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Calf eating grass
A one-year-old eating grass. Calves need to suckle their mothers for several years, but they also start eating solid food before the age of half a year.

Mahouts preparing kucchi
Mahouts preparing bundles of rice wrapped in hay, called kucchi in Nepal, a traditional part of captive elephant diet in some countries. While they are a good treat in small amounts, for example as a food reward during training, giving elephants large quantities of rice is not optimal.

GPS collar
A GPS collar on an adult female at Aane Mane in Karnataka, India, allowing to folow its whereabouts in real time. In scarcely populated areas, this is a good solution to let captive elephants graze freely in the forests.

Drinking water from pump
Clean drinking water is one of the necessities for good health. This three-year-old has developed a habit of drinking directly from the pump. In addition, elephants need to have drinking water in a large clean trough or tub, in order to ensure they get enough to drink and to allow them to splash it onto themselves to cool down in warm weather.
Feed and water

The digestive system of an elephant is best suited to fresh, fibrous plant foods such as grass, leaves and bark. An elephant does not know that large quantities of "goodies" such as rice and bread can be detrimental to its health, so it is up to the keeper to maintain a healthy diet.

Grass and branches

The natural diet of elephants consists exclusively of plants: grass, herbs, leaves, twigs, bark, fruit and so on. The digestive system of an elephant is especially adapted to fibrous food, such as grass and leaves.

The daily amount of feed needed partly depends on its moisture content. Fresh grass and leaves contain plenty of water, and an adult elephant consumes approximately 300 kg (660 pounds) per day. If the diet consists of predominantly hay and vegetables, the daily need is less than 50 kg (110 pounds).

What about rice, bread and sugar?

Elephants do also seek out high-energy foods such as fruit, rice and bread. As their digestive system differs from ours, these should only be used as "candy".

Some captive elephants are given rather large amounts of rice, as well as daily portions of sugar (jaggery or molasses), which can  cause health risks. If the elephant is mainly sedentary, such as in a temple or zoo, it easily becomes overweight. This can result in painful foot problems. If the elephant does physical work, it usually burns off the calories, but the high-carbohydrate diet can cause another problem: the elephant may have some difficulty focusing on the tasks because of feeling overly energetic - a bit like a human child getting "high" on sugar after eating lots of sweets.

Grazing and browsing

In the wild, elephants eat a wider variety of plant species than any other plant-eating mammal. Several hundreds of plant species have been documented in their diet. This does not mean that acaptive elephant would need all of these species for its well-being. But it does suggest that variety in feed may have some significance to elephants.

If the elephant can be taken on a natural grassland or into a forest for grazing or browsing, this is likely to provide a more varied diet and a better mental well-being. Elephants are usually taken out for grazing by their mahouts. At some sites (mainly forest camps within national parks), there also is a tradition to let elephants graze by themselves in nearby forests for part of their time. In such cases, their movement is usually restricted by leg chains and their tracking made easier by drag chains, but these practices become risky if the elephants get threatened by wild elephants. An elephant with fron legs hobbled with a chain cannot move away as quickly as it wants, and there have been several cases of camp elephants getting injured by attacking wild elephants.

GPS collars provide a good alternative to chains when elephants graze on their own. They have been used successfully by the non-profit Aane Mane Foundation in Karnataka, South India, in a project gradually reintroducing a group of captive elephants in the wild. The experience shows GPS would also be an efficient way to monitor and find ordinary captive elephants when grazing.

Selecting the right hay and branches

The nutritional value of plants varies acording to season. Grass is at its best when rather young. If grass is to be dried as hay, it is better to cut it at this point. A rough guide to hay quality is colour: if the hay has lost its green colour, it is very poor in nutrients. During the dry season, some elephants are fed mainly on dry yellowish grass, but this risk nutritional deficiency. If no better grass is available, supplanting the diet with fresh branches and asking for a veterinarian's advice on a proper amount of vitamin and mineral supplements will help maintain health.

When cutting branches from trees as elephant feed, it is important to vary the individual trees (even if they are of the same species) instead of cutting from the same tree day after day. Trees have a defence mechanism against plant-eating animals, similarly to many other plants: when an individual tree gets "injured" by eating or cutting, it starts producing mildly toxic phenolic compounds s to deter further consumption. Animals in the wild can taste this and move on to other individuals, but a captive animal has no choice if its keeper is unknowingly harvesting branches repeatedly from the same tree.

Drinking water

Clean and abundant drinking water is one of the basic needs of elephants. An adult elephant needs approximately 100 to 300 litres (20 to 60 gallons) of water per day. During cool weather and while eating fresh plants with high moisture content, the quantity needed is towards the lower end of the range. In warm weather and when eating mainly dry food such as hay, the need for water is at its highest.

An ideal location for an elephant camp is at or near a river, where elephants can both drink and bathe. A good water flow is essential to keep the water drinkable, as elephants may urinate and defecate while bathing. For the same reason, a small pond can become contaminated quite soon. In the absence of a fast-flowing river, elephants need an ample quantity of water from a tap or well even if they also have access to a pond.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere