May 4, 2022 | Reports

By Born Free Foundation

Our major new report, Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame, released today, is 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 reveals the true extent of the pain and suffering being caused by the keeping of elephants in zoos across Europe. In Europe alone, there are still 580 of these magnificent herd animals held in zoos, including 49 in 11 establishments in the UK. Using powerful individual case studies, the report, Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame, outlines the history and continuing plight of these captive elephants. It lays bare the, at times fatal, impact of captivity on the physical and psychological health and welfare of the individuals involved. 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 comprehensive report identifies zoos as net ‘consumers of elephants’, mainly due to high infant mortality rates, poor reproductive success, and reduced longevity. Shockingly, the report highlights that 40% of infant elephants in zoos die before they reach the age of five. 

Born Free’s research goes on to reveal the impact that capturing wild elephants for captive display has on the social stability and conservation of wild populations. This, in turn, has serious knock-on effects on the wider ecosystems of which elephants are a vital part.

The report also underlines, through multiple real-life examples, the ethical and public safety concerns associated with the keeping of elephants in zoos. In the wild, these highly intelligent and social animals roam across vast ranges and live for up to 70 years or more in complex multigenerational families and societies. By contrast, Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame, highlights how elephants in zoos are confined in enclosures that are sometimes only a little larger than a football pitch, with an average ‘herd’ size of just three, and are, at times, housed on their own. As a result, they can suffer dramatically shortened life expectancies, a multitude of health problems, and cannot participate in the rich social and behavioural norms of their species.

The facts, scientific analysis and individual case studies speak for themselves. The report concludes that elephants do not belong in captivity and clearly recommends that the keeping of elephants in zoos should be phased out. 

This conclusion and the timing of the report is of critical importance in the UK, where the Government is currently reviewing its Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. It shines a light on the archaic, unethical, and damaging practice of keeping elephants in zoos. 

Born Free is, once again, reiterating its call for the capture of wild elephants for captive display to stop, and the attempted breeding of elephants in zoos to be brought to an immediate end. At the same time, every effort must be made to ensure those elephants that remain in captivity are provided with the best possible conditions to try and meet their welfare requirements and ensure their well-being for the rest of their lives. The charity, which was started as a result of the destruction of Pole Pole, an elephant in the London Zoo in 1983, is urging the public to read and share this report, and to write to The Rt Hon. George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, urging him to take action to bring this travesty to a permanent end. 

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