Do elephants have a place in zoos?

8 June 2022



An elephant stands at the entrance to a zoo enclosure

(c) Mike Dooley

On the 4th of May 2022, Born Free released its powerful report Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame. Backed by a host of leading conservation and animal welfare experts including Damian Aspinall, Chris Packham CBE, Angela Sheldrick, Dr Cynthia Moss, Dr Winnie Kiiru, David Casselman and Dr Keith Lindsay, the report presented evidence as to why elephants should not be kept in zoos and why the keeping of elephants in UK zoos should be phased out. 

In response, the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) released a blog containing a number of claims which we feel should be addressed:

BIAZA says: “Our zoos and safari parks go above and beyond to ensure they are the best place in the world for them.”

Undeniably, the best place for wild animals is in the wild. When the return to the wild for those elephants currently housed in zoos is not feasible, legitimate large-scale sanctuaries offer the next best solution. Undersized, artificial conditions designed primarily around public accessibility/viewing cannot be considered the ‘best place in the world’ for any wild animal to spend their life, let alone highly intelligent, socially complex and naturally wide-ranging animals such as elephants.

BIAZA’s claim that their zoos and safari parks are the best place ‘in the world’ is farcical.

BIAZA says: “BIAZA zoos and safari parks follow the highest elephant care standards in the world – the UK is a world leader in elephant care.”

With the exception of Howletts Wildlife Park, which houses the largest captive elephant unit in the country (all soon to be sent to be rewilded in Kenya), all UK zoos which currently house elephants are members of BIAZA. The median lifespan for elephants born in captivity within the UK is less than 20 years, approximately half that of their wild conspecifics, and mortality among captive elephant calves is still extremely high, with more than 20% of pregnancies among UK captive elephants resulting in stillbirths, twice the rate seen in the wild. This demonstrates the continuing shortcomings of UK zoos, and their inability to provide an appropriate environment for elephants to thrive, regardless of how their care standards compare to other institutions in different countries.

As recently as 2017, BIAZA endorsed the use of the bullhook (an instrument cruelly used to physically discipline elephants) and the capture of wild elephants to sustain zoo breeding programmes.

Regardless of whether BIAZA zoos follow the highest elephant care standards in the world, their standards still fall way short of fulfilling the needs of elephants.

BIAZA says: “The space for all elephants in our zoos and safari parks has expanded and become more complex”

In actuality, the circumstances for many elephants in the UK has changed very little. The space for some elephants has expanded mainly due to the significant expansion of the enclosure at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in 2014. As this is now the largest elephant enclosure in the UK, it has inflated the average UK figures for enclosure size and space per elephant presenting a false indication of improvement in what all individual elephants experience across the UK.

The average outdoor elephant enclosure size of current UK BIAZA member zoos is still just 0.0075km2 (0.75ha). By contrast, the minimum reported home range of African savanna and Asian elephants is 14km2 and 34km2 respectively, with these smaller home ranges often being a result of restrictions imposed by human activity.

We welcome improvements to captive elephant enclosures, but the needs of elephants simply cannot be met in a UK zoo environment. If the revised zoo standards are implemented, only four out of the 11 zoos in the UK with elephants will meet the new proposed enclosure size requirements (2ha or 0.02km2), and even then, they would still be orders of magnitude smaller than elephants’ natural range. We welcome Howletts Wildlife park’s plans to relocate their elephants to Africa.

Moreover, elephant enclosures are often subdivided to separate animals, and elephants in UK zoos are often kept indoors during inclement weather conditions, further restricting the space and choices available to them, and reflecting the fact that the UK cannot provide a suitable climate for elephants.

