Born Free raises concerns for Dublin Zoo’s elephants

Decision by Dublin Zoo to transfer some of its elephants to Cincinnati Zoo, USA, separating sisters and other family members in the process, raises serious concerns.

An elephant standing in a zoo enclosure

Dublin Zoo (c) Born Free

The transfer of two adult females and two juvenile male elephants from Dublin Zoo, Ireland, to Cincinnati Zoo, USA, in November has once again highlighted the tragic lives and brutal treatment that elephants experience in captivity. The transfer has resulted in the separation of SheRa (33) from her sister Bernhardine (39) along with their respective calves, resulting in cousins being split up and aunts being separated from nieces and nephews.  

The separation of elephant family members can result in physical, psychological and behavioural problems including depression, lethargy, anxiety and aggression.

The move was reportedly recommended by the International Breeding Programme. Born Free once again calls for the keeping of elephants in zoos to be phased out.

Elephants are highly intelligent, sentient beings with complex social bonds. Wild elephant societies are characterised by closely-knit female-led herds coming together to form bond groups and then breaking apart into families, or vice versa. Several bond groups may form a clan, with many clans forming a population.

The zoo environment does not allow for such social behaviours. Therefore, greater kin structuring within a captive group is considered positive for elephant welfare, by going at least a small way towards reflecting natural social structures. The transfer of a female elephant from Hellabrunn Zoo, Germany, to Zurich Zoo, Switzerland, which also took place in November, was justified on the grounds that it reunited the elephant with her mother and sister. The European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) has recommended that elephant families that have been separated should where possible be brought back together.

The situation involving Dublin Zoo’s elephants flies in the face of the EEP’s recommendation and has broken the kin structure that was in place.

While several news outlets in the US covered the arrival of the elephants, little mention was made of their departure in the Irish or British media. The transfers were also somewhat conspicuous by their absence on the zoo’s social own media channels. Instead, the zoo chose to use its social media to promote its ‘Wild Lights’ event.

The conditions the elephants will experience at Cincinnati Zoo also give rise to concern. The zoo’s elephant exhibit, which is reported to have cost $25 million, is only 2ha (5 acres) in size, just a fraction of the 100ha minimum enclosure size that was identified in the 2022 report, ‘Expansive, diverse habitats are vital for the welfare of elephants in captivity.’ Endorsed by 25 leading specialists, the report concluded that 100ha or more of diverse, natural habitat was necessary for individual elephants, who could not be returned to the wild, to enable them to live fulfilling lives.

On Dublin Zoo’s website, a news story from 23 March 2023, which announced the planned departure of the elephants, states, “A big part of conservation and ensuring the future survival of endangered species, like the Asian elephant, is work done by the International Breeding Programme.” However, no Asian elephant that has been part of the International Breeding Programme has ever been returned to the wild, and the programme itself is a net consumer of wild elephants due to its continued unsustainability as a result of reduced longevity, poor reproductive success and high infant mortality among captive elephants.

Responding to the news, Born Free’s Captivity Research Officer Chris Lewis stated, “This is once again an example of where the zoo industry is treating their animals as mere commodities. The strong and emotional family ties elephants possess have long been known, yet these closely related elephants are now separated by the Atlantic Ocean. The situation highlights once more that zoos cannot meet the needs of elephants in a captive setting. It is high time for legislators to step in to avoid similar tragic incidents in the future.”

Sadly, as this case demonstrates, despite the large and growing body of evidence highlighting the problems captive elephants suffer, including stereotypic behaviour, high infant mortality rates, poor health, and reduced life spans, demand for elephants from the global zoo industry persists, and elephants are shipped around the world to satisfy this demand with little consideration for their individual or collective needs and well-being. Our recent report, Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame, emphasises that elephants do not belong in captivity and calls for the keeping of elephants in zoos to be phased out.

While standards and legislation governing elephant welfare in zoos in Ireland or the USA may differ, the UK has the opportunity to lead by example and say Enough Is Enough. The capture of wild elephants for captive use and the breeding of elephants in zoos should be brought to an immediate end, and every effort made to ensure those elephants that remain in captivity are provided with the best possible care and ensure their well-being for the remainder of their lives.

Sign our #ElephantFreeUK petition calling for the urgent, humane phasing-out of elephants in UK zoos.