Researchers say captive elephants’ body language shows they are affected by tourist walks and rides

Posted on July 12, 2023

An international research team observed how seven semi-captive elephants in Knysna moved their trunks, tails and bodies when tourists would feed, touch, ride or walk with them. 

By analysing the elephants’ body language and how often they made certain movements, they found that these animals were affected by specific tourist interactions, like walks and rides.

“This has important implications for the management of elephants in animal tourism venues and has already led to the Knysna Elephant Park discontinuing rides in 2018,” said Primrose Manning of the African Elephant Research Unit at the Knysna Elephant Park, who led the study.

Primrose Manning

Interestingly, the elephants were less affected by high numbers of tourists, touching, and feeding. This is most likely because the elephants could freely choose to walk away from these interactions and because they favoured food, said Professor Andre Ganswindt from UP’s Mammal Research Institute.

These findings could give handlers a new assessment tool to manage elephant well-being just by observing these so-called “self-directed behaviours” (the scientific term for behaviours that animals choose to exhibit when, for example, their environment is perceived as stressful). 

“It would allow the observer to gain instantaneous insight into the elephants’ state of mind and identify stressors in real time. It could also potentially replace other less effective methods such as monitoring stereotypic behaviour, which are repetitive, functionless actions only displayed in captivity,” explained Manning.

“Stress is not a bad thing per se,“ said Prof Ganswindt. “The physiological response to a perceived stressor allows the animal to make energy available to deal with whatever situation they find themselves in. It is a powerful coping mechanism.”

Other scientists had previously linked self-directed behaviours to stressful situations in primates, so Prof Ganswindt and his colleagues hoped to identify similar behaviours that could indicate potential stressful situations for elephants. 

Although the elephants expressed some self-directed behaviours during tourist interactions, these coping mechanisms likely support the animals’ well-being and mitigate physiological responses. This theory is supported by the fact that the researchers did not find a link between the behaviours they observed and a stress-related biochemical marker measurable in the elephants’ dung. 

“In fact, this biochemical marker, known as faecal glucocorticoid metabolites, indicates rather distinct periods of perceived stress, and the circumstances experienced by elephants in the Knysna Elephant Park, Western Cape, do not seem to fall into that category,” explained Prof Ganswindt.

But even in an overall lower impact environment, the seven monitored elephants appeared more distinctively affected when visitors were allowed to walk or ride them.

Prof Ganswindt said more research is needed to link behavioural observations with other biological or chemical stress-related markers so that “self-directed behaviours” can be formally established as a reliable, affordable and non-invasive tool to assess elephant welfare.

- Author ScienceLink

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences