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:
- More emphasis placed on responsible and education interactions; as opposed to touch and feel.
- Trying to get our guests to become part of the herd by just being with them; and watching the natural behaviours from a distance.
- Feeding and tactile interactions are kept to a minimum; try and give the elephants as much choice and freedom as possible.
- Changes made to the boma (elephant sleeping quarters) which allow them more interaction, space and movement overnight.
- Feed is specially formulated and produced on-site at the Park, ensuring the elephants get the best possible nutrition, all year round.
- An enrichment programme aimed at keeping elephants stimulated, both physically and cognitively.
- Rides are kept to only two per day, with the whole herd going along (as described above).
- We have also introduced an Elephant Walk – in recognition of those people who don’t want to ride; and would rather walk alongside.
- Saddles are no longer used for riding, only blankets.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.