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Four reasons why we study the behaviour of elephant orphans

Understanding behaviour is essential for not only looking after orphaned elephants from the moment they are rescued, but it also gives them the best possible chance for a successful release.

In the Wildlife Rescue Department of Game Rangers International (GRI) we take a science-driven approach to management. We collect many forms of data throughout the lives of the orphaned elephants. One such stream of data is our long term Behavioural Observation Study (BOS) that aims to:

“Understand the behavioural development of orphaned elephants, inform management and ensure welfare”

1. Behavioural Development

Behavioural development is a complex and ongoing process. It is important for us to know how they behave at every stage of their lives while in our care; whether they have just been rescued, they have settled into the Nursery, they are ready to graduate to the Release Facility, when they are approaching their release phase or released and living wild in the Kafue National Park in Zambia.

This helps us to establish “Behavioural Developmental Milestones” – by age/sex and release stages - these form the basis of ‘release targets’ for all orphans to reach, e.g. a measurable reduction of an elephants proximity to keepers would be an indication of increasing independence.

We can see orphans of similar age/sex classes are developing at a similar rate which gives an indication of what is normal/to be expected. New orphans can be measured against existing orphans at various ages, and also wild elephants matched for age/sex.

2. Informing Management

We can use the understanding of the “behavioural developmental milestones” to inform and guide our Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Our ultimate goal is to release orphans successfully back into the wild, so all our management decisions need to work to that goal. If orphans are not reaching expected targets a change in rehabilitation strategy/management may be identified.

Daily/practical application of understanding developmental milestones would also include minimising risk to staff by understanding the significance of hormonal changes. For example, orphaned females coming into oestrus can present a safety risk for keepers moving with the herd as the females attract wild bulls, so additional safety protocols require implementation during these times.

An example of a long-term management change could look at the level of early human interaction with the orphaned elephants and how that affects their release back into the wild. For example, do orphans who have had to be in quarantine with only human companions for a significant period, struggle more socially with other elephants – do they suffer a greater risk when released into the wild if they are attracted to potentially dangerous humans, and how can we change their management to ensure this does not happen.

As with children, issues early in their development could have a significant impact on how they behave as an adult. Therefore feedback of elephant behaviour as the potential consequence of the rehabilitation process enables constant revision of the strategy and management plan, in order to give the orphans the best possible chance of a successful release back into the wild.

“What gets measured gets improved” – Robin S. Sharma.

3. Welfare

By building up a pattern of “normal behaviour” for each individual elephant, we can see any changes that may indicate a health or welfare problem. A behavioural change may be a “red flag” indicating something may be going on before clinical symptoms present. These can range from subtle behavioural changes to very obvious ones. Such as withdrawing from interacting with other herd members, seeking attention from the keepers, or narrowing their behaviour range – engaging in less varied behaviours. We would liaise with our vet unit and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) vets at this time.

4. Contributing to understanding of elephant behaviour

Most elephant research is based on captive situations such as zoos or wild populations. We fall somewhere between these two categories – the elephants are not wild yet, they are cared for by their keepers and our management systems, and we have a deep understanding of them on an individual level. We feel this gives us a unique opportunity to contribute to the understanding in a different way than most of the published research that is out there.

We also hope with the information that we are gathering we can help organisations similar to us, who want to release elephants successfully back into the wild. Because of the great need out there, there has been a number of new elephant orphanages that have opened in the last few years. They might not have faced the same challenges that we have faced, with the older orphans we are dealing with. We are hoping to encourage a collaborative/sharing experience so other orphaned elephants can benefit from the information we are collecting.


We will be creating more blogs about the Behavioural Observation Study (BOS) as well as the Post Release Monitoring (PRM) research that we carry out on the release-phase elephants. We will also be blogging about other aspects of elephants that we have learnt over 10 years of caring for them. Additionally, we will look at the other two departments, the Resource Protection and the Community Outreach, giving you an understanding of the holistic approach to conservation that we take at Game Rangers International.

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Lisa Olivier

Head of Research – Wildlife Rescue Department

Images: Game Rangers International, Frank Booth, Mark Barnett, Kerrod Wells, Kylie Jones, Lisa Olivier, Lauren Cawley

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