Monthly Archives: April 2015

Free Birth Control for Wild Horses

The wild or feral horses of the American plains are a hot topic for conservationists, ranchers, and the public at large. Ranchers would like for the horses to disappear because they compete with their cattle for grazing on public lands. The horses are an introduced species, brought here by the Spanish in the late 1400’s. This means they are not a native species and so some think they’re not worthy of protection. Here’s the twist, equines actually evolved in North America, dying out at the end of the last ice age, potentially at the hand of humans. So do they deserve a place in the ecosystem of the North American plains? Or should they be eradicated as a feral pest species?

The one thing that everyone can agree on is that the wild horse population must be kept in check. They have no real predators and there are limited resources available for them so if humans do not manage them they will become overpopulated and starve. Historically the methods of culling the herds have ranged from barbaric to, the public pleasing, rounding them up and adopting them out. The agency that manages the wild horses is the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. But the BLM can’t keep up with the reproductive rate of the horses and the public has made it very clear that they do not want these horses hunted or slaughtered. So another idea is being tried.

The Porcine Zona Pellucida vaccine is a contraceptive that is being used on the horses. It works by introducing proteins extracted from pig eggs, include what is thought to be the sperm receptor, into the horses systems. This causes the animal to produce antibodies that target sperm, thus preventing the ova from being fertilized [3]. The PZP vaccine has proven to be effective in horses for only two years, which is less than ideal. This limitation has prevented the application of the vaccine to whole herds and caused the BLM to focus on animals being released after being caught. The BLM is funding more research to try and make a longer lasting vaccine, and potentially one that is easier to administer because trapping the horses in order to give them the contraceptive is stressful and expensive, and darting them with vaccines is difficult [1].

One potential cause for concern is that PZP could alter the behavior of the mares. Luckily the vaccine doesn’t alter the hormone levels of the mares like most contraceptives do [2]. A study was done in 1997 on wild ponies on Assateague Island to see if their behavior changed. They looked at the activity budget of the mares, their interactions with the stallions, and their aggressive encounters with other horses. The findings were that there were no statistical differences between the treated mares and the untreated mares and that the PZP caused no change in their behavior [4]. This is good news for managers concerned with how the contraceptive could impact the natural behaviors of the horses.

My conclusion on this topic is that there is potential for PZP for help control horse populations. But in order for it to be cost effective and not too stressful for the animals, we’ve got to find a way to make it last longer. This may mean looking for another drug to use or improving this one. In the meantime I think that managers should continue to give PZP to horses that are captured and released for other reasons. It can only help slow the population growth to do so and the populations will benefit.

 

References

 

1.“Fertility Control.” US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/whbprogram/science_and_research/fertility_control.html

 

  1. Kirkpatrick, J. F., Liu, I. K. M., and J. W. Turner. “Contraception of Wild and Feral Equids. Oct. 1993. USDA National Wildlife Research Center Symposia. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nwrccontraception/15/

 

  1. “Porcine Zona Pellucida Vaccine.” PNC project for Wildlife Contraception. http://www.pzpinfo.org/pzp.html

 

  1. Powell, David. “Preliminary Evaluation of Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) Immunocontraception for Behavioral Effects in Feral Horses (Equus caballus).” 1999. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327604jaws0204_6#.VRoar44sp9m

Rethinking Exotic Pet Ownership

python

Imagine you’re a snake lover, and while online shopping you come across this advertisement, what is the first thing you think? Do you respond as a buyer?

Tiger

After awhile on the same sight, you come across the sale of this eccentric species. Do your opinions change as a conservationist?

 

Personally, I don’t agree with the sale of big cats for private ownership. I would be willing to bet most of my conservation-concerned peers don’t either. However, the sale of a python doesn’t particularly baffle me. But I ask myself, what is the difference? Exotic trade animals aren’t limited to oversized mammals such as tigers and monkeys. Exotic animals include “normal” pets such as rabbits, birds, and snakes. Although as a result of careless private ownership, the Burmese python (shown for sale in image 1) is threatening native species in the Everglades [1].  This is only a single example of a conservation issue created by an animal that some would consider a standard pet. While most pet owners do not own 7-foot snakes, I don’t presume there are many people that would be outraged at by the knowledge of a friend having one – it is legal after all. There are only 21 states that have complete bans on exotic pets; The other 29 states have partial bans, license permitting, or no regulation at all for these animals [2]. The complete bans are variable by state, so each state has different standards on the animals they consider exotic. This indicates that there is no national or international agreement on what is considered an exotic animal.

