Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Elephants in UK and European Zoos

Captive elephant

Fat, lame and dying young – time to end the suffering

Two ground-breaking reports reveal the extent of the problems facing elephants in zoos in the UK and across Europe. Both studies serve to reiterate Born Free’s long-held conviction that captivity cannot possibly provide for the basic needs of these highly complex, wide-ranging and social animals.

A report by researchers from the University of Bristol commissioned by Defra reviews the considerable animal welfare problems exhibited by elephants in UK zoos, and reveals:

  • More than 80% of UK elephants have foot problems
  • More than 80% of UK elephants having walking difficulties
  • 23% of UK elephants were assessed as having an obvious limp or being severely lame
  • More than half of UK elephants displayed stereotypical behaviour during the daytime
  • Some individual UK elephants displayed stereotypical behaviour for up to 60% of a 24 hr period

Research looking at elephants in zoos across Europe shows shocking, yet not unexpected, findings: elephants in zoos do not live as long as their counterparts in the wild. Researchers Ros Clubb of the RSPCA, Georgia Mason, of the University of Guelph, and their co-authors, reveal that, on average, captive elephants can expect to live only half as long as elephants in the wild; captive-born Asian elephants were particularly likely to die young; and elephants transferred between zoos are at increased risk of dying. Overall, the study reveals that the captive population in Europe is an unsustainable drain on wild populations, with one of the researchers labeling zoos as consumers of elephants.

The situation in North America appears to be distressingly similar – for example, infant mortality rates in the North American captive Asian and African elephant populations are near 40%; and to date, there have been 31 cases of elephant herpes virus (a generally fatal disease thought to be exacerbated by captivity).

Born Free believes that this new evidence should be the final straw that leads to an end to the keeping of these animals in zoos. Zoos can no longer deny the problems, and the only compassionate and humane answer is to stop keeping elephants in zoos.

Anything less would be a travesty.

For further information, see:

The Welfare, Housing and Husbandry of Elephants in UK Zoos

Compromised Survivorship in Zoo Elephants – Science 322 (12 Dec 2008)


Born Free is calling for a humane phasing out of the keeping of elephants in zoos and circuses, to be achieved by:

  • A permanent end to further imports into Europe
  • No further breeding of elephants in captivity
  • Major improvements to welfare of those elephants already in captivity
  • Consolidation of elephants already in captivity into reasonable social groups and an end to the keeping of elephants alone

Write to Will Travers - Born Free CEO at Born Free Foundation, Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road, Horsham, West Sussex RH12 4QP

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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