Zoos unable to meet the complex needs of elephants

CAWF Report Reveals Zoos Are Not Able To Meet The Complex Needs Of Elephants   

Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation has published a report endorsed by 25 leading specialists on the unique needs of elephants.

Eminent zoologists, biologists and environmental scientists call on the Government to phase out the keeping of elephants in zoos due to welfare concerns.

The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (CAWF) has today published a report endorsed by 25 leading specialists on the unique needs of elephants. It concludes that those living in captivity need access to at least 100 ha of natural habitat, which is between ten and one hundred times more than the space provided by zoos in the UK. 

As the world’s largest land animal, elephants are sentient, intelligent and socially complex creatures, congregate naturally in herds of many tens or hundreds of individuals. In contrast, CAWF’s latest report shows the average group size in UK zoos is less than three, and two elephants live alone. 

Today’s research, which comes as Defra is reviewing the future of elephant-keeping in the UK, explains why expansive, diverse habitats are critical to keeping captive elephants physically and psychologically healthy. Zoos, despite being well-intentioned, are not equipped to keep elephants, given the restrictions that captivity places on their complex socio-dynamics. Specifically, the report reveals: 

  • The inadequacy of the current space provided in zoos: In the wild elephants would live in expanses of around 10,000 ha, while in UK zoos they rarely enjoy more than 1ha which they can walk across in little over a minute. Quality space means that elephants can forage in natural, diverse vegetation, walk for miles each day, and exert a high degree of control over their social interactions.

  • New public polling which shows over 90% of the public agree elephants should be given more space than is provided for in zoos. Meanwhile 89% of people agree that elephants belonged in the wild and not in zoos. 

  • High mortality rates for zoo born elephants. Zoo-born Asian and African elephants live half as long as those born in the wild – to an average of just 17 years. Meanwhile, half of European zoo-born elephants die before they are five years old.

  • Obesity in zoo kept elephants. More than half of the UK’s elephants have categorised as overweight or very overweight. Excess body mass in elephants can cause physical health problems, including detrimental effects on pregnancy outcomes.

  • Social deprivation amongst the elephant zoo population. Elephants live in a layered society in the wild, with clans consisting of several hundred elephants. Zoo elephant management systems are small and inflexible, presenting limited opportunities for elephants to bond and socialise. 

Some zoos in the UK have committed to end keeping elephants, most recently Paignton Zoo in Devon who confirmed they would not replace their two elephants who recently passed away. In a statement, the Zoo said: “Elephants are highly intelligent and have very complex social and behavioural needs, so when Duchess, our last elephant, died in 2019, we announced that we would no longer keep elephants at Paignton Zoo.”

Today’s report contains two key recommendations: 

  1. End the import and breeding of elephants to prevent any more individuals from being brought into a life where they inevitably suffer physically and psychologically.

  2. Consider repatriating all remaining elephants. If this is not possible, transfer them to one or more spacious refuges in a warm climate, where each elephant can have multiple companions and can access at least 100 hectares (247 acres) of varied, natural space. Zoos, private individuals, or charities are options for taking this forward.  

    Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation Patron Lorraine Platt is a Director of Save The Asian Elephants (STAE). CAWF also led a letter calling for a consultation to ban UK Ivory sales in 2017, signed by MPs. 

    You can read CAWF’s full report here

“Today’s report demonstrates what the public is deeply aware of: that elephants need more space than zoos are able to accommodate in the UK. Elephants are highly complex animals, and despite zoo’s best intentions, it is clear they are not equipped to provide the unique environment that they need to thrive. We must reflect on the decades of science summarised in this report and take action. 

“With a number of zoos, including Paignton Zoo, having already reached this conclusion, we hope others will reconsider keeping elephants and take steps to phase out their captivity in the UK.”

Lorraine Platt, Co-Founder of Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation

Like ourselves, elephants are intelligent, self-aware, empathetic and emotional, and they navigate their physical and social worlds by learning from others. Our research suggests that despite decades of effort to improve the welfare of elephants in zoos, they do not flourish mentally or physically and are fundamentally ill-suited for life in captivity. Captivity cannot provide all the opportunities elephants need to truly flourish, but for those that must remain in captivity, only truly exceptional amounts of natural space give them the opportunity to forage naturally and significant choice over how they spend their time.” 

Dr Rob Atkinson, Co-Author
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