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A Mammoth Move for Bornean Elephant Herd

Fieldwork Update From Malaysia

A Mammoth Move for Bornean Elephant Herd

A momentous move for a group of elephants signals the start of a new chapter at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park in Sabah, Malaysia. The relocation from one enclosure to another took place in October and involved five adult females and three calves. The herd, including matriarch Komali have settled in well to the new area, enjoying the serenity of a quieter section of the park surrounded by forest on three sides.

The new space has many exciting opportunities for the elephants, from a brand new swimming pool to cool off in, to tall sand piles which the youngsters use for playing hide-and-seek and getting some climbing exercise. The family group have relished exploring the new area, especially young calf Turbo who enjoys zooming around the enclosure at top speed.

Dave Morgan, Wild Welfare Field Director, and Margaret Whittaker, Executive Director of Wild Welfare US were there to oversee the move as they previously consulted on the development plans and renovation work of the enclosure. Mike Graetz from Design for Life, Singapore developed the concept plan for the project.

Margaret and Elephants in New Enclosure

The move accomplished priority objectives that Wild Welfare US, in partnership with The Sabah Wildlife Department, identified. These include transitioning all elephants to Protected Contact (PC) management which is safer for both care staff and elephants, separating the males and females to prevent reproduction, and providing more space per elephant than what was previously available. Protected Contact (PC) uses positive reinforcement training as the primary method to modify behaviour. The elephant’s voluntary cooperation is gained by using rewards, and positioning is directed by targets with trainers functioning outside of the elephant social hierarchy. This is the first incidence of purpose-built protected contact training walls constructed in the region. There are training walls throughout the enclosure which enables staff to work with multiple elephants at a time, enabling everyone to learn together.

It’s magnificent to see the elephants exploring their new digs, and to watch them discover a new way to interact with their caregivers through this new management system. With the transition to protected contact, the staff feel very safe and happy, and are enjoying the elephants in a way they never imagined.” Margaret Whittaker, Executive Director of Wild Welfare US.

Dave and Margaret have been teaching the Lok Kawi staff the tools and tenets of PC management for several years, and recently were able to focus on training Ganesh (and his carers) for voluntary blood sampling. This involves teaching him to hold his ear out and allow needle insertion for blood collection which helps the team monitor his health. He is free to move away from the training at any time should he feel uncomfortable. This is the first time a truly voluntary blood draw has been accomplished in the region.

In addition to giving the female group more room and freedom, the new enclosure also affords the males more space. Ganesh was one of the first to enjoy this opportunity. He joined his old friend Katis, an adult male, in the enclosure vacated by the females which was a considerable change from the off-exhibit area where he had been living. Ganesh enjoyed socializing freely with Katis, roaming the larger space, and even had his first deep water bath in nearly a decade! Learn more about Ganesh’s story here.

Lok Kawi has a total of 16 elephants and thanks to the new enclosure, now has the use of two areas for their management and care. PC training is underway with each female having her own dedicated caregivers. All the females are showing great interest in the training and are progressing well, learning behaviours that directly enhance quality of care by enabling access for daily husbandry and veterinary needs. The curious calves are even getting in on the action and beginning to learn how to participate!

It’s delightful to witness the female elephants and their babies enjoying themselves and being trainable. Additionally, it’s great to see that the keepers can easily adapt to the new yard.” Nur’Ain Acheh, Senior Officer, Sabah Wildlife Department.

These definitive developments would not have been possible without the generous assistance from The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee who have supported the project since its inception.

Elephant and Calf in New Enclosure

Dave and Margaret will return to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park in January 2024. They will continue supporting the elephant care team as they learn more about implementing protected contact management. Both are eager to see how the staff and elephants have progressed as they all adjust to the new enclosure and management style, and resultant human-elephant partnership.


Notes to Editors

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Wild Welfare is a global organisation committed to improving animal welfare for captive wild animals. By uniting the world’s leading zoos, zoo associations and animal welfare organisations, we build trusting partnerships that help provide long-term solutions to critical wild animal welfare issues.

Our vision is a world where every captive wild animal is able to thrive and live a good life. Find out more at Registered charity in England (no.1165941).