Keeping elephants in captivity – are zoos educational, useful?

Jun 23, 2019 | News


As debate over Lammie’s continued ‘imprisonment’ at the Johannesburg Zoo and the introduction of two more elephants as her companions intensifies, Kashiefa Ajam and Karishma Dipa asked experts on opposing sides about the value of zoos – and keeping elephants in captivity.

From their very beginnings, zoos and aquariums have evolved into the establishments we know today. Some would applaud the incredible transformations these facilities have gone through over the years.

Others would say these changes are not nearly enough and that the animals are better off in the wild.

If this is the case, then one needs to ask: “Do we have a ‘wild’ that is able to support the diversity of the animal kingdom?”

This leads to the question: “What is the value of zoos and aquariums in our modern world? Do they still have a place in society?”

Animal facilities have evolved from basic concrete cages to immersive environments, where the animals get the choice to show themselves or remain hidden inside their massive enclosures.

Most international zoos have displays recreating the natural environment of the species held to provide them with the best living conditions, always trying to improve the welfare of their animal collections.

Apart from the entertainment provided by zoos and aquariums, these places also provide visitors and students with extensive knowledge on the species they house.

Zoo and aquarium animals are ambassadors for their own kind. They offer the opportunity to connect humans with a species that might be endangered or extinct in the wild.

This helps in explaining the consequences of human actions on the planet.

GaVrielle Kirk-Cohen, spokesperson World Association of Zoos and Aquariums

Modern zoos and aquariums safeguard the long-term future of threatened species, contribute significant resources towards conservation of wildlife and wild spaces and play a vital role in education and sustainability.

More than 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums annually, which places these organisations in a prime position to drive behaviour change through their visitors.

Through global breeding programmes, aquariums and zoos maintain genetically diverse captive populations of endangered species and many zoos are involved in both in situ and ex situ conservation efforts as well as species reintroductions.

Zoos and aquariums provide a lifeline for species increasingly threatened in the wild.

In the face of the global extinction and climate change crises, we need good aquariums and zoos more than ever to ensure the survival of species and preservation of wild spaces for many generations to come.

Jenny Moodley, spokesperson, Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo

Zoos have become centres for education and centres for conservation. In an ideal world, of course, animals should be freely roaming, they should be free to forage but, unfortunately, we do not live in the ideal world.

There is now a need for us (the Johannesburg Zoo) to protect animals, for us to protect the species, to announce conservation and breeding programmes.

We also need to make sure we grow green, conscious children to be the future custodians of the environment.

In the Joburg context, many of the children who come through our gates will never be able to afford an experience at Kruger National Park, let alone any private reserve.

We have a moral responsibility and as part of our statutory mandate as the zoo.

Our core function remains to provide a recreational facility and to make sure we protect the animals under our care.


Smaragda Louw, director of Ban Animal Trading

Zoos are archaic institutions of cruelty and nothing more. Their claims of contributing to conservation and playing a role in education are simply a justification for their continued existence.

I’ve spent many hours at the Johannesburg Zoo observing people coming to Lammie’s enclosure, spending a few minutes there and then moving on.

This is what the zoo calls education? There are many innovative ways children can and should be educated, because teaching them that keeping magnificent wild creatures in cages for their entertainment, cannot be a lesson we want our children to learn.

Zoos usually occupy beautiful spaces in cities. This is why people go to the zoo, to get out, to spend time in a safe environment that is taken care of.

People want to be entertained and this is not the purpose of animals. Animals have their own rich emotional lives and societal structures and they exist not because they fulfil a role in terms of what they can bring to humans.

No zoo can cater for the specific needs of wild animals. No zoo can recreate a wild habitat. Animals are bored, frustrated, and have to live their lives in an environment that lacks every single thing nature and living among their own provide. Like circuses, the time for zoos has come and gone.

Dr Marion Garaï, chairperson of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group and trustee of the Elephant Reintegration Trust

more THAN 150 zoos worldwide have discontinued their elephant facilities because they recognised that no enclosure can offer elephants what they need. A modern zoo must provide a facility which enables all inborn behaviours. This is simply not possible for elephants or other larger mammals.

The old excuse given by zoos that the animals serve as ambassadors and that children are educated is totally false. Children seeing animals in cages learn that it is okay to keep an animal caged and nothing else.

A study conducted by Conservation Biology found that the majority of 2800 children who visited London Zoo showed no positive learning outcome at all. The notion that animals need to be kept in captivity to help educate children about conservation seemingly falls on its head.

Another popular excuse for zoos is that they breed endangered species. This is false. Breeding does happen, but because babies are an attraction and bring income through visitors.

Surplus animals are euthanised as most zoos do not have the space for more animals. Unless it’s a specific conservation programme, zoos do not re-wild any of their animals so their contribution to conservation of the species is zero.

The only moral thing for the Johannesburg Zoo to do would have been to allow us to give Lammie a few years of freedom and happiness, which she has never known.

Bringing the two others from the elephant back safari operation is not the right decision. They roamed free, and although trained, had some form of choice, freedom and space. Now they are in a prison, with nothing to do other than eat, defecate and watch screaming kids run past the enclosure. It’s very sad.

Karen Trendler, wildlife trade and trafficking portfolio manager, NSPCA

Elephants are very large, highly intelligent animals and the longest lived land mammal with a complex social structure. Their home ranges are extensive and groups may range between 12km-15 km a day.

The environment in which elephants live is diverse, rich and complex with a very wide range of food variety. They spend most of their waking time eating and have a specially adapted digestive system.

Elephant societies are led by a matriarch and related offspring and families making up an dynamic herd.

Males leave the herd between nine and 12 years and form bachelor herds, only joining herds for mating.

Their size, longevity, spatial requirements and complexity of environment, diet, etc, make the elephant vulnerable to psychological, mental, physical, physiological and behavioural problems in zoos and captivity.

Zoo elephants die younger than wild elephants because of the stresses and pressures of captivity. Problems include joint, foot and skeletal problems, muscular weakness, chronic digestive problems, reproductive problems and calf mortality.

Zoos are not for elephants. There is extensive scientific published research globally on the welfare problems and life of cruelty that zoo elephants are exposed to.

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