The tiger in image 2 is advertised as a 3-year-old Bengal who has been with the family since he was a cub. A tiger, of any sub-species, is considered an adult at two years of age. According to Mazak [3], an adult male Bengal is roughly 8-10ft in length and weighs roughly 400-600lbs. While my point of view may differ from yours, the tiger in the picture definitely does not look like 400 pounds. My point is, the general online shopper would not know the difference between a 6-month and 3-year old tiger, and the difference could mean a drastic change in safety when handling an animal of this size. So do we limit the ownership of exotic species to size and safety? Or do we evaluate other areas of potential concern before making distinctions about private exotic ownership?

There is and may always be a debate on defining the behavior of animals. While some animals are more prone to domestication (i.e. dogs, cats, livestock), it appears that others are not. We can possibly attribute this to size, but what about each species’ instinctual behaviors? Instinctual behavior, also known as innate behavior, has been studied since the 1950’s and caused many fueled arguments. Konrad Lorenz, a famous ethologist well known for studying imprinting, wrote an elaborate paper on innate behavior. Simply put, he concluded innate behavior is spontaneous, reflexive, and spring-loaded [4]. This means that some behaviors do not occur predictably, and are reflexive to certain stimuli. Therefore, animals can react in multiple ways to the same stimuli, and the reaction can build (or wind on a spring), until the correct stimulus is presented and a behavior is emitted. This behavior can differ in intensity as indicated by the spring-loaded potential analogy. Relating this back to exotic pets, we can say that it is near impossible to predict the behavior of animals in homes. The effect of house-hold stimuli has not been studied on exotic species and there is little research on what makes an animal “snap” and become aggressive towards owners. Because animals can react differently to similar stimuli, what once made an animal affectionate could make an animal become dangerous. This un-predictable behavior causes the release of exotic pets into un-natural environments. This causes massive conservation concern as these “pets” predate on the native species that are un-adapted to the threat, become dangerous to nearby neighborhoods, and/or become nuisances to the surrounding area.  These contingencies focus on the human impact and safety of un-predictable behavior but the ethics of captivity should also be considered. Is it ethical to limit an animal’s instinctual behavior because we require it to have manners?

While I couldn’t find any primary research on the effects of the exotic animal trade on conservation, I also did not find any writing (primary or others) supporting exotic animal ownership. Two papers express their concern about the injuries resulting from exotic pets, both in the U.S. and Europe [5, 6]. Two others discuss the ethical concern associated with keeping exotic animals captive and exploiting them as products [1, 7]. These ideas are highlighted by an article from National Geographic  [8] discussing greed and human irresponsibility with these animals. A consensus among writers warns against the private ownership of such animals. As a society, it is our burden to decide which animals we are inclined to protect, whether it is the exotic pets in the trade or the native species that could be impacted by the irresponsible release of exotic pets. The effects of releasing exotic animals into unnatural environments are largely unknown, and it is unlikely someone predicted the Burmese python having such an enormous effect in the Everglade ecosystem. Therefore we should tread on the side of caution when determining when it is appropriate to obtain exotic animals and consider safety, ethical values, and conservational impacts.

 

References:

[1] Hess, L. 2011. Exotic Animals: Appropriately Owned Pets or Inappropriately Kept Problems? Journal of Aviane Medicine and Surgery.  Vol 25, Issue 1, pp 50-56.

[2] 2010. Big Cats Kept as Pets Across U.S., Despite Risk. National Geographic. URL: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/08/0816_020816_EXPLcats_2.html

[3] Mazak, V. 1981. Panthera tigris. American Society of Mammalogists. No. 152, pp 1-8

[4] Lorenz, K. 1950. The comparative method in studying innate behavior patterns. Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology 4 (Physiological Mechanisms in Animal Behavior). Pp 221-254.

[5] Lazarus, H.M., Price, R.S., Sorensen, J. 2001. Dangers of Large Exotic Pets from Foreign Lands. Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care. Vol 51, Issue 5, pp 1014-1015.

