Setting up an African Elephant “BQA”

Elephant handler training an elephant to retrieve a brush for a verbal or range cube reward. These elephants have had the basics down for years, but 6 am training sessions occur every morning to keep the elephants and handlers sharp. This one is learning to discriminate between a hat and a brush, and to give it back to the handler in exchange for several range cubes. Ted participated in all aspects of their program, including taking all-night behavioral observations.

Ted Friend, retired Professor Emeritus in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University, recently returned from two weeks near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, helping to get the private owners of elephants in Southern Africa organized to start an animal welfare assurance program, similar to the successful BQA.  The populations of elephants in the federal parks in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries soared to the point of necessitating a major culling program 20 years ago, and the parks are similarly becoming overcrowded with elephants again.  Private land owners were offered the opportunity of adopting and raising baby elephants that were destined to be culled, and often adopted baby elephants whose mothers had been poached for ivory.  Training the young elephants to give tourists rides is relatively easy and similar to training young horses.  It is very different from the traditional Asian model of capturing and “breaking” mature elephants from the wild.  Giving tourists elephant rides into the bush to view wildlife generates more income than merely viewing the elephants, and the rides and related activities employ many local people, which is significant in a country with over 80% unemployment.

Although the 10 rescued elephants who were giving tourists rides where Ted stayed were on a 10,000 acre tract of land that was not completely fenced, they had to be constantly herded by four elephant handlers to a new location to forage or they would overgraze an area, just like cattle or sheep. The strategically located water hole attracted game, including wild elephants, from all over the region.

Their problem is that animal activist groups have recently begun targeting the southern Africa riding operations, painting the Zimbabwe operations with the same brush as those in Asia, although those in Asia have dramatically improved over the last two decades.  Activist groups have gained traction with travel agents and booking companies to the extent that if a Zimbabwe-based company also offers white water rafting, bungee jumping and safaris, but in addition offers elephant rides, the booking company will move the bookings to a company that does not offer elephant rides.

This elephant is reaching up with its trunk to get a range cube. The saddles were more comfortable than any horse saddle Ted has used.

During the three day workshop near Victoria Falls, entitled “A Way Forward,” Ted gave a presentation showing how popular and valuable welfare certification programs have become in America for food animals, zoo animals, motion pictures, and attractions where people interact directly with animals. Zimbabwe and other southern African countries were British colonies, are English speaking, and rely heavily on the American market.  Ted’s second presentation led the audience through what a typical animal welfare certification and inspection program involves.  There is a lot of similarity between a program for dairy farms, a zoo, and elephant facilities, but any program needs to be credible and offer the stakeholders value.  A steering committee of stakeholders, including Ted, is now writing standards and an audit.  Many elephant ride operations already adhere to the standards of the Association of British Travel Agents; the elephant operators just need to reassure the public in a credible way.

Each night these elephants come into the corral (boma) for a pile of nice forage mixed with occasional melons, squash and other treats. It takes some impressive fencing to keep the wild elephants out of the boma area. In spite of this, a wild male broke through this fence and a similar interior fence that separated the irrigated fields that produce the forage and melons a few weeks ago. It took four men two hours, while also firing an occasional shot in the air, to chase that elephant out.


For more information regarding news from the Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M University, please contact Kaitlyn Harkin at or (979) 845-1542.

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