Blog: data is key to elephant welfare

Posted: 21st February, 2022

University of Nottingham’s Dr Jess Rendle and Dr Lisa Yon describe their new app for monitoring elephants and why they think it will lead to the improvements in elephant welfare.

Both African and Asian elephants are species that are symbolic of power and strength, but they are threatened with extinction. In fact, its predicted that soon we will lose all wild elephants. It therefore vital that elephants in zoos, safari parks and sanctuaries have optimal welfare whilst in our care, to ensure their well-being, and improve their chances of survival. Observation, measurements and evaluation underpin all efforts to improve elephant care.

Many elephant facilities are making changes in an effort to improve the welfare of elephants in their care; however, in order to know if these efforts have succeeded we need to be able to measure it accurately and scientifically. Welfare can be assessed by measuring an elephant’s health or levels of hormones associated with stress.  But we can also measure welfare by observing an animal’s behaviour. Monitoring elephant behaviour over time allows facilities to understand how different changes – such as changes in elephant management, enclosures, or social groups -- affect their elephants’ welfare. This provides key information to facilities caring for elephants, helping them to find out how to provide the best possible standards of care, and work toward positive well-being for the elephants in their care.

However, keepers needed a suitable tool for this: something which doesn’t take much time to use and which has been rigorously scientifically validated, so that we can be confident in the results from this tool. And so, the Elephant Behavioural Welfare Assessment Tool (EBWAT) was born!

Over the last decade, the Elephant Welfare Project, a team of academics from the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, led by Dr Lisa Yon, has worked with elephant keepers, animal welfare scientists and non-governmental organisations based all over the world, to develop and validate a tool (read how we did it here) which lets keepers use their behavioural observations to assess and monitor their elephants’ welfare. Our tool was co-developed with keepers, managers, veterinarians, animal welfare scientists and colleagues studying elephant behaviour in wild Asian and African elephants. It makes use of the skills and knowledge of elephant keepers, and utilises routine daily observations of their animals. The tool is designed to be quick and simple to use during keepers’ busy routines.

Since 2015, the EBWAT has been routinely used by zoos and wildlife parks caring for elephants across the UK, and at facilities internationally, to monitor behaviour and welfare of elephants, and to assess changes in welfare over time.  It was designed to capture not only behaviours which may indicate something is wrong, but also to evaluate indicators of positive welfare, and a good quality of life, which is something few – if any – elephant welfare tools currently do. Innovative monitoring such as this can put organisations caring for elephants in a place to lead the world in the care for their elephant herds.

Big News for 2022

This year we have developed the EBWAT into a FREE android app. This makes it faster and easier for keepers to complete behavioural assessments, which they can enter straight onto the app.  Once they submit a completed EBWAT assessment,  they  receive an automated report with their elephants’ scores in tables and graphs. The reports allow facilities to see trends their elephants’ behaviour and welfare over time and report customisation allows them to focus in on key details of interest for their herd.   This is a really important part of providing a thriving future for elephants in zoos and safari parks.

This data is invaluable. We are asking ask every facility that uses the app to support our continuing research by agreeing to permit our Elephant Welfare Project to make use of their anonymised data. Combined data from participating facilities forms one of the largest repositories of captive elephant behavioural data in the world and will enable us to further understand and improve captive elephant welfare. We will scientifically evaluate the anonymised information to learn how elephant behaviour is influenced by their individual circumstances, then we can provide better advice to elephant facilities on what they can do to encourage positive welfare in their elephants. Ultimately, these ongoing research efforts will increase our understanding of what is needed to provide the best possible welfare for captive elephants all around the globe.

The Future

We want to take the next steps in rolling out this app but we need your help. We are aiming to get the app produced in different languages, which will increase its use in other countries, thus improving the welfare of elephants all over the world and conserving these majestic giants for the future.

If you share in our mission to support the future of elephants in zoos, safari parks and sanctuaries you can find out more about the Elephant Welfare Project and how you can support us  and our fundraising efforts via our website, and follow our updates on Twitter (@WelfareElephant), Facebook  @theelephantwelfareproject and Instagram  (@elephantwelfareproject).


Dr Lisa Yon and Dr Jess Rendle

School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham

All blogs reflect the views of their author and are not a reflection of BIAZA's positions.