An Enriched Elephant Herd

The kids enjoy an early-morning pool party.

The kids enjoy an early-morning pool party.

As chronicled in my last post, Tracking Safari Park Elephants, both keepers and researchers consistently strive to improve the welfare of our elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. One such way we can enhance welfare is through the use of enrichment. Enrichment provides our elephants with opportunities to engage in species-appropriate behaviors. Making changes to their social groupings, along with providing more variety in the types and amounts of browse food items given, has proved extremely beneficial. The separation and reuniting of individuals from yard to yard encourages heightened levels of social behavior. Access to bodies of water can encourage everything from taking a simple drink to providing a good place to cool off, and is occasionally a great venue for a full-on pool party!

Vus'Musi and Msholo spar.

Vus’musi and Msholo spar.

Our overarching aim is to maintain a high diversity of positive naturalistic behaviors: we want our elephants to be elephants, and it takes a lot of work to ensure they receive those opportunities. Every morning, keepers go over the plan for the day, and that plan always involves some type of enrichment. One of my personal favorites is when a fresh mud bog is made in the west yard, a task that requires much skill to produce the perfect consistency of mud. The elephants then get to spend the day wallowing, playing, and cooling off in it. Feeder puzzles are another fun device. Some are round while some are rectangular, and all are filled with alfalfa pellets or fresh hay. To get to the food product inside, the elephants have to kick, push, and use their heads (literally and figuratively!), all of which provides them with both mental and physical stimulation while satisfying their appetite.

Swazi reaches up to a hay pile above her head with Msholo, Mac, Emanti, Kami, and Qinisa nearby.

Swazi reaches up to a hay pile above her head with Msholo, Mac, Emanti, Kami, and Qinisa nearby.

Because enrichment is deployed every day, creative minds have to band together to keep the environment as unpredictable as possible. One recent example of this is the variety of produce that is now being introduced (such as romaine lettuce, cucumbers, and celery) to go along with the alfalfa pellets that the elephants receive. Another example is the frequent change in placement of common enrichment products. The Boomer Ball that was previously in the east yard may show up the next day in the pool of the west yard. Even celebrating the birthday of an elephant switches up the herd’s diet and overall schedule, and because it doesn’t happen every day, it is also a very enriching event.

There are many ways to keep the elephants both mentally and physically engaged with their environment, but all require teamwork, scattered scheduling, and creative minds. The next time you’re watching Elephant Cam or visiting our African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, keep an eye out for any interesting behaviors or interactions resulting from our enrichment efforts. Maybe M’sholo and Vus’musi will be playing in the pool. Perhaps Kami will be kicking around a feeder puzzle, or Swazi will munch on some alfalfa hay. Whichever behaviors you observe, you’ll be witnessing the results of our efforts to ensure that our herd is fully enriched!

Charlotte Hacker is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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