Close up of an elephant looking through the bars of a zoo enclosure

Elephant-Free UK

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ELEPHANT-FREE UK

Born Free is calling for the keeping of elephants in UK zoos to be phased out.

Released in 2023, our heart-wrenching short film ‘Enough is Enough’ reflects on the life and death of Pole Pole, the African elephant who was taken from the wild in Kenya as little more than an infant, and whose death in the Elephant House at London Zoo on 17 October 1983 at the tender age of 16 inspired the founding of ‘ZooCheck’, the charity that became Born Free, the following year.

Back then, there were 20 zoos in the UK keeping around 50 elephants, of which 44 had been taken from the wild. Sadly, in spite of expert reports, campaigns, petitions and parliamentary debates, nothing much has changed. Today, there are still 53 elephants in 11 zoos across the UK.

Captivity cannot possibly provide elephants with what they want or what they need. Zoos and other captive facilities cannot replicate the highly complex social and physical environment that elephants have evolved to live in.

Enough is enough. Born Free is calling for a phase out. We want an elephant-free UK.

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Play video An animated image of a mother and baby elephant

Enough is Enough

Voiced by our Founder Patron Dame Joanna Lumley, Enough is Enough tells the story of Pole Pole, the young elephant whose tragic true story inspired the creation of Born Free. Created by award-winning animator Andrew D Morgan, this short film highlights the plight of elephants in zoos that continues today.

The British public have spoken – they want an elephant-free UK

A 2019 survey, carried out on behalf of Born Free, indicated that more than half (56%) of the UK public polled think elephants should not be kept in zoos. In 2022, another survey commissioned by Born Free found that over three quarters (76%) of UK residents believe that the next UK government should end the keeping of large animals in zoos.

In May 2022, Born Free launched a groundbreaking new report exposing the reality of elephants exploited in captivity, and calling on zoos to become elephant-free.

An elephant stands behind a low fence, three people are stood on the near side of the fence reaching out to touch the elephant

How You Can Help

Born Free is calling for the keeping of elephants in UK zoos to be phased out over time. To make this a reality, we are calling on the government to ban the import of elephants into the UK and ban captive breeding of elephants in the UK, and help the remaining elephants in the UK have the best possible conditions for the rest of their lives.

Please help by signing and sharing our petition.

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What problems do captive elephants face?

Captive elephants face a wide range of issues, from being highly social creatures forced to live solitary lives, to a myriad of health problems caused by life in captivity. Explore these issues in more depth below.

A elephant paces a zoo enclosure on its own

Elephants are supremely complex, social animals, whose natural biology and behaviour is based on living within closely-bonded matriarchal herds. The keeping of elephants alone in zoos is proof that the current zoo system is flawed. There are many explanations and excuses offered why captive elephants may be kept isolated and alone, including disease, behavioural problems, or a lack of suitable companions or facilities in which to house them. However, elephants in the wild, particularly females, do not live alone and every solitary elephant is a victim of a captive system that has let every one of them down.

In 2013, Born Free published the damning report Innocent Prisoner, which exposed the suffering elephants living in solitary confinement throughout Europe endure. We discovered there were over 40 elephants housed alone in zoos, circuses and private facilities across Europe. Today, two elephants are still kept alone in UK zoos.

Watch the award-winning short documentary The Elephant in the Room, produced in association with Born Free, uncovering the plight of solitary captive elephants in Europe.

HERPES

An elephant with herpes

Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) is an infectious type of herpes virus found only in elephants. Symptoms include swelling of the head and trunk, ulceration of the mouth and internal haemorrhaging. Asian elephants between one and eight years old are particularly susceptible to death from EEHV haemorrhagic disease. It is a significant cause of mortality in zoos, responsible for around half of all juvenile Asian elephant fatalities in Europe and North America. There is currently no vaccine or reliable cure.

The virus may be present in many elephants without any symptoms being visible. The disease can be triggered by stress, for example, early weaning and transfers of other elephants between zoos.

While there is evidence that the disease may also be present in wild populations, it is not associated with the mortality of the magnitude seen in captive Asian elephants.


TUBERCULOSIS

A lone elephant walks towards the camera in a zoo enclosure

Tuberculosis (TB) in elephants is generally caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis and M. bovis species of pathogenic bacteria. This disease, which causes weakness and weight loss, is spread by airborne infected droplets, and appears to be an increasing problem in captivity. In recent years, TB has evolved into much more deadly drug resistant strains. TB in elephants is particularly significant as the disease can be transmitted to and from humans.


