The African Elephant Research Unit (AERU) was established at the Knysna Elephant Park in October 2009 as a means of addressing the lack of research available on captive African elephants in South Africa, particularly with respect to their welfare and husbandry within their own unique environments.
AERU is the first elephant research unit dedicated to optimizing the welfare of captive elephants in South Africa. However, after five years of studying elephants, its boundaries have already been stretched beyond the confines of domesticated elephants; and AERU has started making important contributions to elephants in wild environments as well.
Based at the Knysna Elephant Park, AERU became a non-profit research trust in 2013 (# IT854/2013; PBO #9300 44259). The Trust is dedicated to the advancement and/or dissemination of information relating to all aspects of biology, behaviour and husbandry of African elephants, with particular reference to their welfare and management in captive facilities. The overall goal is to work towards providing objective and scientifically-based information that may be used to change and guide elephant management to better suit the welfare needs of elephants, both within and beyond the borders of South Africa
Ongoing AERU projects collect information on captive elephants based at KEP and sister facilities. This includes records of biological, anatomical, veterinary, physiological, behavioural and dietary data for each individual animal in its care. AERU researchers and volunteers collect these data, not only to establish baseline values for all elephants, but also to co-ordinate and assimilate multidisciplinary research on the behaviour, ecology, anatomy and physiology of these large mammals.
In 2014, an on-site laboratory was added to the research unit. This initiative will allow for more effective veterinary and physiological monitoring of elephants. One of the primary functions of the lab will be the processing of dung samples for hormonal analyses, which will provide vital insight into the physiological relationships and responses of the elephants to the multitude of behavioural, social and tourism-related variables that these elephants encounter. The long-term prospect is to build a database that will provide elephant managers all over the country with a multi-facetted measure of welfare that they can apply within their own facilities.
The hands-on nature of AERU’s research makes it possible to make ongoing contributions to elephant welfare on a daily basis and ensure that elephants receive the best possible care. In a world where more and more emphasis is being placed on responsible tourism and ethical wildlife interactions, this type of research and interactive science is vital.
AERU now collaborates with local and international researchers on a variety of elephant issues, from nutrition and reproduction to communication, behaviour and welfare. Several studies have followed the progress of animals as they are prepared for; and moved to new facilities; or even wild release.
At the Knysna Elephant Park, researchers, volunteers and students are able to monitor and observe the elephants through the day and night, gaining insight into all aspects of elephant life at the Park. By using a behavioural ethogram specifically developed by AERU for captive and/or domesticated elephants, the data are not only used to establish baseline values for all elephants, but also to co-ordinate and assimilate multidisciplinary research on the behaviour, condition, and physiology of these large mammals, particularly in relation to the tourism activities that are conducted within the different facilities.
At KEP, these data have already led to changes in diet and feeding practices, changes in the way that tourism interactions are conducted, the alteration of stabling facilities, improving handling techniques, amongst others.