The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is the only living species of the genus Elephas and is distributed across 13 countries inSoutheast Asia from India in the west to Borneo in the east. Three subspecies are recognized – E.m. maximus from Sri Lanka, E.m. indicus from mainland Asia, and E. m. sumatranus on the island of Sumatra. There is molecular evidence that the Borneo elephant (E. m. borneensis) may also be a discrete evolutionary unit.
Elephants are keystone species thatmodify and maintain habitat; they also are umbrella species, as the conservation of elephants preserves not only habitat, but also other species therein. As iconic flagship species, elephants raise awareness for action and funding of broader conservation efforts. Despite their importance however, Asian elephants are in decline throughout their natural range, with perhaps only 25,000 – 50,000 remaining. They were listed as Endangered by the IUCN in 1986, with main threats to wild population sustainability being habitat degradation, deforestation, population fragmentation, human-elephant conflict,and poaching. Due to their somewhat elusive nature and dense forested habitats, definitive surveys of wild elephant numbers have not been conducted for most populations. However, human population growth and alteration of pristine habitats (primarily into oil palm plantations) continue to be threats to the species. Poaching of males for ivory is a major concern, and in some areas has resulted in skewed sex ratios that could impact reproduction and genetic diversity. Thus, ex situ populations are important to support species conservation in light ofthe unknown, but highly suspect situation in the wild.
In Asia, about 16,000 elephants are currently maintained in captivity for a variety of purposes: logging, tourism, cultural and religious activities, and transportation. With the banning of logging in many Asian countries within the past few decades, elephants have found work mainly in tourism, where they interact with the public in the form of shows, trekking, bathing, feeding and other activities. A major challenge, however, is that most captive populations are not self-sustaining because deaths exceed births. High morbidity and mortality can be attributed to inadequate management, nutrition and medical care; thus, off-take of wild elephants to supplement captive populations becomes another major threat to species survival. An additional challenge is the decline in good mahoutship and the lack of skills in newer, more humane training methods. There is an urgent need for practical guidelines and clear recommendations on how to effectively manage captive elephants such that good health, reproduction and welfare are equally addressed and ensured at all times.
With all the above it is clear that the current situation of captive Asian Elephants in South-east Asia is far from optimal, and while problems of captive elephants differ greatly from those of wild populations,we cannot ignore that these large numbers of elephants under human care have a major role to play in the overall conservation strategy planning for this species.
On the 11th and 12th of June2015,a group of elephant experts and practitioners met for a first brainstorming session in Chiang Mai, Thailand to strategize on how to address the above and ensure a sustainable and high quality of life for captive elephants in Southeast Asia. Therefore, the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) was established.
The 1stAsian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) meeting in Chiang Mai (11-12 June 2016)
The 3rdAsian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) meeting in Chiang Mai (20-21 June 2016)
The 4thAsian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) meeting in Chiang Rai (5-6 June 2017
WORKING GROUP PLAN
VISION AND MISSION:
Vision Statement: To ensure a sustainable, high quality of life for all captive elephants in SE Asia.
Mission Statement: We will ensure a good life for elephants and create sustainable captive populations through the development of best management and welfare practices, and the formation of partnerships that focus on education, veterinary health, cultural traditions, capacity building, good mahoutshipand conservation needs.
- Ensure sustainable populations and a high quality of life for captive elephants of Southeast Asia
- - Create a sustainable, functional group that has the knowledge and skills toadvance regional management practices and ensure a sustainable, high quality of life for all captive elephants in Southeast Asia.
- - Pull together important stakeholders:
- - Local governments
- - Elephant owners (private and government)
- - Caretakers, mahouts
- - Business sector
- - Tourism sector
- - Local communities
- - Create a steering committee to set priorities for group activities, to coordinate with members and sub-groups, to create a master plan and guidelines, and to serve as a liaison to group members for people seeking information
- Create a steering committee to set priorities for group activities, to coordinate with members and sub-groups, to create a master plan and guidelines, and to serve as a liaison to group members for people seeking information.
