Elephants are suffering and dying prematurely in captivity. Is it acceptable to capture more wild elephants to repopulate zoos?
Charlie training the elephants
Charlie training the elephants
Elephants feeding in the house
Elephants feeding in the house

My first job after completing my degree in Zoo Conservation Biology was as an elephant keeper at a zoo in the UK. I thought I'd landed myself my dream job looking after the Earth's largest land mammal. But it wasn't long before the dream was actually a nightmare. 4 of the 7 elephants in my care were born in the wild, captured from Zimbabwe as infants in the 1980's, after their mothers were culled. This was a common practice in the 1980's, in an attempt to combat human-elephant conflicts as human and elephant populations were on the increase and competing for space. Elephants are very social animals living in family groups. The infants learn fundamental life skills from aunties, older siblings, cousins and grandmothers. The 4 wild born elephants in my care were unrelated, put together as an "artificial herd" and made to spend their days and nights together in a confined space whether they liked it or not. 3 of the 4 did socialize well together but the 4th was often bullied and physically attacked.

The owner of the zoo was always pushing to breed the elephants - of course, a cute baby elephant brings in more visitors and more $$$$$. The elephant house was outdated with little natural lighting, minimal space and cold concrete flooring that had little drainage. The elephants would spend around 16 hours of the day inside the house, standing on their own urine and faeces until we arrived in the morning to jet wash it clean. Us keepers asked the owners to update the house with a sand floor - This would increase drainage and reduce arthritis and foot problems. The answer was "no - not until the elephants breed". Well the bull finally did his job and one of the females fell pregnant. 22 months later she gave birth during the night in the house. The newborn calf was welcomed into the world on the cold concrete floor which was now a swimming pool of amniotic fluid and urine. In the wild a newborn calf will get to its feet within an hour so it can suckle from its mother. This newborn calf struggled for hours to find its feet on the slippery ground. The new mother had never learnt mothering skills after her own family was culled but instinct told her the calf must stand. So for hours she tried in vein to help but ultimately kicked her calf around the slippery floor to it's death.

Eventually, the elephants did have 2 successful births which brought the total group to 7. All the elephants performed stereotypical behaviours common to captive animals that are stressed and/or bored; head bobbing, swaying and pacing. And all had stunted growth, were morbidly obese, had arthritis, skin problems, foot infections and suffered from regular bouts of colic due to their poor diet, lack of exercise and inappropriate housing.

I decided to dedicate my Masters research to African elephants in European zoos to determine if elephants have a future in captivity. The results were shocking. The life expectancy of female African elephants was just 14 years and males 19 years (wild elephants have a life expectancy of 60 years). Birth rates were lower than death rates and as a result the African elephant population in European zoos is declining. Within 50 years, if this does not change, there will only be 3 reproductive females remaining. It is not surprising that since I did this study 6 years ago, the number of African elephants in European zoos has fallen 16% from 206 to 172 individuals. (Click here to read my full research paper)

It also breaks my heart to find out 4 of the 7 elephants I cared for have since died prematurely as a result of human intervention. The leader (matriarch) of the group was removed from the group and relocated to another zoo to live on her own and died shortly after of a sudden heart attack at the age of 31. Another died at the age of 31 after suffering her entire life from crippling arthritis, and 2 died during transportation to another zoo at the ages of 14 and 20.

If we are determined to keep elephants in zoos, and the current birth and death rates in captivity do not improve, our only alternative is to capture wild born elephants from Africa. Zoos can contribute to conservation by raising funds, awareness and educating their visitors. But does keeping elephants in captivity contribute enough to conservation to permit these individuals to be subject to a life of suffering and a premature death? Next time you visit a zoo with elephants just remember 66% of zoo elephants were born free in the wild, witnessed their mothers being slaughtered, are enduring a lifetime of suffering and will die prematurely. All for "conservation".... or for our own entertainment and zoo owners bank balances?

Watch video showing young wild elephant captured in 2017
Watch Born Free's #ElephantFreeUK campaign


One thought on “Elephants in Captivity

  1. Great post Charlie. Really informative and so relevant for people to be aware of. These facts you have shared are immensely saddening to read but something more people need to realise. Zoo’s can do good as you say, but it’s not fair to continue to keep animals captive for our entertainment. A nice day out for some people is a life of imprisonment for these animals. Yes the wild is hard, but this is just unfair. I learn more from a series of David Attenborough than a day at the zoo, that’s for sure! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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