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Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame

From Will Travers, Co-Founder, Born Free Foundation
May 2022

Having already ended the use of wild animals in circuses, this report is published at a time when the British Government is considering the findings of a decade long review of the keeping of elephants in UK zoos.

zoo Elephant

Of course, many people think the genesis of the Born Free Foundation was the story of a lion, Elsa, and her successful rehabilitation to the wild. And in a way, they are right. But the true start of Born Free, or Zoo Check as it then was, resulted from the death, the destruction, of a young female African elephant at the London Zoo in 1983. Pole Pole (Poly Poly) had been in a film with my parents, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, and had then been sent as a gift from the Kenya Government of the day to the zoo.

Ten years elapsed and it was rumoured that, now living alone, she had become difficult to manage and potentially dangerous, and she might be destroyed. Despite a decade apart, my parents visited her, and the mutual recognition was obvious as she reached out across the moat with her trunk to touch their outstretched hands. They determined to help her.

We found a place in southern Africa that would welcome her, but the zoo said no. Eventually the authorities attempted to move her to the Zoological Society’s sister zoo, Whipsnade, but the move failed, she damaged a foot, hobbled round for a week, was examined under anaesthetic, did not respond – and was euthanised in the elephant house.

My long introduction has a purpose. For many years I thought Pole Pole’s sad case was unique. But this report, Elephants in Zoos – A Legacy of Shame, proves, categorially, this is not the case. Each heart-breaking individual story in this report reveals a litany of mismanagement, suffering and death. The report itself backs each case up with an avalanche of data and analysis that, in my opinion, provides cast iron proof that we have failed to deliver a life worth living for elephants in zoos and other forms of exploitative captivity.

Zoos have failed to educate people about elephants, failed to produce a conservation dividend, abysmally failed to produce enough baby elephants to replace the number of elephants that have died in their care – zoos are, in fact, net consumers of elephants – and only managed to keep the whole ridiculous charade going by capturing and importing hundreds of elephants from the wild. To date the number of elephants bred in captivity and returned to the wild can, generously, be counted on the fingers of one hand. What more is there to say?

Having already ended the use of wild animals in circuses, this report is published at a time when the British Government is considering the findings of a decade long review of the keeping of elephants in UK zoos. Inevitably, its conclusions, no doubt influenced by the many zoos included as part of the review, will maintain that if we make some modest changes – increase the size of enclosures, try to make sure elephants live in social groupings that more accurately reflect normal wild elephant society, attempt to make the lives of these poor, innocent animals a bit more interesting – we can continue as we have done for a bit longer.

Elephant Bunka
Bunka, a young male Asian Elephant, who hads been housed alone at Yerevan Zoo, Armenia, since 2014, one of 28 solitay housed Elephants in European zoos.

My conclusion is rather different and reflects the findings of Elephants in Zoos – A Legacy of Shame: this simply must stop. No more imports; no more attempts at breeding; repatriation of elephants that have a chance of going back to the wild; rehabilitation of existing elephants in captivity to sanctuaries where possible, or to the best available zoos for the rest of their lives. This gross and tragic exploitation of elephants has gone on for far too long. There have been far too many elephant and, indeed, human, tragedies. There has been far too much suffering.

We have tinkered around the edges for long enough, and more baby steps are not the answer. Elephants do not belong in zoos. Pole Pole was just another tragic statistic in a catalogue that overflows with tragic statistics. Let us be bold. Let us be brave. Let us be principled. Let’s stop this now.


Please read the IN-DEPTH 48-PAGE REPORT HERE.

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