- -Include people with vested interests (i.e., those engaged in the captive elephant camp business, and those who advocate for animal welfare)
- -Serve limited terms (4 years) set up so half the board rotates off every 2 years
- -Link with Chiang Mai University as the home base and founder
- -Create an Advisory Board
- -Assist the Steering Committee, especially after member numbers are reduced
- -Create an ACEWG Secretariat
- -Roles: fundraising, business model development, communication, administration, meeting planning
- - Develop best management practices and protocols
- - Facilitate sustainable populations via enhanced:
- -Reproductive success
- -Nutrition, exercise
- -Social management
- -Work schedules
- -Mahout and elephant training
- -Health - veterinary care
- -Produce an overarching manual for captive elephant care and camp management
- -Provide minimum care standards
- -Request input from scientists, mahouts, managers, owners, tourists, locals
- -Make materials readily available (multi-lingual, low cost/free to use)
- -Start in Thailand, coalition of ~20 Chiang Mai camps already interested in improving conditions
- - Create methods of assessment for evaluating existing camps (rating/ranking system)
- -Interface closely with tourists and tourism boards to provide information about elephant camps, and which of the camps meet minimum standards. Camps will be encouraged to meet standards in order to maximize tourist profit.
- -Inform tourists about what they can do to help conservation of elephant populations (i.e., being an informed consumer of eco-tourism)
- -Use standardized questionnaires to assess elephant camps
- -Translate into multiple languages to be used in multiple countries
- -Assess management styles and health status of elephants
- -Study elephant personality and determine its impact on elephant tractability and response to particular management techniques
- -Evaluate maternal quality/experience and its impact on offspring survival
- -Categorize camps by management techniques, abuse record, welfare standards
- -Two-way communication to ensure that standards are clear to camp managers and oversight agencies
- -Develop assessment tools for mahouts and managers
- -Track progress over time
- -Establish certification programs to demonstrate commitment and encourage compliance
- - Produce and provide educational/training materials to enhance capacity building
- -Foreign and domestic tourists
- -Private/government owners
- -Facility managers
- -Tour guides
- -Mahout training schools
- -Local residents
- - Emphasize the importance of captive populations in species conservation
- -Take advantage of tourism to raise awareness of threats facing elephants in Asia
- - Conduct a thoroughliterature search on what is available on elephant management, mahout training, conservation messages and health care
- -Translate into a common format (i.e., database) and increase accessibility
- Literature search to supplement practical knowledge
- -Identify information gaps and reach out to others to fill in gaps
- Bring together knowledgeable/experienced parties to address all matters related to ensuring a sustainable quality of life for captive elephants in Southeast Asia
- Sustain captive populations without compromising wild populations
- Improve captive elephant welfare by producing quality mahouts and well-trained, well-behaved elephants, and protect elephants from abuse and misuse by humans
- Find economic value for elephants to encourage ethical management and conservation
- Maintain the traditions and culture surrounding elephant carewhile developing effective and humane management plans for elephants
- mahout traditions
- cultural history and significance
- Encourage good business practices, strengthen business models for captive elephant management based on high welfare standards
- Enhance education and awareness of issues related to wild and captive elephants, and emphasize the importance of captive populations in species conservation
- Take advantage of tourism to raise awareness of threats facing captive and wild elephants in Asia
- Protect the “rights” of elephants living under human care
- Right to be rescued, recovered, and rehabilitated
- Adhere to the five basic freedoms of animal welfare:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and social opportunities
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment that avoid mental suffering
- Ensure the mental needs of elephants are met as well as the physical; support positive welfare states and promote environment and social
- interactive behaviors; provide a good quality of life.
- NOTE: Westerners idea of animal ‘rights’ may conflict with feasible management practices (limited monetary, facility, labor resources), and different philosophies (Buddism, Hindu).
- Address legal issues/regulations/constraints for transnational elephant/information/material exchange