About Our Research

AERU was established in 2009 to address the lack of research on captive African elephants in South Africa. Captive facilities range from zoos and circuses to small private reserves, sanctuaries and elephant-back safaris. AERU is the first research unit dedicated to optimizing the welfare of these captive elephants in South Africa and beyond.

Much of our research is focused on the behaviour of the Knysna Elephant Park herd and what it can tell us about their lives and their welfare. We also collect biological, veterinary and dietary data at KEP and other facilities. Over several years, AERU has been developing a set of captive elephant data which is unrivalled, as far as we know, by any other such database anywhere else in the world.

What can we do with
this database?

  • Establish baseline values of behaviour, physiology and other variables, which can be compared against other elephants in similar or different management systems
  • Investigate long-term patterns, for example the way behaviour may change over time as animals age and mature
  • Build up a longitudinal record of the lives of the individual elephants we study regularly, which can then be compared to records taken on the same elephants in the present with a specific research question in mind
  • Establish, test and refine research protocols which can then be applied dynamically to address new hypotheses

Through the collection of these data, AERU is able to develop a type of “welfare index for elephants”, placing emphasis on balancing the welfare needs of the elephants with the tourism activities of the captive facilities in the best possible way. AERU provides a platform from which to guide management via research, giving regular feedback and assessments to management, which, in the past, they have not been in a position to collect for themselves.

Not only do these data provide valuable scientific insight into African elephants, they allow for unparalleled insight into individual elephants, within specific facilities, under varying management styles. Through these data collections, AERU contributes to research and management, with particular emphasis on elephant welfare and responsible tourism.

All captive elephant owners in SA are subject to regular inspections and have to adhere to strict Governmental Norms and Standards. It is our vision to promote AERU data collection sessions to any elephant facility that may be interested in learning more about the animals in their care. AERU will be able to conduct research sessions at elephant facilities throughout southern Africa, with the aim of providing baseline data pertaining to their elephants and how their animals respond to management within their own unique environments.

Regular research sessions will help to provide an ongoing research-based “index of welfare” and, in the long-term identify and explain any changes from the baseline. The analysis and interpretation of these changes will help to guide management towards optimal welfare of animals and tourism activities that are responsible and sustainable.

How valuable is captive animal research?

Captive elephants provide us with a valuable opportunity for participation in research and education programmes, often allowing for the collection of data not readily available from wild animals. The value of the KEP elephants (and others based elsewhere), from a research perspective, includes two main factors:

They are not strictly captive animals, still maintaining a certain amount of their free-ranging nature, showing a certain degree of ‘choice’ in what they eat, where the move, who they socialise with and how they behave. The age-size-sex composition of the group allows for vital insight into assessment of behaviour, socialisation, physiology and other biological factors for a wide spectrum of animals. The captive nature of the elephants at KEP, training and management allows for them to be closely observed and monitored, consequently allowing for research initiatives not easily carried out on elephants in the wild. As indicated by the research projects being conducted by AERU, this allows us to formulate a variety of research programmes for comparative purposes, both with wild and captive populations.

Sampling and data collection has been implemented and standardised, first at the KEP facility. Following this, there are opportunities for us to expand the research programme to include other captive elephant institutions, which will allow us to include and compare a larger number of animals, in a wider variety of habitats. Data collected by AERU and its research partners will form an important part of the elephant management and education programmes. We hope that AERU can offer valuable insight into the lives of elephants and provide information that may be used to improve and upgrade the management of captive elephants; and promote the protection and conservation of wild elephants.