[6] Schaper, A., Desel, H., Ebbecke, M., De Haro, L., Deters, M., Hentschel, H., Hermanns-Clausen, M., Langer, C. 2009. Bites and stings by exotic pets in Europe: An 11 year analysis of 404 cases from Northeastern Germany and Southeastern France. Clinical Toxicology. Vol 47, No. 1, pp 39-43.

[7] Warchol, G. L. 2007. Transnational Illegal Wildlife Trade. Criminal Justice Studies: a Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society. Vol 17, Issue 1, pp. 57-73.

[8] 2015. Big Cat Bans Enacted. Big Cat Rescue. URL: http://bigcatrescue.org/big-cat-bans-enacted/

The Better to Hear You With? Noise Mitigation in Captive Environments

By Victoria Garduno

African Cheetahs are facing one of the most dire extinction crises in the world today. Zoos and sanctuaries around the globe have been working tirelessly to try and protect them, first by navigating them through arguably one of the worst genetic bottlenecks we have seen to date, and now by carefully walking the tightrope that is captive cheetah breeding. Suffice to say, captive cheetahs are delicate creatures [1]. So you can imagine my surprise when, on a recent trip to Busch Gardens Tampa, I discovered that they had built a brand new roller coaster attraction…..which passed less than 100 yards from their cheetah enclosure.

Busch Gardens2

Portion of Busch Gardens Park Map, with cheetah enclosure in blue, and coaster passby in red.

 

The average roller coaster produces sound at anywhere from 40 to 90 decibels as it passes by an observer. This is about as loud as a jackhammer, and just shy of the point where hearing loss occurs in humans. In fact, the most noise is measured from the side of the cars, rather than the front or back[2], which means that the position from which the cheetahs, or any other animal which may be exposed, experiences the noise is actually the most extreme position, acoustically speaking. However, noise in captive situations is not limited to places which employ ride attractions. Many popular zoos have music and performance attractions, which, with the use of microphones, speakers, and amplifiers, are more than capable of producing enough sound to affect the captive environment. In some cases, the noise output from concerts or performances may even exceed the level produced by ride attractions.[3] Research has shown that zoo animals can be affected even by the crowds that visit them, showing increased vigilance and movements in response to escalating crowd noises.[4]

Chart showing relative decibel levels of common sounds.

Chart showing relative decibel levels of common sounds.

So then, what may be done in terms of noise mitigation? Continuing with my Busch Gardens case study, I secured an audience with a senior cheetah keeper at the park, who was able to shed some light on what had been done in this particular situation to reduce the effect of the coaster noise on the cheetahs. Surprisingly, most of the measures employed were behavioral. The most important part, she said, was done even before the cheetahs arrived in Tampa, when they were still at the sanctuary where they were received from, in Africa. Recordings of the cars going by on the track were made, and sent over to the sanctuary, where they were played for the cheetahs who were slated to take up residence at the park. This effectively habituated them to the type and level of the noise that they would experience, and decreased any negative effects which could be caused by sudden or unexpected exposure. Additionally, the recordings could be played softly at first, and then increased in volume to real-life levels once the cheetahs were comfortable. In other cases, habituation has been shown to reduce stress and startle responses in animals, both captive and wild, however, stress levels may remain elevated [5].

cheetah rest

In terms of sound design, clever engineering may be employed to reduce noise levels and reduce stress on captive animals. In the case of the roller coaster, there are many techniques which reduce noise, including filling the track with sand or vermiculite, and the addition of walls, buildings, or tunnels to absorb sound. These approaches may reduce the sound produced by ride attractions by as much as 20 decibels [6]. Additionally, animal enclosures also play a role in dampening sound. The shape of an enclosure has been shown to affect the type and level of sound that reaches the occupants, as well as the addition of trees, water features, rocks, and ‘ambient’ or ‘natural’ sounds. Exhibits which feature plexiglass fronts are also extremely effective against crowd noises, as those tend to be directionally oriented at the front area of an exhibit.[7]

sound2

In the case of the Busch Gardens cheetah coalition, this story does have a happy ending. Until recently, no cheetah participating in an animal ambassador program had ever had a successful litter. That changed in November of 2014, when one of Busch Gardens’ ambassador cheetahs, who had been previously housed at the park, produced a healthy litter of four cubs, two of which remain at the park. It would appear that the sound mitigation techniques, both behavioral and structural, were successful in reducing stress sufficiently for the cheetahs to feel comfortable enough to breed. If these methods are successful in cheetahs, it is probably safe to assume that they will also be successful in other, less fragile species. If we can implement these measures in zoos and sanctuaries across the globe, we may be able to improve the welfare of captive animals everywhere, and maybe even save ourselves a headache or two as well.

