.

“These findings, through non-invasive techniques, are important in better handling of domesticated animals and minimising their discomfort, that we were earlier not even aware of” says Dr Rakesh Mishra, Director, CSIR-CCMB.

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