Scientific Research

Understanding Elephant Behaviour & Biology

Laboratory and Field Work at ECC

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Endocrinology laboratory

In 2018, thanks to the Australian embassy, we were able to set up an Endocrinology laboratory in Sayaboury. Through the support of the Australian Embassy and the Smithsonian Institute, one of our biologist was able to travel to the United States and be trained over three months in Endocrinology research. This is the first laboratory established in Laos for the purpose of conservation research. With this laboratory we will continue a partnership with the Smithsonian Institute, to further enhance our breeding programme as well as develop future studies on hormonal contributions to elephant behaviour.

Why do we need a Laboratory in Laos?

Female elephants are fertile only 1-4 days every 4 months, so to time breeding correctly is critical. Another problem is that elephants of both sexes often exhibit a lack of sexual interest. However, much of that may be because individuals are not put together at the right time. The need to breed captive elephants in Laos is particularly urgent because females are aging and can have complications. When they are older they become susceptible to uterine fibroids and ovarian cysts. These growths may prevent eggs to attach to the uterine lining.

The success or failure of any breeding program depends, in part, on using available technology to assess reproductive activity. Routine endocrine monitoring is now viewed as a valuable tool for making informed decisions about the management of elephants (J. Brown, Zoo Biology 19:347-367, 2000).

Our goal is to increase the number of elephant births in Laos. Until now, there were no laboratories in Laos where we could send our samples. For that reason, the Elephant Conservation Center have set up their own endocrinology laboratory, allowing our teams to monitor the estrous cycle of the female elephants.

What will it mean for the elephants?

The benefits of the project will last for many years to come. Improved staff capacity and new knowledge generated on the reproductive status of the elephants at the ECC will lead to more successful mating and births in future years. These births will directly address the inadequate replacement rate currently plaguing the captive elephant population in Laos. This will directly contribute to the conservation of this population in the future. In addition, habitat loss due to forest fragmentation is likely to increase the incidence of inbreeding within wild populations. Hence, breeding of captive elephants can play an important role in maintaining genetic diversity (Thitaram, 2009). Lastly, the ECC will become a leader in the reproductive management of elephants in Laos. We will create a model for other elephant facilities in Asia to adopt.

We also use this laboratory for research purposes. Studies of stress, nutrition and their impact on health and reproduction are included in our research programme.

Male Research

Male elephants are dying out in Laos. A captive elephant is considered a farm animal, thus having the same rights as a cow, chicken, or pig. With little work left in the logging industry and difficulty in management at tourist camps, male elephants are being left to die. For most owners, it is the only financial solution they can think of, to allow their males to die in the forest and then sell off their parts. As both males and females are needed to maintain a population, we have to work to preserve the remainder of the male population in Laos, or risk losing a huge amount of genetic diversity in the population. The research being done at the center is intended to create a better management program for captive males and a safer work environment for their mahouts.

As we now know, males are not completely solitary, but instead maintain loose associations with each other. To help simulate this structure while at the Center, we are having them socialize with each other, as well as with females to see if they are capable of becoming breeding males. All of these structural changes are being closely monitored by hormonal research, specifically cortisol and testosterone, to help us better understand and predict when musth will occur. The eventual hope is that creating this safe structure for males and mahouts, encourages more people to allow males in their camps.