New arrivals!

New arrivals!

[1] O’Brien, S., M. Roelke, L. Marker, A. Newman, C. Winkler, D. Meltzer, L. Colly, J. Evermann, M. Bush, and D. Wildt. “Genetic Basis For Species Vulnerability In The Cheetah.” Science: 1428-434. Print.

[2] Menge, Christopher W. “Noise from Amusement Park Attractions: Sound Level Data and Abatement Strategies.” Noise Control Engineering Journal: 166. Print.

[3] “Sound Advice Note 10.” – Rock and Pop. Ed. David Adams. 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

[4] “Zoo Visitor Effect on Mammals: Does Noise Matter?” Applied Animal Behavior Science 156 (2014): 78-84. Print.

[5] Knight, Richard L. “Responses of Wildlife to Noise.” Wildlife and Recreationists Coexistence through Management and Research. Washington, D.C.: Island, 1995. Print.

[6] Davis, Joshua I., Charles Birdsong, and Harold Cota. “Vibroacoustic Study of Circular Cylindrical Tubes in Roller Coaster Rails.” Noise Control Engineering Journal: 333. Print.

[7] AZA Ape TAG 2010. Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) Care Manual. Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Silver Spring, MD. 1.4 “Sound and Vibration”

 

Canned Hunting

By: Sabrina Berg

The lion must have thought, “As I look across the grassland, I see you standing there and I feel like I know you or have seen you before.  Hmmmm…  It seems to me that you used to feed me and take care of me when I was little and you were extremely gentle and caring so you cannot be that harmful. This means that I can get close and play with you without there being any danger to me.” Next thing you know the same human who has taken care of and nurtured them their whole lives is the one at the other end of the barrel. These poor lions and tigers are being betrayed by the ones they put all their trust in. When they have either been raised in a ranch facility or have been sold into another place that does captive hunting or canned hunting.

Canned hunting is a form of hunting where hunters will pay money to shoot captive animals on game ranches. For example, there was a video online of a lion being hunted that while held in a medium size cage enclosure. He was displaying stressful behavior, obvious from his repetitive movements of pacing back and forth. It became immediately apparent that the lion was trapped, making him an easy target for the hunter.  These animals, usually large cats, are typically taken away from their mother just hours after birth and are handled and bottle fed by humans.  Thus, the cubs become accustom to human interaction and they ignore their natural fears. Because of this, when it comes time to be “hunted” they no longer fear humans as they should, but instead, accept the potential hunters.  The young animals even begin to enjoy human company given that humans play, feed, and take care of them (2).

Canned hunting is unethical and not a fair fight for the lion because the shooters are actually picking out and paying for a specific domesticated lion that is friendly to humans.  Clearly this type of hunting is not for sport or sustenance, it is purely for the trophy. The hunter is not working at outwitting their prey and all he gains from the experience is a massive credit card payment and an animal carcass to show off to his buddies over a cheap bottle of scotch. The definition of hunting is the practice of pursuing any animal and trapping or killing it and canned hunting is not that.  The only similarity is the killing of the animal. Canned hunting could also pose a threat to the conservation of important top predator species such as lions, cheetahs and jaguars. If action is not taken against hunting practices like canned hunting, it may lead to the extinction of several endangered species.

A very important point I would like to bring to the table is how a lion’s behavior is influenced at an early age. Previously, I mentioned how cubs were taken away from their mothers in the first few weeks of life; this action could potentially contribute to the behavior of the animals because they are becoming accustomed to the lack of natural predators and don’t develop avoidance behaviors. Skills like this are important because they need them to survive in their native area.  Animals that are used for canned hunting are raised elsewhere, brought in, or purchased from individuals who are trafficking.  The animals can come from zoos, where they are unwanted or surplus, or possibly circuses who have no use for the animal (1).

