Can Really Good Zoos Care for Elephants Sufficiently?

March 2, 2016 – The news story above appeared in the New Zealand Herald on February 25, 2016 ( The Sri Lankan government will be “gifting” the Auckland Zoo a second baby Asian elephant in mid-2016. The first one was “gifted” in June 2015. However, the truth is it wasn’t a gift – it was a $3.2 million transaction. Should a 5 year old baby elephant be shipped to the other side of the world? Why would the zoo lie about the $3.2 million?

The answers are “No” and “Because a gift sounds more innocent”. Female elephants spend their whole lives with their mothers and aunts, learning survival skills and helping them rear the next generation. Plucking babies them from the wild, sending them to a foreign environment, and keeping them in a confined space is not acceptable. No wonder they don’t want the public to know it will cost a small fortune. But the Auckland Zoo has long term plans for an elephant herd breeding program. This despite the fact that breeding elephants in captivity has been particularly unsuccessful and that zoo elephants live less than half the age of wild ones.

When I posted about this on my personal Facebook page, a friend who worked at Auckland Zoo assured me that the zoo had very high animal welfare standards and were breeding elephants to highlight their endangered status. Only 30,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants are left. If the decline continues at this rate, they will be extinct by 2025. My friend added that most global conservation organizations could not exist without zoos, due to the significant funding zoos provide them. Does he have a good point?

I am an animal conservationist, but I like to think a scientific and practical one. So please understand when I say that not all zoos are “bad”, per se. Some have large enclosures with moats instead of bars and varied enrichment activities. But here is the problem – no zoo enclosure in the world can allow an elephant to even mimic its natural behaviors.

The accrediting body for zoos – the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – mandates the minimum area for 1 elephant to be 1800 square feet or 13 metres x 13 metres. My very small apartment is 9 metres x 9 metres. Would anyone consider it acceptable to keep an elephant in a medium sized city apartment, when in the wild they walk 10-20 kilometres a day? They do this to forage extensively and consume up to 100 different kinds of plants that are necessary for an optimally balanced diet. To compare, zoo elephants walk 1-3 kilometres a day (if they are lucky) and get maybe 10 different food sources (if very lucky).

As we all know by now, elephants are extremely intelligent, social and emotional creatures. In the wild, males stay in their herd (of approximately 10 elephants) for 10-15 years, then spend at least part of their time in the company of other “bachelors”. Auckland Zoo’s male elephant “Burma” was totally alone for 6 years, ending just last year. Can you imagine being in solitary confinement for 6 years? These are mammals who are self-aware and can recognize up to 200 other elephants by sight and smell.

To cast the captivity of elephants into even further contempt,”Burma” was born in the wilds of Myanmar in 1982. He was captured and most probably tortured for 3-5 days to “tame” him. (Go to to see what it involves and how Myanmar has done it for over 100 years. Warning: the video is disturbing.) Elephants can not be domesticated as this process takes many generations of breeding carefully selected animals with non-violent traits. This would literally require several hundred years.

National Geographic says wild Asian elephants live up to 70 years on average and zoo elephants average just 19 years. Less than one third their natural life! Diseases like tuberculosis, health problems and dietary issues that are largely unseen in the wild, manifest themselves in captive environments. In 1930, Auckland Zoo welcomed 13 year old elephant “Rajah”. Just 6 years later they euthanized him as he was “too difficult to control”. (Zoos now know that males go thru “musth” when testosterone levels are up to 60 times greater than normal. This allows them to fight other strong males to mate with the healthiest females.) In 1961, Auckland Zoo euthanized female elephant “Malini” due to a skin ailment. Just 6 years ago, “Kashin” was euthanized by the zoo due to arthritis. In their natural surroundings elephants walk long distances on soft earth. Arthritis results from them standing on concrete for long periods, especially in winter. Sri Lanka’s coolest average temperature is 22 degrees celsius. Auckland’s is 11 degrees celsius. They are going to be inside concrete-floored barns for a considerable amount of time.

Do not misunderstand me. Auckland Zoo has an above average enclosure. Called the “ASB Elephant Clearing” (after the sponsor, Auckland Savings Bank), it is a large, moated enclosure with a modern elephant house, mud wallow and pool which allows the 2 elephants to completely submerge. The mud and pool are crucial for enriched animal welfare. They keep them cool when they overheat and elephants love to swim, squirm and play in them as part of their natural social bonding behaviour. I know the Auckland Zoo keepers love their wild animals. But ironically, the keepers (and us as visitors) are loving them to death. In each fatal case above, the zoo just could not sufficiently mimic an elephant’s natural environment to keep them alive.

Auckland Zoo has spent a grand total of $131,746 on overseas projects that benefit elephants. The funding was provided to the Centre for Conservation and Research, and the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust, both in Sri Lanka. Although this is most probably a greater conservation investment than most zoos, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the $3.2 million spent on acquiring the 2 Sri Lankan elephants. Add the purchase price of “Burma”, the cost of the Elephant Clearing, and the cost of keeping 3 elephants in room and board, and you have a multi-million dollar enterprise.

True conservation only exists when captive-bred elephants are released into the wild. Zoos have never done this. If Auckland Zoo’s true motivation is to expose the encroaching extinction of elephants, would not those millions be better spent on conservation projects in the countries housing the last remaining elephants? Or why don’t they donate the zoo’s bred elephants to these countries?  Well, you say, captive-born wildlife can’t be returned to the wild, right? The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation (founded by Her Majesty, the Queen of Thailand); the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya and the Patara Elephant Camp in Thailand, have all proven it can be done very successfully. The truth is the zoo wants more visitors and to sell∕trade babies to other zoos (they have admitted this), which we all know is to make more money. Which brings us back to why they called it a gift when it actually cost $3.2 million. Some things are better left unsaid.

By Leanne Fogarty



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