Today was the first warm day since I’ve arrived, so I am able to sit outside at this adorable cafe on the farm. Here at the park, there is a resident research team known as AERU: African Elephant Research Unit. AERU was established in 2009 due to a lack of research on captive elephants. They are actually the first research unit focused on captive elephants in South Africa! AERU aims to better the welfare and husbandry for captive elephants based on the environment they are in. AERU is a registered nonprofit, using volunteers to collect the majority of data. Data is collected based on the elephants feeding habits, daily activity, general behavior, and veterinary and biological aspects. The data collected is used to identify odd behavior within the herd and better their livelihood. Volunteers spend time in the field examining herd activity, interactions between elephants, individual behaviors, and feeding behaviors. For example, elephants in captivity display certain behaviors due to stress and unnatural environments. AERU was able to study the behavior of the elephants, identify trends of activities that could be the cause of the behavior, and then eliminate or avoid the trigger. AERU was able to decrease stereotypical behavior in Sally’s heard by 80 percent! Her herd hasn’t displayed any stereotypical behaviors since May 2015.
Not only does AERU better the lives of their resident herd but captive elephants around the world as well. Reserves and other elephant parks contact the Knysna Elephant Park for assistance with their captive elephants. They help when they can, but it is often learned that each elephant is different. What one elephant loves might not help another. Instead of specific ways to solve the problems, the techniques and research methods used are being shared to assist other parks in bettering the welfare of their elephants.
It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding to be helping make these animals’ lives better. If they can’t be in the wild where they belong, the least we can do is make their captive lives as best as possible.