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New UK Based Study is Damning to Elephants in Zoos

by amanda on December 12, 2008 · 1 comment

in news


A new report says that housing elephants in zoos can shorten their lifespan by as much as half and calls for zoos to step up to the plate and better the life of their elephant populations.

A study author says: “Currently zoos are consumers rather than producers of elephants,” citing that life in zoos leads to lower lifespans, higher infant mortality and other health problems. You can read the study in Science Magazine.

I’m on the fence about the elephant issue myself, but I do have a problem with Science’s excerpt:

“A sign that the animals aren’t thriving is that zoos are not able to maintain their elephant populations without importing new, wild-caught animals,” says Ros Clubb, a wildlife biologist at England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London.

I don’t know about UK zoos, but in US zoos, elephants are traded among AZA zoos and not imported. AZA is against importing animals from the wild. The senior vice president for conservation and education at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said he could not recall the last time elephants were imported into the U.S. for a zoo in an interview about this study.

Much of the data used in the study is very old and it’s likely trends have changed at least a little with zoos enhanced knowledge and care. The study does note that improvements have been made in elephant husbandry over the past few years, but claims that elephants in captivity are still at a disadvantage.

Interestingly, the paper suggests that the moving and trading of elephants in captive situations is part of the blame for their reduced lifespan. In the wild, elephants form close knit family groups and the females normally stay with their mothers for life. This doesn’t happen very often in zoos (even in the US).

The study suggests that imports of elephants should be limited to zoos that can adequately treat their unique problems (space, social aspects, etc), that transfers of elephants from one zoo to another be limited and that breeding should only be attempted by institutions that have had success in the past.

I agree with their conclusion. I think too many zoos have and breed elephants (and elephant herpes is a whole other can of worms). I also think that most zoos do not have the ideal conditions to support elephants. It seems that AZA is moving towards only having elephants at larger facilities. For example, their regulations include:

Since a self-sustaining North American elephant population is a goal, then all new and renovated elephant facilities should be bull compatible. Breeding centers should be established, either at institutions capable of holding multiple bulls or as regional centers. The feasibility of cooperative bull holding facilities should also be studied.

It may be the design of the suggestion, but holding a bull elephant (or multiple bulls) would not be feasible in many zoos that currently display elephants.

Many zoos are already getting out of the elephant “business,”, which I actually think is good. I love zoos and I do think they teach us a lot, but we should not teach at the expense of the animals well being. If a zoo cannot sufficiently provide for the animal, they shouldn’t host them. As I said, most zoos cannot provide for a herd of elephants.

I’ve talked to a lot of elephant staff members over the years. They love them. Some of the most passionate keepers you can talk to are elephant keepers. They care about them and wild populations. Most are just as concerned about captive elephant well-being as “elephant activists.” Perhaps someday the two groups will meet in the center.

Until then, elephants are surely the most controversial issue in zoos all over the world.

**Edit***
Carrie pointed out in the comments that elephants have bee imported into US Zoos as recently as 2003. The LA Times has an archived story and also an article after the import from IDAUsa, an activist group. It was stated that for 15 years before that incident, no elephants had been imported.

I still disagree with the assertation that “zoos are not able to maintain their elephant populations without importing new, wild-caught animals.” Eleven elephants in 20 years isn’t really enough to replenish the population. Though it does seem that while AZA doesn’t ordinarily encourage the importation of wild animals, they did in this case.

The most ridiculous part of the LA times article is this, “There was also an importation in 1991 of several African elephants to entertainer Michael Jackson, Olson said.” Who ever thought that was a good idea?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carrie December 12, 2008 at 3:15 pm

Elephants were imported from Africa just a few years ago. They went to Lowery Park Zoo in Tampa and San Diego Wild Animal Park. The AZA executive should remember that. It was extremely controversial.

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