SKIN PROBLEMS

An elephant with skin problems

An elephant’s skin is very sensitive to the sun and in the wild, individuals will use mud or a dust bath to protect their skin. This also helps keep the skin in good condition, which is important in regulating body temperature and maintaining skin flexibility. Since captive elephants may have little or no access to dust baths or mud wallows, they are often unable to protect themselves and skin problems may arise as a result. Prolonged periods of time in indoor enclosures creates the opportunity for the development of pathological skin conditions not seen in the wild. Captive elephants living in countries with colder climates like the UK may have to spend longer periods of time indoors if it is too cold to be outside. The enclosure may be heated, which can dry out skin. Standing or lying in the same space where an animal urinates and defecates may further exacerbate skin problems.


OBESITY

An overweight elephant in a zoo enclosure

Captive elephants are subject to a relatively limited and controlled diet, dependent on provisioning by keepers. Unlike their wild counterparts, food may be easily accessible and requires little energy or time to process. This, coupled with limited opportunities for physical exercise in small enclosures, contributes to the prevalence of obesity in captive populations. A 2008 report found that 92% of elephants in UK zoos were overweight.


JOINT & FOOT PROBLEMS

Close up of an elephant's foot

Joint and foot problems are common in zoo elephants, and may be the result of excessive body weight, lack of exercise and inadequate flooring. Excess weight bearing down on joints and feet can damage leg ligaments and contribute to arthritis, which can be very painful. In 2008, the majority of elephants in zoos were found to have foot problems and walking difficulties. Many elephants in UK zoos were found to have an obvious limp or lameness, an issue that has continued to be documented. In 2019, a study found that 98.5% of elephants observed in European zoos were affected by at least one foot issue. Such issues are also exacerbated by the UK climate.

Close up of a person's hand holding a bullhook with an elephant's trunk in the foregound

Current national zoo legislation within the UK still permits “free contact” (no safety barriers between elephant and keeper) and the use of bullhooks. Free contact places keepers at risk and traditionally relies on the use of an ankus or bullhook (a sturdy stick with a curved, pointed metal tip). The bullhook is frequently referred to as a guide, yet this method of handling elephants relies on coercion and the reinforcement of painful or aversive stimuli. Free contact handling can and has resulted in keeper injury and death.

Protected contact systems, where the keeper and the elephant are separated by a barrier, is preferable to free contact. While elephants are in captivity, only positive, reward-based training should be used to enable procedures to be performed co-operatively, such as the examination of body parts and veterinary procedures.

Close of up a baby elephant's head in front of it's mother's body

Born Free is calling for a moratorium on the breeding of elephants in UK zoos.

UK zoos are currently unable to successfully breed enough elephants to maintain their populations, meaning that elephants continue to be imported to maintain zoo exhibits.

Many captive female elephants have low fertility rates and are unable to conceive, even after repeatedly mating. Possible causes of shortened reproductive life in zoo females are an increase in pathologies of the reproductive system, for example, ovarian cysts, excess body fat and an early onset of puberty.

No captive-born elephants have been returned to the wild from UK zoos.

Two elephants stand at a fence, with one draping it's trunk over the fence

(c) Mike Dooley

Elephants in zoos often display abnormal, stereotypic behaviours, such as repetitive swaying or head-bobbing linked to small and impoverished captive environments. Elephants are wide-ranging, intelligent and highly social. In the wild, they may travel many miles each day, engaging in active foraging and social interactions in their family groups. In zoos, elephants are kept in relatively small enclosures, mostly in small, inappropriate groups or even alone. The current median UK zoo enclosure size for elephants is 0.008km2, just slightly larger than a football pitch. In comparison, the smallest home ranges are 14km2 and 34km2 for wild African and Asian elephants respectively, with some African elephants ranging over 10,000km2.

In 2008, a study of elephants in British zoos found more than half displayed stereotypic behaviour during the daytime, and some displayed stereotypic behaviour for up to 60% of each 24-hour period. In 2016, a study looking at the behaviour of 89 elephants in 39 North American zoos, found that stereotypic behaviour was the second most commonly performed behaviour (after feeding).

Find Out More About Stereotypic Behaviour