Written by Andrea Pohlman
Designing and building enrichment for the elephants at the Elephant Conservation Center in Laos presented many challenges. As I mentioned in my last blog entries, supplies that are strong enough to withstand elephant play are extremely limited in Laos. I also wanted to keep in mind the big-picture goal of building relationships between the Center’s elephants so that they can create stronger bonds with each other. The Center’s biologist, Anabel, refers to this as re-herding.
In my time as an Elephant Care Professional, I have seen which toys our Houston herd enjoys the most and what behaviors these toys can encourage and discourage. I brought these ideas with me to Laos, and the Center’s elephants responded very positively to the toys that we created in my time there!
One of the favorite toys was a fire hose ball that I created with fire hose purchased from the local market and tires that the center already had. The elephants took turns playing with the fire hose ball, getting many hours of physical exercise as they pushed, pulled and threw it around the enrichment yard.
Another toy that provided hours of interaction was a puzzle feeder made from 2 tires-one large and one a bit smaller- tightly packed with food and tied together with natural materials. This toy proved to be especially important for relationship building between one more reserved elephant and the rest of the group. The first few days, Mae Khoun would immediately dig into the tire puzzle, but as the rest of the group came over to investigate, she would shy away and leave to stand by herself. As the days progressed, Mae Khoun began to stay closer to the group while allowing the other elephants to investigate her favorite toy. By the end of my visit, Mae Khoun was spending more time with the group, showing behaviors which indicated she was more comfortable and beginning to bond with the other elephants. As a retired logging elephant, Mae Khoun has not had the opportunity to create lasting relationships in the past, and this seems to have caused her to be more reserved. This is where enrichment can prove to be especially beneficial! By encouraging behaviors such as sharing, curiosity in the other elephant’s play, and learning from watching one another, we are encouraging a close bond to form within the Center’s herd.