Capturing elephants from wild hampers their reproduction: Study

Capturing elephants to keep in captivity not only hinders their reproduction for over a decade, but also has a negative effect on their calves, according to a study on Asian pachyderms that may help improve conservation efforts.

Scientists from the University of Sheffield in the UK have found long-lasting negative effects on the reproduction of Asian elephants captured from the wild and kept in captivity.

Asian elephants caught from the wild were less likely to reproduce in their lifetime and started reproducing later, with these reductions lasting for over a decade, according to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In the joint study with the University of Turku in Finland and the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), researchers also found that this had a negative effect on the next generation, with calves born to captured mothers having reduced survival rates.

About 16,000 Asian elephants are held in captivity in countries like Myanmar, India and Thailand, mainly used to drag logs in the timber industry or for tourism, researchers said.

To sustain these industries, elephants continue to be captured from the wild, but the long term impact of this for the elephants is less studied, they said.

With so many wild animals kept in captivity, often to try and protect threatened species, understanding how captivity affects animals in the long term is important to improve conservation efforts.

"Conservation programmes that include captive breeding or captive management need to consider that taking individuals from the wild can influence animals for many years, and this may hinder future conservation efforts," said John Jackson, lead author of the study and PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield.

"The finding of long-lasting negative effects of capturing wild animals is important not only to sustain elephant populations in the future, but also for many other species that are taken from the wild," Jackson said.

Professor Virpi Lummaa, Associate at the University of Sheffield from the University of Turku said the key finding of the study is that the negative effects of taking animals out of the wild can last for decades, and have knock on effects for generations in captivity.

"This is something conservationists have to consider when capturing animals, because even if we re-create good conditions in captivity, the animals may still struggle to reproduce," Lummaa said.

The researchers also looked at the reasons why the calves of captured elephants suffered.

"We think that the stress imposed by the capture of elephants, which can negatively influence a whole host of processes in the animal such as the development of the foetus, body condition and social interactions, is the key reason we see such big reductions in reproduction," said Mirkka Lahdenpera, PhD researcher and co-lead of the study from the University of Turku.