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Asian Elephant Welfare & Conservation


Building Sri Lanka’s first elephant hospital and mitigating human wildlife conflict.

Location: Elephant Transit Home, Sri Lanka

The Asian elephant is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN with its population in swift decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal poaching for ivory and skin, loss of elders, genetic degradation and human-elephant conflict over resources. This conflict often leads to injury or orphaned calves who are in need of care. In addition, conflict with humans is increasing across Asia. There is a need for training on elephant behavior, learning theory and behavior change (human and elephant) to reduce conflict.

Our Goals

Our goal is to improve the welfare, survival and living conditions of  Asian elephants and injured wildlife through our Center of Excellence for Wildlife Health and Wellbeing.

The Project

The care of elephants across Asia varies drastically from country to country and even village to village. Understanding of elephant behavior, husbandry and their fundamental needs as a species are not widely considered in their management which often leads to physical, mental and emotional trauma. We have established a partnership with the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka to create a Center of Excellence which will provide countrywide capacity building to improve the lives of elephants through behavior, training, veterinary care, emergency response and neonate rescue. We are also collaborating with the government to develop a novel human-elephant conflict mitigation strategy to include elephant behavior, personality, human and elephant behavior modification to reduce contention and its consequences in a way that promotes coexistence, not exclusion.

The Elephant Transit Home – Partner in Health and Welfare

Established in 1995 by the Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Elephant Transit Home (ETH)’s primary objective is to rehabilitate orphaned elephant calves for ultimate release back into the wild. With minimal resources and manpower, ETH has released 120 elephants back into National Parks in Sri Lanka. In addition, ETH rehabilitates and releases other injured and confiscated elephants and wildlife. The ETH facilities are rudimentary and in need of improvement to help increase their conservation impact as well as their staff’s capacity to improve animal welfare during treatment/rehabilitation. Research into the effectiveness of the program is critical to understand conservation impact and decrease HEC. ETH will be our first Center of Excellence in Sri Lanka.

Current Challenges:

Medical infrastructure and animal holding facilities: Current diagnostic capacity at ETH is extremely limited. Blood machines and imaging equipment including x-ray and ultrasound are not available. Holding facilities are limited to simple fencing and concrete flooring which is stressful for patients and difficult on their feet and joints.

Elephant Welfare: Hospitalized or permanent resident elephants across Asia are living in substandard conditions and are not provided opportunities to exhibit natural behaviors and receive veterinary care using positive reinforcement techniques. Elephant health is compromised due to lack of basic care needed. Calves that are rescued and released are minimally provided care and interaction to increase their release success, however, they are not taught skills necessary to survive. While ETH has a successful track record of release, in other range states, the release success rate is under 50%. Current Human-Elephant Conflict mitigation techniques rely on using scare tactics to drive wild elephants away. These tactics have proven unsuccessful and increase conflict over time.

Elephant Emergencies There is a need for emergency response units that assist elephants in need of critical veterinary care, rescue or immediate neonate care. Often these responses are in remote areas with limited equipment and minimal experience in neonate care.  New techniques are needed to help in these remote locations and better provide immediate aid to injured or orphaned elephants

Our Response

Medical infrastructure and animal holding facilities: The Elephant Transfer Home (ETH), has partnered with VI to develop a Center for Excellence which involves improving infrastructure to include a diagnostic lab, elephant training facility, and a new elephant and wildlife hospital. Together with our collaborator, the Smithsonian Institute of Conservation Biology, we work to improve staff capacity, address immediate facility needs of the wildlife rehabilitation center, and conduct research to contribute to global knowledge of elephant calf reintroductions.

Elephant Welfare: Over the next year, we will conduct several workshops at ETH and other range country partner organizations teaching positive reinforcement training, elephant behavior, welfare, and husbandry (foot care, blood draws, treatments, etc). The workshops will also have follow-up training to ensure theories and skills are retained.  We are approved by the Department of Wildlife Conservation to pilot a new method to reduce conflict through positive behavior change, human and elephant, to reduce conflict and promote coexistence.

Emergency Response: VI is partnering with Animal Search and Rescue, an NGO in the US, to improve ETH’s capacity for emergency response and other range country partners across Asia. We will continue to support the development and capacity of mobile veterinary units critical to provide health care for captive and wild elephants, capacity building for emergency rescue and neonate response training to increase survival.