BIAZA’s claim that space for all elephants has increased is, frankly, misleading

BIAZA says: “Elephants are displaying natural behaviours in the care of our members”

Although elephants may have opportunities to express some natural behaviours such as grazing and dust bathing, when the weather is appropriate, it would be wrong to suggest that these elephants are able to display all of their natural behaviours in captivity. Instead, zoo enclosures frequently influence the degree to which some behaviours can be expressed rather than dictating whether an elephant expresses that behaviour. Crucially, an elephant’s natural ability to socialise is completely restricted, if not absent, in a zoo environment. The complex fission-fusion family dynamics observed in the wild and any choice of who they affiliate with, and who they avoid, are prevented. Genetic relatedness and the average unit size of UK captive groups is well below that seen in wild herds.

In the wild, tight family units consist of female matrilineal relatives and their dependent offspring. These herds are led by an older-aged matriarch, who is the primary repository for social and ecological knowledge. Like people, elephants rely on social bonds, memory, and cognition to navigate their environment. When female relatives are transferred to different zoos, these bonds and their associated behaviours are lost.

In addition to a lack of opportunity to express natural behaviours, abnormal stereotypical behaviours associated with captivity, such as head bobbing and swaying, are frequently observed in UK zoos. BIAZA’s claim is only partially appropriate.

BIAZA says: “Our elephants are in better health thanks to 5* care from dedicated keepers including better footcare, nutrition and social welfare”

In addition to psychological distress, zoo elephants are often subject to considerable physical suffering. The unnatural enclosure size, conditions and substrates mean that musculoskeletal impairments and foot problems, such as pathological lesions and abscesses, are common in captive elephants. A recent study of elephants in European zoos reported that 98.5% of elephants observed were affected by at least one foot issue. Obesity is also a major problem, with a 2018 study reporting that 57.7% of elephants in European zoos had an elevated body condition.

Elephant health and happiness is not only impacted by enclosure conditions and substrates, but also by climate. The average annual temperature of the UK is 10.8°C, but elephants have evolved to live in more consistent temperatures of approximately 26°C. Captive elephants in the UK have to spend longer periods of time indoors when it is too cold to be outside. As there is no requirement to heat pools under 8.8.16 of the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice, some elephants can rarely access the water during colder weather.

On this basis, BIAZA’s claim cannot be justified.

BIAZA says: “Our members are leading the world in care of elderly elephants”

Although the definition of elderly is unclear, BIAZA zoos currently house four elephants over the age of 50 (9.1% of all their elephants), with one of these being over the age of 60. Anne, who is currently housed alone at Longleat, is considered to be the oldest elephant in Europe. However, she does not have a heated pool and, therefore, rarely utilises it as the temperature is too cold. Mondula, the 51-year-old single-housed elephant at Blair Drummond Safari Park does not even have a pool. This means neither of these elephants are able to alleviate the stresses and strains on their body that elderly elephants experience. None of the zoos holding these more elderly elephants meet the enclosure size requirements proposed in the draft revised zoo standards. In contrast, the Elephant Haven European Elephant Sanctuary, France, spans over 70 acres and currently cares for one 53-year-old elephant, with another individual soon to arrive and The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee cares for five elephants over the age of 50, spanning over 3,060 acres. We believe facilities such as these provide a far higher standard of care and a more suitable climate for elderly elephants, than those offered by BIAZA zoos, and that, consequently, BIAZA’s claim is insupportable.

BIAZA says: “Elephant Eden at Noah’s Ark is one of the best facilities in the world for elephants”

To say that this facility is one of the best in the world is misleading. Granted, elephants are being held captive in more dire conditions in other facilities, but this statement fails to acknowledge how little facilities like this can offer elephants compared to legitimate sanctuaries.

The Elephant Eden exhibit at Noah’s Ark consists of a field which is approximately 20 acres. By contrast, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee spans more than 3,060 acres and offers elephants a much more suitable climate, greatly increased choice, a wide range of daily opportunities, and a significant degree of autonomy. The death of a young male elephant at Noah’s Ark in 2021, following a conflict with another elephant, was likely as a result of the restricted space. Even in 20 acres, elephants have little chance to disassociate or escape from each other if circumstances require them to do so. In the wild, mature male elephants are generally solitary but may choose to temporarily associate with other bulls in small, unstable groups. They also, of course, consort with females for extended periods of time during mating.

