Elephants pack their trunks and say goodbye to London Zoo

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London Zoo is to give up its 170-year tradition of keeping elephants, in tacit recognition that it does not have a suitable place to house them.

Abandoning its most recognisable symbols has clearly been a difficult decision for the zoo authorities, but it accords with a change in thinking about how wild animals should be kept in captivity.

The announcement was made yesterday, 10 days after the death of Jim Robson, a keeper who was trampled and crushed by one of the three Asian elephants currently kept at the site in Regent's Park.

The zoo authorities said, though, that the move was not a reaction to Mr Robson's death but part of a long- standing plan, and the announcement was being made now because of the heightened focus on the elephants in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The three animals, Dilberta, the female that killed Mr Robson, Mya and Layang-Layang, are to be transferred to much more spacious rural quarters in the zoo's sister park at Whipsnade in the Bedfordshire countryside.

Their transfer will mean an end to a tradition of keeping elephants in central London that dates back without a break to 1831. It will disappoint the zoo's supporters and visitors who see the elephants as its most familiar symbols.

The elephant house on the 36-acre site was opened in 1965 and was designed by the celebrated modernist Sir Hugh Casson.

Over the years many of the Regent's Park elephants were crowd-pleasers and indeed crowd-pullers, which were known by name and carried visitors on their backs.

But in the past 20 years public perceptions about how wild animals should be kept in captivity have undergone substantial change.

Animal rights campaigners have challenged the very concept of zoos, while zoos themselves have accepted that, if animals are to be kept at all, they must have conditions as close to nature as possible, and the justification must be for conservation and education rather than just display.

London Zoo itself openly recognises this, but its particular problem is the relatively cramped site and its legacy of animal houses, many of which are architecturally interesting and indeed listed, but not ideal homes for captive wild creatures.

Sir Hugh Casson's concrete-walled (and Grade II listed) pavilion was built to house both elephants and rhinos, but in recent years the single biggest complaint the zoo received from visitors was that the rhinos did not have enough space. In response, they were quietly moved out to Whipsnade last summer.

Now the elephants are to leave the other half of the Casson enclosure and, although the zoo is not giving a date when this will happen, work has already started on their new Whipsnade home.

"It has been a long-standing plan to assemble all our elephants at Whipsnade, a move that would significantly increase the potential of our conservation breeding programme," Michael Dixon, director general of the zoo's parent body, the Zoological Society of London, said yesterday.

Mr Dixon added: "Even though the move cannot take place immediately, we feel it right to make this announcement now because of the high level of current interest following the tragic death of our colleague, Jim Robson.

"We will be sorry to see the elephants go; there have been elephants in London Zoo since 1831. But Whipsnade is very accessible, being only 40 minutes' drive from Regent's Park, and these elephants will be able to benefit from the larger group, with a breeding bull and two pregnant companions to socialise with."