The welfare status of elephants under human care has been a contentious issue for two decades or more in numerous western countries. Much effort has gone into assessing the welfare of captive elephants at individual and population levels with little consensus having been achieved in relation to both the welfare requirements of captive elephants, or their absolute welfare status. A methodology capable of identifying the psychological priorities of elephants would greatly assist in both managing and assessing captive elephant welfare. Here, a Delphi-based Animal Welfare Priority Identification System© (APWIS©) is trialled to evaluate the reliability of the methodology and to determine the welfare significance of individual behaviours and cognitive processes for Asian elephants (Elaphus maximus). APWIS© examines the motivational characteristics, evolutionary significance and established welfare impacts of individual behaviours and cognitive processes of each species being assessed. The assessment carried out here indicates appetitive behaviours essential for survival in the wild, together species-specific social and cognitive opportunities are likely to be important to the welfare of Asian elephant in captivity. The output of this assessment, for the first time, provides comprehensive species-specific psychological/welfare priorities for Asian elephants that should be used to inform husbandry guidelines, habitat design and management strategies and can also provide a valuable reference tool for Asian elephant welfare assessment. The effective application of these insights could lead to substantive improvements in captive Asian elephant welfare.
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