Another issue that is misleading when it comes to canned hunting is the fact that game farms (ranches) mislead the public into thinking that the lions are being raised for conservation and reintroduction purposes. We see this a lot when vacationing in places like Mexico or South America. You see a photo op with a lion cub, or you pay to visit a farm to bottle feed baby cheetahs. Once you get to the farm, it is apparent that the cubs have no mother. The owners create a sob story about how the cubs were rejected or orphaned at an early stage (3).   They quote the visitor a fee which allows an individual to help bottle feed the cubs (3).  The owners make you believe that the money you are giving them will help the young cubs get a second chance to live free in the wild.  In reality, once the cubs get too big to be exploited for their “cute factor”, they are sold to hunting facilities. It is in these facilities that people pay to ‘hunt’ and kill large exotic carnivores.  So, in the future, if a farm or facility allows you be in contact with a big cat, you may want to question if it’s a legitimate facility.  Keeping lions captive in this way is not a means of conserving them, especially not the ones that are allowed to be handled by humans.  These lions are considered “human imprinted” and viewed as dangerous and will most likely be sold to a hunting facility (4).

Link to the video: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/patrickbarkham

  1. www.cannedlion.org. Campaign against canned hunting. February 25,2015.
  2. Barkham, Patrick. Canned hunting is a fast-growing business in South America, where thousands of lions are being bred on farms to be shot by wealthy foreign trophy-hunters. June 2013. February 25,2015.
  3. Bigcatrescue.org. Williams, Evan. Killing tamed wild animals in fenced areas for sport, petting cubs in Africa supports the canned hunting industry. November 26,2013. Website. February 25,2015.
  4. www.whitelionshomeland.org. Tucker, Linda. Canned Hunting. Assessed March 23,2015.

Keeping Our Friends Close, But Not Too Close…

Digger, a bear at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, who was captured in Montana for being a nuisance

Digger, a bear at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, who was captured in Montana for being a nuisance

Living in Colorado we often have to deal with wildlife encounters. Personally I have witnessed many wild animals simply roaming through my backyard as they look for food and go about their daily routines. Once my father walked in on a bear that was in our garage. And, although I love seeing animals as much as I can, we have to question if this is really a good thing. The case is different for every animal, but, as we encroach on their habitats, we need to be aware of what our presence is doing to the animals, and try to take some preventative measures to keep both us and them safe and healthy.

Bears have become a big problem for people because we are living closer and closer to their natural habitat. Living on a mountain I have seen my fair share of bears throughout my neighborhood, and, in seeing them so often, I have also witnessed how naughty they can be. Bears are notorious for exhibiting various kinds of “nuisance” behaviors that can get them into a lot of trouble, and it should be up to us to try and prevent this as much as possible so that they stay out of trouble and we stay safe. Bears that exhibit this behavior not only put us at risk, but also themselves, because when they are caught doing this, often times animal departments are instructed to “take care” of them, which is not good for bear populations if this behavior continues to escalate.

Bears are omnivores and therefore like to get their paws into just about anything so that they can get a meal [2]. And with us living increasingly closer to their habitats, they are discovering that they can use our resources for food as well. Since they are such smart creatures they can get their food from all kinds of sources—garbage, bird feeders, compost piles, pet food, barbecues, gardens, orchards, and anything else they can be intuitive enough to get into [1].   So taking all of this into consideration, if we wish to help bears remain wild and safe from being captured due to becoming a nuisance, it is up to us to try to be a little more bear-conscious of our homes and take some preventative measures.

The first step to this is to try and keep anything that would attract bears inside your garage or in the house. Keeping bird feeders high or on bear proof poles that they can’t reach and not overfilling them helps if you will be hanging them during bear season [1].   Keeping garbage and recycling bins inside is another important step, and don’t put them outside until right before they are supposed to be picked up [3]. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have seen trash cans turned over and the contents strewn through a yard because they were left out too long, or overnight and bears have gone through them. This can also be a very detrimental thing for bears. This is the number one attractant, and letting this become a problem means that these bears are often captured and sometimes killed because they have become a danger to humans because they frequent the area too much [1].

