Elephants are totally ill-suited to being kept in zoos where they suffer long-term psychological damage, according to wildlife experts quoted in a wide-ranging study into the animals’ plight in captivity across Europe and North America.
The report, “Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame” published on Wednesday by the Born Free Foundation, gives details of numerous cases where the herd animals have died young or suffered in captivity.
It says in 2021 there were 580 elephants in European zoos — around half the global total — and calls for the practice of keeping them in such places to be phased out.
The wildlife conservation charity also demands an end to the capture of wild elephants for export to zoos, and for breeding attempts from those held in captivity to cease.
It recommends a number of steps, with an action plan to improve the lives of existing captive elephants including possible transfers “to wild or near-wild environments”.
Among elephants kept in zoos in the UK, the foundation says 40% of infants die before the age of five, and captive-born elephants have an average lifespan of just over 20 years compared with 50 years in the wild.
The Born Free Foundation describes elephants as “highly intelligent and social animals” which in the wild “roam across vast ranges and live for up to 70 years in complex multigenerational families and societies”.
In contrast, zoos cannot possibly mimic wild habitats or reproduce the conditions which enable them to thrive, it adds.
“It is a horrifying fact that the majority of elephants in European and North American zoos develop and display abnormal stereotypic behaviours, such as compulsive rocking and swaying, as a consequence of long-term psychological damage.”
The report says that although the relationship between elephants and people goes back millennia, understanding of the animals’ “social and cultural complexity” and “considerable physical suffering and psychological distress in captivity” is much more recent.
The Born Free Foundation was named after the 1966 film “Born Free” which told the story of the successful rehabilitation of a young lioness to the wild.
Yet co-founder and executive president Will Travers — whose parents starred in the film — says the charity was set up as a result of the death of a young female African elephant at the London Zoo in 1983.
The elephant, named Pole Pole, had been sent as a gift from Kenya after appearing in a film with his parents. When they visited her a decade later, “the mutual recognition was obvious as she reached out across the moat with her trunk to touch their outstretched hands”, Travers notes in the report’s introduction.
But it was evident that the elephant was adapting badly to captivity: “now living alone, she had become difficult to manage and potentially dangerous”.
Injured after an attempted transfer to another UK zoo, Pole Pole was euthanised.
Travers says individual stories are backed up by “an avalanche of data and analysis” proving that attempts to breed and keep elephants in captivity have failed — and says attempts to improve social conditions or increase the size of enclosures are misplaced.
“We have tinkered around the edges for long enough, and more baby steps are not the answer. Elephants do not belong in zoos,” he concludes.