Calf interacting with a juvenile  Calf and mahout playing in river  Training session  Street view with elephant  Mahout on a male elephant  Mahout with a juvenile male

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Helena Telkanranta with mahouts
Helena Telkanranta and Sudhir Yadav (on the right) explaining our research programme to Binod Chaudhary (centre) and other mahouts in Chitwan, Nepal.

Wild elephants in Kaziranga National Park, India
Detailed knowledge of wild elephant behaviour helps to better understand the reactions and needs of captive ones. One of us has also been personally involved in discovering new aspects of the behaviour of wild Asian elephants, especially male-male interactions: Karpagam Chelliah recently completed her PhD in the research group of Professor Raman Sukumar in the Indian Institute of Science. The elephants in the photo are some of those that she followed for two years in Kaziranga National Park, India.

In addition to disseminating scientific knowledge that exists thanks to others, we have recently started a research programme of our own. The aim is to contribute to the body of knowledge on factors affecting elephant welfare.

Detecting emotions and chronic pain

Some of the welfare problems of captive elephants are easily visible, at least to the experienced eye. Examples include wounds and scars, and behavioural symptoms such as stereotypies (repeated nodding, swaying or pacing), signalling that the elephant has found it impossible to cope with its surroundings.

Several problems, however, are invisible to the human eye. Many elephants have a history of getting punished for showing external signs of distress, such as restless movement or vocalizations. Such elephants may experience intensive discomfort, frustration or anxiety while showing very few outward signs of it.

Another challenging issue to detect is chronic pain. It is likely that many captive elephants experience chronic pain without their owners or mahouts knowing it, because some of the common management practices carry a significant risk of causing it. Examples include saddles that exert pressure on the elephant's protruding spine, and the practice of chaining the front legs close to each other while not at work, resulting in an unnatural standing position and an unhealthy weight distribution on the joints. However, diagnosing chronic pain is a challenge for veterinarians in any animals, because the external signals are often far more subtle than in sudden, acute pain.

In order to contribute to the available methodology to measure emotional states in elephant and to diagnose chronic pain, we have started a research programme to develop new tehcniques for objective detection. Our collaborating partners in this research programme are Research Centre for Comparative Cognition of the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp, Belgium.

Analysis of our first data sets is currently ongoing, and the first results are expected to be published in 2015. A link to them will be provided here.

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