Elephant Welfare

Making Elephant Welfare a Priority

Over the last several years, the Park, in conjunction with AERU has recognised the need for changes to be made to traditional elephant management protocols used in South Africa. These changes have been vital to prioritise elephant welfare; and to balance the needs of elephants, with the tourism activities conducted at the Park.

These changes include the following:

  1. More emphasis placed on responsible and education interactions; as opposed to touch and feel.
  2. Trying to get our guests to become part of the herd by just being with them; and watching the natural behaviours from a distance.
  3. Feeding and tactile interactions are kept to a minimum; try and give the elephants as much choice and freedom as possible.
  4. Changes made to the boma (elephant sleeping quarters) which allow them more interaction, space and movement overnight.
  5. Feed is specially formulated and produced on-site at the Park, ensuring the elephants get the best possible nutrition, all year round.
  6. An enrichment programme aimed at keeping elephants stimulated, both physically and cognitively.
  7. Rides are kept to only two per day, with the whole herd going along (as described above).
  8. We have also introduced an Elephant Walk – in recognition of those people who don’t want to ride; and would rather walk alongside.
  9. Saddles are no longer used for riding, only blankets.
  10. Our elephants have been familiarised to lean against an elevated loading platform so that they don’t have to stretch down for tourists to get onto their backs!
  11. The traditional bullhook* has been redesigned to no longer include the metal hook. Bullocks, used in the field during the day, are now a simple fibreglass walking stick.
  12. The research unit and its volunteers contribute on a daily basis to the welfare and management of our elephants – there is no other facility in the world that has that capability!
  13. Long-term goals and objectives for the Park include the following:
    a. To build a 2000 hectare free-range habitat, so that elephants may be released into a reserve / sanctuary type of environment
    b. This would comprise South Africa’s first REAL elephant Sanctuary and be open to elephants in need throughout the country
    c. Funding needing amounts to approximately R30 million, to get enough land to start the pilot project and make the long-term project viable.

*The bullhook is an internationally recognised tool in the handling of elephants. It is specially designed with the welfare and safety of both elephants and staff in mind. It can be used in the right way; and, unfortunately, can also be used in the wrong way. Used in the correct manner, it extends the handler’s reach so that the handler may touch specific points on the elephant’s body, as a way of signalling to the elephant what the handler is asking it to do; much like a horse’s bridle and bit. Protocol requires that unnecessary force must be avoided and only recognised cue points on the elephant’s body are allowed to be used. These movements are paired with verbal commands and positive reinforcement such as praise or food. In this way, the need for physical contact is reduced, as the elephant learns to associate the command with the reward. The elephants at KEP are also trained to pick it up and familiarize themselves with it so they become accustomed to it as a tool and not a weapon.

Responsible Choices: Changing perspectives in Wildlife Tourism

The tourism industry has recently seen a growing trend within the wildlife sector, where tourists are being made aware of the need to view animal activities and attractions they may visit during their holidays, in a different light. All over the world, animal welfare organisations and animal rights groups are asking tour companies and tourists to think carefully about the ethics and responsibilities associated with many of these wildlife tourism ventures.

Many of these non-governmental organisations have focused on the use of elephants for tourism purposes, particularly in Asia, where elephant trekking is a very popular tourism activity. The ‘traditional’ methods of breaking and training Asian elephants are well known and have been highly publicised. These methods use a variety of cruel and abusive methods to ‘break’ the animals, so that they can be ridden and controlled. In many cases the animals are kept in poor conditions, tethered for long periods of time and often isolated from other elephants. In the past, many tourists visiting elephant facilities in Asia have been unaware of these training methods. However, recent awareness campaigns and an emphasis on responsible tourism has served to bring these issues to the fore; and, as such, tourists are now more aware of their choices; and how these choices may contribute to animal welfare.

Here, at the Knysna Elephant Park, we support and welcome these changing trends – increased awareness of the welfare requirements of animals in captive situations can only have a positive impact on the animals in these tourism facilities; and the way in which their owners and managers care for them.

Comparisons between the Knysna Elephant Park and facilities in Asia, can only serve to highlight the positive and responsible manner in which the Park operates its elephant encounters and interactions. Our tourism activities are conducted ethically and always with elephant welfare as a top priority. If ever we identify an area where welfare may be compromised, our flexible style of management allows for immediate notification, so that changes can be made to benefit the elephants.

For twenty years, the Park’s primary objective has been to offer elephants in the need the chance of a new and better home; and we have worked tirelessly to achieve this goal. We believe that the Knysna Elephant Park, in many ways (as detailed above), now stands as an example of how a responsible and best practice facility should be run, illustrating optimal standards of husbandry and welfare.