There have been reports that, later this year, the UK Government will ban the captivity of elephants in zoos, and save future generations from suffering in cruel, unnatural conditions.
Here in Australia - it’s time we did the same. Let me tell you why.
Size isn’t everything: but it’s a big deal to elephants. In the wild, elephants walk up to 9km each day. For nomadic animals that are constantly on the move, zoos can never replicate a natural environment or provide for an elephants most basic space and exercise needs.
In fact, because the lack of exercise in captivity, many elephants in zoos suffer from obesity, as well as joint and foot problems, leaving them struggling to walk and in significant, lifelong pain.
But it’s not just elephants’ physical health that deteriorates in captivity - their mental health suffers too. As intelligent, social animals, elephants naturally live in close, family units, sometimes made up of over 50 family members including mothers, calves, aunts and cousins.
They develop strong, lifelong bonds with the members of their herd, and deeply grieve their dead. Yet elephants in zoos have no access to these complex social structures needed to thrive. Moved and separated from their families, captive elephants show signs of severe psychological distress. They often exhibit stereotypic behaviours including weaving, pacing, and head bobbing, with some studies showing captive elephants performing these behaviours for up to 60% of the day.
The combination of the extreme mental and physical stress elephants suffer in captivity not only leads to a lifetime of suffering, but it significantly shortens their lifespan. While their brothers and sisters in the wild often live until they’re 50, the average lifespan of a captive elephant is just 17 years. Quite simply, captivity is killing them.
That is not to say elephants don’t face many threats in the wild. They do. Poaching, hunting, and habitat destruction are all pushing these animals to the brink of extinction. Some argue that having elephants in zoos is needed for conservation efforts. But this is simply not true. Both the World Wide Fund for Nature and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources have recognised that captive elephant breeding does not make any significant contribution to elephant conservation.
RSPCA Australia also recognises that zoos have made very little contribution to the conservation of African or Asian elephants. The use of artificial insemination is not supported by evidence, as captive elephants have high infant mortality rates, and a large number of stillbirths.
Only last year, we subjected another two elephants to a pitiful captive existence here in NSW. Kavi and Ashoka arrived at Sydney Zoo in December. They joined Saigon, a 62 year old ex-circus elephant who had previously lived alone with only three water buffalo for company. Each of these animals has already spent their whole lives being used by humans - and they will die never experiencing life in wild.
Wild animals belong in the wild. It’s as simple as that. Elephants do not belong in captivity, and if we truly want to help them we need to stop the attacks on their natural environment – not keep them in zoos for human entertainment.
It’s time for Australia to join the international movement to protect these gentle, intelligent animals: not by imprisoning them, but by ensuring they can live their lives free and safe in their own habitat. The Australian public do not want to see wild animals in captivity. Zoos will soon be a thing of the past in Australia too.