Howletts Wild Animal Trust | African Elephant Enrichment

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In the wild, an adult African elephant will eat between 100 and 300 kgs of vegetation in a single day, feeding for 12 to 18 hours. However, in captivity the time spent feeding is dramatically reduced, with elephants spending only one to two hours a day feeding on average. This means that captive elephants are left with a lot of time in the day when they potentially have nothing of interest to do.

Enrichment in zoos and animal parks is often offered not only to create a more natural home environment for the animals but also to tackle stereotypic behaviours. Such behaviours have long been defined as repetitive, unvarying and apparently functionless and are given the label of abnormal repetitive behaviours (ARBs). Good quality enrichments are those that offer the animals the opportunity to carry out activities they prefer over stereotypic behaviours. This reduces the motivations driving ARBs as the animals are given the chance to keep themselves occupied in less physically or psychologically damaging ways since they are bored less often.

Due to the immense size of African elephants, providing enrichment items that can withstand their interaction is very difficult. Furthermore, making food less accessible to encourage searching and foraging behaviours is onerous since African elephants are both highly intelligent and exceptionally strong, meaning they can break almost anything if they put their minds to it.

Research into the African elephant brain, including the cerebellum, their encephalisation quotient and mirror-self recognition was undertaken to ascertain the best manner in which to challenge the elephants’ cognitive abilities, without frustrating them as this would lead to the item being broken. The physical capabilities of the trunk were also researched as this is the main tool elephants use to interact with their environment. After many concepts, design alterations and strength tests, the final item was produced and tested with the herd at Howletts Wild Animal Park. The elephants fed for five times longer using the item than they normally would, it withstood their attention without breaking, and was deemed a success by the keepers.

“The elephant steel polygon which Marie made worked brilliantly for the elephants. I would say the toy was a huge success and we are looking forward to getting it back. If we made another one, we would probably make the access holes smaller so the little elephants couldn’t put their trunks in (just in case they put their trunk in then a larger elephant tugs on the toy). We would also ideally have more than one toy, so it can’t be monopolised by one dominant animal. I think Marie perfectly met the brief we gave her.” Natalie Boyd, Head Elephant Keeper, Howletts Wild Animal Trust

Marie Yates (Industrial Design & Technology BA) in collaboration with Howletts Wild Animal Trust