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From Sabah to Tennessee – Skills Transfer for Elephant Care Staff


From Sabah to Tennessee – Skills Transfer for Elephant Care Staff

In a milestone event, requiring months of logistical planning, two elephant care staff from a facility in Sabah made the mammoth journey to Tennessee to take part in a skills transfer programme. Jofred Lansou (Fred), the elephant care supervisor, and Ruhaaizam (Ijam) Bin Ruslam are part of the 6-person team that care for a total of 13 elephants at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park in Sabah, East Malaysia. Accompanied by Wild Welfare (U.S.) director, Margaret Whittaker, they travelled to the USA in August to embark upon a month-long immersive training scheme to increase their skills and knowledge.

The skills transfer programme was a joint operation, set up by animal welfare charity Wild Welfare and The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where the two elephant staff were based for the duration of the programme. Aiming to enhance Fred and Ijam’s confidence and expertise, the primary objective of the programme was to provide hands-on learning opportunities in comprehensive protected contact management and care of elephants including positive reinforcement training, enrichment provision and foot care.

Protected contact is a system for managing elephants which uses positive reinforcement training as the primary method to modify behaviour. Voluntary cooperation of the animal is gained through the use of rewards, and positioning is directed by targets with trainers functioning outside of the elephant social hierarchy.

“The development of skill sets is a vital component of Wild Welfare’s work.  We are thrilled by this collaboration between The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and the Sabah Wildlife Department as it’s a critical step towards improving the standards of elephant care in Sabah.” Dave Morgan, Field Director, Wild Welfare International.

Fred and Ijam arriving in Tennessee.

The Wild Welfare team provided considerable assistance with necessary preparations for Fred and Ijam’s long journey to Tennessee from Sabah, including visa acquisition process, travel arrangements, and COVID-19 requirements for international travel.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee team were able to show Fred and Ijam how elephants are taught to present different body parts such as feet, ears and tusks through a training wall as part of their comprehensive care program. This is done using verbal cues, targets and favourite snacks to ensure the training is a positive experience for the elephant. Individualised care plans to meet the specific needs of each elephant were also discussed.

Having never seen an African elephant before, Fred and Ijam were very happy to have hands on experience caring for this species in comparison to the Asian elephants which they work with at Lok Kawi. Application of these learning encounters can be taken back to the Sabah facility to guide and influence care practices long into the future.

Fred and Ijam were exposed to and fully participated in the Sanctuary’s comprehensive and robust enrichment program; they provided daily enrichment to the elephants and built new items such as rope bags to hold and suspend hay and puzzle feeders made of tires. When it came to a specific enrichment item, Fred and Ijam had a favourite that they wished they could take home with them: “The big red Boomer ball for enrichment! There are many young elephants at Lok Kawi, and it would be very good for them to play with this.” Enrichment programmes aim to encourage behavioural opportunities such as play, natural feeding, investigation/problem solving and manipulation, and improve physical fitness by strengthening muscles during activities.

The Wild Welfare team introduced the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park team to enrichment concepts during a 2019 workshop. Since then, Fred and Ijam have seized the opportunity to continue learning about enrichment options for elephants. They returned from the Sanctuary visit with renewed vigour, and have since been building a number of new enrichment items for the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park elephants, providing daily opportunities for them to play, forage and investigate.

The Wild Welfare team is passionate about providing opportunities to upskill and empower animal care staff to ensure that animal welfare is the biggest influence on care and management decisions. By providing opportunities for practical, as well as theoretical learning, the welfare experienced by the elephants under Jofred and Ijam’s care will continue to improve, allowing the elephants to thrive.

An elephant at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park interacting with a new enrichment device.