Last fall, myself and two other members of the Zoo’s Elephant team had the incredible opportunity to travel to India for two weeks to consult with Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation Center. This adventure brought us to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal and home of 18 rescued elephants (ages 7 to 60) that now reside at the Center. Here, we were asked to assist the veterinarians and mahouts (elephant caretakers) with elephant foot care, positive reinforcement training techniques, implementing new enrichment opportunities and assessing the facilities.
The Training Game
We began with one of the most important aspects of elephant care--training! Training is extremely important to encourage the elephants to voluntarily participate in their own medical and husbandry care. To show the mahouts just how fun training can be, we started off with a few rounds of “The Training Game” where the mahouts were able to apply the concepts and train each other before training the elephants. By teaching the mahouts how to use positive reinforcement training, they were able to begin working towards behaviors such as trunk washes, voluntary blood draws and regular foot care to improve the welfare of their elephants. One of the most rewarding experiences of the trip was seeing the excitement on the mahouts’ faces as they began to successfully train in new ways.
Another important part of our journey was showing the Wildlife SOS staff that enrichment is as equally rewarding as it is important for the care of the elephants. We worked together with the mahouts to construct several “hay nets” that we filled with sugar cane and hung high in the elephant habitats. The mahouts were so excited to see the elephants showing natural foraging behavior and reaching up high to pull out the sugar cane. Seeing the hay nets in use was a great jump start to get the mahouts thinking of other ways to creatively spice up the routine of the elephants in their care.
At the end of our stay, we took a short trip to Jim Corbett National Park where we hoped to see native Indian wildlife, including wild Asian elephants. After spotting paw prints in the sand and hearing vocalizations, we saw a tiger walking through the tall grasses. This sighting was amazing, but what we saw next truly took our breath away. We came across a herd of more than 30 elephants grazing in a clearing just before sundown. Seeing this herd of all ages and sizes was something that I will never forget. It helped me remember just how lucky we are to work with our own amazing herd of elephants every day at the OKC Zoo and how important it is to do all we can to save these invaluable, endangered animals.
– Rachel Emory, Zoo elephant caretaker