Research Article: Prevalence and determinants of stereotypic behaviours and physiological stress among tigers and leopards in Indian zoos

Date Published: April 17, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Janice Vaz, Edward J. Narayan, R. Dileep Kumar, K. Thenmozhi, Krishnamoorthy Thiyagesan, Nagarajan Baskaran, Govindhaswamy Umapathy.


India’s charismatic wildlife species are facing immense pressure from anthropogenic-induced environmental perturbations. Zoos play a major role in the conservation of threatened species, but their adaptation in captivity is posing a major challenge globally. Stress from inadequate adaptation could lead to suppression of cognitive functioning and increased display of stereotypic behaviour. It is thus necessary to measure biological traits like behaviour, stress physiology, and contextual factors driving the animals maintained at zoos. In this study, we assessed stereotypic behaviour and stress physiology employing standard behaviour scoring, non-invasive stress monitoring, and their contextual drivers in a sub-population of two large felid species managed in six Indian zoos. The prevalence and intensity of stereotypic behaviours and levels of faecal corticosterone metabolites (FCM) were ascertained among 41 Royal Bengal tigers Panthera tigris tigris and 21 Indian leopards Panthera pardus fusca between April 2014 and March 2015. Behavioural observations showed that tigers spent more time stereotyping (12%) than leopards (7%) during daylight hours. Stress levels assessed using FCM revealed that tigers (23.6 ± 1.62 ng/g) had marginally lower level of corticosterone metabolites than leopards (27.2 ±1.36 ng/g). Stereotypic behaviour increased significantly with FCM level when the effect of heath status was controlled in tigers, and the effects tree cover, stone, den and keeper attitude controlled in leopards. Comparison of stereotypes of tigers with various biological and environmental factors using binary logistic regression revealed that stereotypic prevalence decreased with increased enclosure size, and enclosure enrichments like presence of pools and stones, when managed socially with conspecifics, and with positive keeper attitude, these factors accounting for 43% of variations in stereotypic prevalence among tigers. Stereotype among leopards was significantly absent when associated with increased tree cover and presence of pool, and den in the enclosure, age and among zoo-born than wild-born ones. These factors explain 81% of variations in stereotypic prevalence in them. A comparison of FCM levels with context-dependent factors revealed that stress levels among tigers decreased significantly with enclosure size and with individuals from nil to low, and severity of health issues. These factors explain 64% of variations in FCM levels. In leopards, the presence of stones in the enclosure and keepers with positive attitude resulted in significant decrease in FCM levels, these factors together accounting for 94% of variations. Multiple regressions on selected variables based on Factor Analysis of Mixed Data showed that in tigers the intensity of stereotype decreased significantly with enclosure size, sociality and positive keeper attitude and FCM level with health problems. Similarly, analyses in leopards revealed that intensity of stereotype decreased significantly with tree cover, age and FCM level with positive keeper attitude. Overall, our study suggests that to reduce stereotypes and stress level, tigers in captivity should be managed in larger enclosures enriched with pool, and stones, and in appropriate social conditions with adequate veterinary care. Leopards should be managed in enclosures with dense tree cover, pool, stones and den. Positive keeper attitude plays a crucial role in the welfare of both the species in captivity. Our study is promising and is comparable with their natural behaviour in the wild; for example, tigers require larger natural habitats, while leopards can manage even with smaller isolated patches but with dense vegetation cover.

Partial Text

Anthropogenic-induced environmental perturbations often impose immense pressure on Indian wildlife, especially on wide-ranging and charismatic species like tiger Panthera tigris [1–2]. In such a scenario, zoos would play a vital role in the conservation of such threatened species through captive breeding, research and education. However, many zoos around the world keep animals confined to small spaces compared to their wide-ranging peers in the wild. Due to spatial constraints the captive environments have difficulty in providing the ideal setting for their natural behaviour like hunting (the “hide, stalk and chase”) [3] resulting in welfare issues among captive animals [4]. Animal welfare science is a growing scientific discipline with great potential through which basic behavioural sciences are integrated with physiology, immunology and pathology to enable new-found knowledge to better the animals’ lives [5]. Animals in captivity exhibit abnormal behaviour due to poor welfare, since behaviour is an animal’s “first line of defence” in response to environmental change, i.e., what animals do to interact with, respond to, and control their environment [6]. Stereotypes have long been regarded as one such abnormal behaviours associated with sub-optimal environment for animals in captivity and indicators of stress due to poor welfare conditions of captive animals [7–8] any abnormal behaviour among captive animals should be addressed effectively. Stereotypic behaviour can be described as a pattern of movement such as pacing and head bobbing that is performed repeatedly, relatively invariant in form, and has no apparent function or goal [9]. Under captive condition, stereotypic behaviour is influenced by various contextual factors including elements of the enclosure [10–11], construction noise [12], animal care routines [13–16] and isolation from maternal relatives and conspecifics [17–19]. However, stereotypes may not correspond to current wellbeing alone, as they might be a ‘‘scar” from their previous suboptimal environments as well [20–21].

We conclude that: (i) Large enclosures with psychological enrichments, viz., pool (with clean water) and stones, positive keeper attitude and proper health care are essential for tigers, and (ii) Enclosure enrichments with abundant tree cover, presence of pool, stones, and den, and positive keeper attitude are important for leopards, to ensure their welfare and visitors’ satisfaction of seeing them behave naturally in captivity. The results of the present study could help to refine captive protocols for big cats among zoos, where similar conditions prevail. We suggest the following remedial measures:




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