Many cities have employed the use of bear-proof trashcans in public areas that have had a generally positive effect. A study done in Florida reported a decrease in bear sightings and bear-human interactions once the trashcans were employed, as well as a positive attitude from local residents about the trash cans [4]. This kind of technology can be really useful when there is no way around having attractants out, and it is these kinds of solutions that need to be sought after when dealing with problems such as these. We need to work toward co-existing a little better with our natural world. And although humans don’t always care very much about protecting the animals of our world, if we can work toward better solutions that work for both parties, things have a much greater potential of getting better.

-Deanna Sinclair

Sources:

  1. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/cos/info/bearaware/prevent_problems.html
  2. http://icwdm.org/handbook/carnivor/black_bears.asp
  3. http://www.bearsmart.com/live/overview/
  4. Barrett, et al., “Testing Bear Resistant Trash Cans in Residential Areas of Florida.” Southeastern Naturalist. 13(2014):26-39. Web.

Captive Breeding Programs: The Pros and Cons to Building an “Arc”

Captive Breeding Programs: The Pros and Cons to Building an “Arc”

Blog written by Emily Temple

Captive Breeding programs are departments within zoos, rescues, sanctuaries and so on in which animals are kept in enclosures and are bred to produce future generations of their species. There is great debate over whether these types of programs should be continued. This article aims to provide a basic approach to both the pros and cons to captive breeding programs both in the aspect of animal behavior and in animal conservation.

So let’s start with the positive aspects to these captive breeding programs. Zoos are some of the biggest funders of animal conservation projects and research, and where does that money come from. Most comes from the general public who pay to visit these zoos each year, multiple times a year, and those who feel compelled to donate. Some of the special draw that brings these people coming to the zoos is the possibility of seeing new cuddling, exotic, and special baby animals. For example the recent birth of a clouded leopard at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is or will be a great draw for people to come and pay to get into the zoo to see the cute little cub. Now captive breeding programs are not only there to bring in a crowd, their main point is to help conserve animals that are endangered or threatened in the wild so that a species doesn’t become extinct. Extinction rates are going up and it is predicted that 20-50% of the world’s species will become extinct in the next couple decades [1]. So zoos can act as somewhat of an “arc” by holding the world’s species in captivity and saving their genetic material from total elimination. Some of these captive breeding programs also have goals for the reintroduction of these animals back into a natural or wild environment. These reintroductions can help in conservation efforts by keeping population numbers up and decreasing inbreeding and genetic drift.

Now, on the flip side, there are some cons to these captive breeding programs. A big problem that arises with captive breeding programs is the sheer numbers of animals in captivity. Most facilities don’t have the resources or the space to support a larger breeding program. Also captive breeding programs have a high cost to support and properly care for each animal so they consist of few animals that can’t sustain a proper breeding population [2]. Another major con to captive breeding programs comes in on the animal behavior side. Even though care takers try their very best to make captive enclosures as natural and stimulating as possible, they fall short of a wild/natural environment. So with this change in environment comes a change in these animals behavior. Some major changes in behavior are a decrease in predator avoidance, decrease in foraging abilities, increase in sleeping patterns, decrease in overall activity, and some problems in social behaviors. Some captive species even have problems in reproduction such as the endangered rhino populations, and that calls in to question the effectiveness of their captive breeding program. These changes in behavior are a major factor in whether these animals can be reintroduced into the wild and if it would benefit their population.

So overall, the question still exists. Are these captive breeding programs a good a bad thing? Isn’t it important to have some individuals of a species still existing somewhere rather than go extinct completely? Or is it better to try and just support the wild populations as they are and use other conservation techniques to keep the endangered species going even though that risks complete extinction. The debate is still up in the air and maybe should be evaluated on a species to species basis.

 

Citations:

Rahbek, Carsten. “Captive Breeding-a Useful Tool in the Preservation of Biodiversity?” – Springer. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1 Aug. 1993. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00114044#>.

