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Campaigners call for elephants to be banned from UK zoos

A new report claims that 40 per cent of infant elephants die in zoos before the age of five

Joanna Whitehead
Thursday 05 May 2022 11:33 BST
Visitors take pictures of an elephant in captivity at a zoo in Manila
Visitors take pictures of an elephant in captivity at a zoo in Manila (Getty Images)

Wildlife experts are once more calling on zoos to cease keeping elephants, arguing that holding them in captivity is “archaic, unethical and damaging”.

A damming new report from animal rights charity Born Free Foundation, which is backed by numerous high-profile conservation and animal welfare experts, including Chris Packham, claims that 40 per cent of infant elephants die in zoos before the age of five.

Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame claims that “a majority” of elephants in European and Northern American zoos develop and display abnormal behaviours, such as compulsive rocking and swaying “as a consequence of long-term psychological damage” from being held in captivity.

It notes that, in the wild, these highly intelligent and social creatures roam across large areas in complex multigenerational families, while those living in zoos are often confined to enclosures only slightly larger than a football pitch with an average “herd” of just three, while some are kept completely on their own.

As a consequence, they can suffer “dramatically shortened life expectancies, a multitude of health problems, and cannot participate in the rich social and behavioural norms of their species.”

There are currently 580 elephants in European zoos, including 49 across the UK.

Now the charity is calling on the keeping of elephants to be eradicated entirely.

Will Travers OBE, the co-founder and executive president of Born Free says that the report provides “an avalanche of data and analysis that provides cast iron proof that we have failed to deliver a life worth living for elephants in zoos.”

He said: “The number of elephants bred in captivity and returned to the wild can, generously, be counted on the fingers of one hand.

“This gross and tragic exploitation of elephants has gone on too long,” he adds. “There has been far too much suffering.”

“More baby steps are not the answer,” he says. “Elephants do not belong in zoos. Let us be bold. Let us be brave. Let us be principled. Let us stop this now.”

The report comes as the government is currently reviewing its Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

A statement from the CEO of Chester Zoo, one of the UK’s largest zoos and home to six elephants, insists that staff have been “at the very forefront” of conservation efforts for the animals.

“This includes becoming the first UK zoo to have a multi-generational family herd, successfully utilising protective contact between elephants and keepers, developing new foot health treatments to combat age-related issues and now, our scientists are spearheading vital new research on behalf of the global conservation community to find a viable vaccine for a deadly virus that affects elephants in zoos and the wild, known as EEHV,” said Jamie Christon.

“Elephants are one of the world’s most persecuted animals and are highly endangered as poaching, habitat loss, disease and conflict with humans have decimated their numbers,” he added. “We must now work together in finding the best way forward that will ultimately prevent their extinction.”

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