In addition, Noah’s Ark has consistently failed to adhere to its inspection report condition to provide sufficient outdoor shelter for its elephants. Within their 2020 zoo inspection report, it is noted that while the elephants are shut out of their indoor enclosure for two or more hours when cleaning takes place, they have too little shelter in the paddock during inclement weather. If this is one of the best facilities in the world, then it is a real concern that they have been reluctant to provide all the requirements deemed necessary by the UK zoo inspectorate.

BIAZA says: “A world-first vaccine for deadly elephant herpes is being pioneered by irreplaceable research into UK elephant herds”

Although the Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus is present in some wild populations, with research suggesting that all elephants latently carry the virus, it is not associated with mortality of the magnitude seen in captive Asian elephants. Captive juveniles are much more likely to develop and succumb to haemorrhagic disease, possibly due to the various stresses presented by zoo life. The work to develop an EEHV vaccine, being pioneered in UK captive elephants, will therefore only benefit other captive elephants, and has little if any relevance to the conservation of wild elephants.  BIAZA is therefore focusing efforts on solving an issue that captivity has created.

BIAZA says: “What is remarkable is that so many of these projects would not be possible without the elephants in the care of good zoos and safari parks.”

BIAZA provides just one example where captive elephants were used as part of a project which might benefit wild elephants in the future. However, projects and technological developments such as the one mentioned do not require keeping elephants in zoos. In fact, the vast majority of elephant conservation projects do not involve captive animals in zoos at all.

BIAZA says: “By supporting good zoos, visitors are directly contributing to the care & conservation of elephants across the world – if you care for elephants, care for zoos.”

As highlighted in our recent Conservation or Collection? report, The Consortium of Charitable Zoos pride themselves on their ethics, but do not prioritise housing threatened species. Zoos simply do not offer real alternatives or viable solutions to the threats facing elephants in the wild.

There are many conservation projects which benefit wild elephant populations and do not involve keeping captive animals. Born Free is working on various elephant conservation projects, supporting local organisations and authorities to strengthen law enforcement and reduce conflict between people and elephants, working with local people to become guardians for elephants, and monitoring critical populations of elephants.

We also push for greater legal protection for elephants internationally through mechanisms such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, by promoting ivory trade bans and associated demand reduction programmes, and by campaigning for an end to the trade in wild-caught live elephants to zoos and other captive facilities where they will be exploited for profit.

Zoos are net consumers of elephants, with some continuing to contribute to the demand for the cruel extraction of individuals from the wild. The money they spend on building inadequate multi-million-pound enclosures greatly outweighs any financial donations they make to support wild elephants. Therefore, we think that if you care for elephants, then care for all the amazing conservation projects carried out by so many hard-working NGOs which do not compromise the welfare of individuals or involve taking them from their families in the wild and urge zoos to end the keeping of these magnificent animals in captivity.

BIAZA’s statement does not reflect reality and is potentially deflecting effort and resources away from where it is needed in the wild.

BIAZA says: “BIAZA would not support elephants in our zoos and safari parks if the evidence showed they could not be kept well.”

The evidence is right here. Our report Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame, exposes how the UK and the wider zoo community are keeping elephants in unnatural small groupings in enclosures which poorly represent the range of opportunities found in their natural habitat and that are many orders of magnitude smaller than their smallest reported wild home range. This is based on data from the present day, not 50 years ago. The negative impact zoos have on elephant life expectancy, disease incidence, health problems, infant mortality, reproductive issues and abnormal behaviours has been evident for two decades. We urge BIAZA to not turn a blind eye to the evidence which clearly shows that elephants cannot be kept well in their zoos and that the practice needs to be phased out.