‘Experts’ claim that death of elephant calf at Zurich Zoo was natural – it wasn’t

Nov 7, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Keith Lindsay and Dr Adam Cruise

An investigation into the killing of a male elephant calf by his herd at Zurich Zoo earlier this year has falsely concluded that it was a natural occurrence. 

On August 19, 2020, a young elephant gave birth to her first calf. It was subsequently kicked to death by the rest of the herd, prompting an internal investigation. The herd had tried to encourage the new-born to stand up using their heads, trunk and feet but due to a lack of response their efforts turned increasingly violent, which ultimately led to the death of the calf.

The outcome of the investigation, which concluded last week after an assessment of the video recordings by zoo authorities, external zoologists and elephant experts from the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), was that the reaction of the herd members in the first minutes after birth was natural and “that the behaviour of the herd members after birth cannot be classified as aggressive…”

Unnatural death

However, there was nothing ‘natural’ about this birth and subsequent death.

The reckless and brutal behaviour of the other elephants towards the calf seen in this case does not occur in wild elephants. Elephants in the wild are gently careful with calves and would never kick and trample them for failing to respond. Due to the conditions of their life in zoos and other confined environments, captive elephants tend to develop inappropriate and occasionally aggressive behaviour that would not be observed in the wild.

In fact, everything about a zoo is unnatural for elephants.

Elephants live in a deeply embedded relationship with their natural ecosystems, in all their complexity. As well, elephants in the wild are highly social beings and form some of the strongest family bonds of all animal species. By removing elephants from their lifelong integration with wild nature and its living inhabitants, one is in fact removing their essential ‘reason for existence’, that makes an elephant an elephant.

It is the interconnected relationship with the wild that determines how an elephant functions and operates. Without the natural bonds of a wild herd and the myriad of wild activities that accompany its customary daily life – the vital principles that guide the development and functioning of elephants, such as caring, communicating, playing and sparring, and foraging for grasses, herbs and branches broken off trees – an elephant that finds himself in a confined cell in a zoo ceases to bea ‘whole elephant’. The enclosed surroundings of the zoo shape the elephant into a new creature, which may retain the physical exterior of an elephant but will lose the ability to express normal responses, and instead elicit abnormal aggression and other behavioural abnormalities.

Too young for childbirth

In this particular incidence, the mother elephant was certainly too young to experience childbirth. She was apparently only six years old, meaning she would have been just four years old when she conceived. In the wild, female elephants rarely ever conceive their first calf until they are at least eight or nine years old, with the average being around eleven or twelve years.

The young mother elephant would have had no experience caring for other elephants’ calves –  what is known as ‘allomothering’, which is prevalent in the wild where young females in the herd assist with the rearing new-borns. This juvenile elephant mother, still in her own childhood, would have had no idea what to do after she gave birth, and could well have been frightened both by the appearance of the calf and by the exaggerated, unwelcome response of the other elephants in the group. These elephants did much more harm than good, in charging at and fatally injuring the newborn; they also showed a total lack of understanding of the needs of mothering. What’s more, due to the mother’s immaturity, she is likely to have very little milk in her breasts to feed the new-born.

Even in the wild, young first-time mothers generally have higher calf mortality than later in life. This is probably because they have less experience in caring for a newborn, but also because their calves would be born slightly smaller than to an older, larger female. It is very likely that a calf born to a six-year old would be very small indeed. This calf was doubtlessly very weak at birth, and even if it had survived he would almost certainly have developed physical and psychological complications.

It is thus extremely irresponsible of the zoo to allow such a young female to breed. Evidently, they considered her too young to even begin monitoring her hormones and, in their neglect, did not realise that she was cycling and ovulating. The father was a fourteen-year old male, which is also too young to be breeding. Again, this does not represent the natural behaviour of elephants in nature. In wild populations, young males learn normal social responses, including reproductive strategies and behaviour towards females, from their association in groups of other bulls. The older males curb inappropriate aggressive behaviour by younger elephants, and also inhibit their breeding activity until they reach an age when they can respectfully attend to and protect a female who is ready for mating.  

Profit before welfare

Perhaps the real reason for the zoo’s lack of responsibility in this regard, is their over-eagerness for baby animals. Zoo elephant populations throughout Europe are dwindling since more elephants die in captivity than are born. Captive female elephants also tend to become infertile by their thirties, unlike wild elephants who can keep breeding into their sixties, so zoos are in a ‘race against the clock’ to produce new elephants as early as possible. Given that baby elephants are big drawcards for zoo visitors, any elephant birth is promulgated rather than prevented, no matter how unnatural. It essentially means zoos are putting profit above the welfare of the animals in their care.

This is the second death of a baby elephant in the zoo in less than five months. In early April, a baby elephant also died a few hours after birth. He too succumbed to serious head injuries, which occurred in unclear circumstances.

It is abundantly clear that the managers at Zurich Zoo have no understanding of basic elephant biology to inform their currently incompetent approach to the animals so unfortunate as to be in their care, or at their mercy. In the interests of basic decency, they should immediately abandon their efforts to make elephants reproduce in captivity and, in the longer term, they should phase out their elephant exhibit entirely. Elephants do not belong in captivity; the keeping of them in zoos serves no purpose and is demeaning both to the animals and to us as a decent, caring humanity.

Keith Lindsay is a conservation biologist and environmental consultant with over 40 years of experience in Africa and Asia

Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist with a PhD in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South Africa

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