Snyder, N. F.R., Derrickson, S. R., Beissinger, S. R., Wiley, J. W., Smith, T. B., Toone, W. D. and Miller, B. (1996), Limitations of Captive Breeding in Endangered Species Recovery. Conservation Biology, 10: 338–348. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1996.10020338.x

One Tourist’s Dream, An Elephant’s Nightmare

Thailand & Cambodia 2013 787

A retired elephant at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Elizabeth Matthews

The first reaction people have when told I spent my summer in Thailand is excitement and curiosity. But the first question I am always asked burns through my core, conjuring a memory that I will never forget. “Did you ride an elephant?” I see a line of elephants parading up a steep hill. Part of the tourist industry, these animals just finished giving rides to giddy vacationers, and are now out of their line of vision. On their backs now ride the elephant handlers; in each hand the herders carry a spear that is held just inches from the elephant’s eye. When the elephant is not moving fast enough, or their attention is strayed, the handlers elicit a sharp stab to their eye. Covered in scars and wounds from previous beatings, each elephant stared straight forward, the pain reflecting out of their gaze as sharply as the knives held in their periphery. Holding up the rear of the line was a small elephant, whose pain was unbearable to watch. As he passed by, his handler’s hook rested below his eye ready to strike, the elephant shot a quick glance at us as we stood silent, in shock. As he continued to march, our eyes were drawn to the elephant’s rump. With a badly broken hip, the elephant dragged one of his hind legs, clearly unable to move it. But despite his disability, his handler continued to yell and kick the creature while his body struggled to overcome the steep incline.

Riding an elephant is a dream come true for many unknowing tourists. It’s understandable; who doesn’t want to climb on the back of the largest terrestrial mammal on earth with their selfie-stick while parading around the jungles of Asia? Exactly. But with a little education on the industry, no animal lover would ever consider riding an elephant again. The training of elephants for elephant trekking is a long time Thai tradition called “phajaan,” which in English translates to “crush” [2]. It consists of ripping baby elephants at the young age of six-months from their families, entrapping them in a small cage with little room to even lift a foot, and beating them with hooks, spikes, and nails, forcing them into human submission. Each and every elephant that tourists eagerly climb onto for a ride has undergone this horrific process. Not only does this training regimen clearly result in significant physical damage, but mental and behavioral impairment as well.

Elephants are extremely social creatures; they exhibit a highly complex social structure that is key to their survival. Elephant society consists of a high degree of mothering, adult cooperation, and care and interest for ailing members of their families. In addition, raising offspring is at the central core of society, and is therefore vital for full cognitive and behavioral development [3]. But when young elephants are torn from their families at a tender age, they suffer dramatic developmental consequences. This lack of development results in abnormal behaviors, such as extreme anxiety, which is often illustrated by rocking back and forth and swaying their body. This extreme anxiety has also been shown to cause aggression, putting both elephants and humans at risk. And not only is the tourism industry harmful for Asian elephants mentally and physically, but their numbers are declining.

Once upon a time, the Asian elephant occupied the vast majority of Asia, with thriving populations occupying regions ranging from Thailand to Iran. Asian elephants have now almost entirely disappeared from Western Asia, Iran, and most of China. The surviving population of Asian elephants is estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000, only about one-tenth of the population of African Elephants [3]. Although the greatest cause for the species decline has been habitat loss and deforestation from anthropogenic forces, the tourism industry is only exacerbating the decline [1]. The ultimate solution to put an end to the horrific methods behind the elephant tourism industry is to spread awareness. The Thai people are not the source to blame for the treatment of elephants; phajaan is an age old tradition that is encouraged by the interest of tourists. With knowledge of phajaan, and spreading the awareness of its detrimental impacts on elephants, we can take a step forward towards the conservation and protection of the Asian elephant.

– Elizabeth Matthews

Here are some sources I used for this post:
1. http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/asian-elephants/

2. http://journals.worldnomads.com/responsible-travel/story/81053/Thailand/Why-Elephant-Riding-Should-Be-Removed-from-Your-Bucket-List

3. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/230242723_Social_structure_and_helping_behavior_in_captive_elephants

Caution – This is a video of phajaan, it is graphic but if you are interested, I would encourage you to watch it: http://youtu.be/SVckvi_gWVo

I volunteered at an elephant conservation center in Thailand that focuses on caring for “retired” elephants that were once in the tourism industry. The center works on providing the elephants with the best possible care for the remainder of their lives, assisting with mental and physical rehabilitation. Here is the website for the center: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/