Core Elephant Needs
Like most animals, elephants require food, water, shelter and veterinary care, but elephants have other core needs that are sometimes overlooked, ignored or dismissed.
In the wild, elephants inhabit very large home ranges and walk considerable distances every day. Their home ranges can be from several hundred sq km up to 5,000 sq km or more in size. For most people, this huge space is difficult to imagine.
To get an idea of how big a typical elephant home range is, try to picture a space that is 80 kilometers (50 miles) by 32 kilometers (20 miles) wide. That is about 640,000 acres.
Another way to envision a typical elephant home range is to think about it as a football field (including the end zones). With this spatial scale in mind, a typical zoo enclosure would be the size of two regular paperback books placed in the middle of the football field, with the elephants being the size of ants. When compared in this way, captive elephant enclosures, most being less than 1 acre in size (with even larger zoo enclosures being only around 5 acres) do not provide much space when compared with wild home ranges.
Elephants are biologically and behaviourally made for walking, foraging and inhabiting very large spaces. They need room to roam and exercise naturally, through interesting, varied environments, in the company of a socially complex group of elephants. A simple rule of thumb when considering space for elephants is "the bigger, the better." There is no upper limit.
Elephants in captivity should ideally be provided with enclosures measuring in the tens or hundreds of acres.
The current Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) requirement for outdoor space for a single adult elephant is 1,800 sq ft (167 sq m) while the indoor space requirement is a mere 400 ft² (37.2 m²). While some zoos exceed that standard, no zoos are able to provide expansive indoor accommodation that allows for natural elephant movement and behaviour.
While some African and Asian elephants may occasionally experience relatively low temperatures for short periods in certain parts of their range, they do not experience cold weather or winter conditions like that found in temperate regions, such as in Canada.
Modern elephants evolved to live in warm climates. While they can tolerate relatively brief exposure to cold conditions, when temperatures drop below a certain level (typically between 5 – 10°C), they are forced to stay indoors for prolonged periods of time. The massive reduction in space, decreased activity levels and loss of autonomy often leads to frustration, boredom, the development of abnormal behaviours and compromised elephant welfare. Confinement indoors can also be a significant factor in foot problems (through extended exposure to unnatural substrates), circulatory issues and obesity. Cold temperatures may also exacerbate arthritis and other health issues.
Clearly, modern elephants evolved to live in warm climates. While they can tolerate relatively brief exposure to cold conditions, they are not adapted to spend long periods in cold environments. Extinct "elephant" species who frequented cold regions had a range of adaptations that allowed them to thrive in those situations, such as long fur, insulating layers of fat and some even had a type of biological antifreeze in their blood, none of which are present in modern elephants.
Female elephants live within a matriarchal clan society, with a basic herd consisting of a mother and her offspring and relatives. Typically, the size of female elephant (family) herds range between 9 and 11 elephants - larger herds tend to split in two, but continue occupying the same home range and associating socially. The herd's welfare often depends on the matriarch's leadership - she sets the herd's direction and pace, and the rest of the herd follows her.
The cohesive structure of the herd also provides an excellent social environment in which young elephants can learn from others and mature. Young elephants learn social behaviours from family members, who play a critical role in their social development. By following their mother's and relatives' responses to other elephants and situations, the youngsters learn who their friends and family are, and who poses a threat. Foraging, mothering and communication skills (and cultural behaviours) are also learned from observing family members.
Recognizing the fact that social environment is critically important to all elephants, zoo associations around the world recommend a minumum of 3 elephants be kept together. Other experts, such as the Coalition for Captive Elephant Well-Being recommend a minimum of 5 - 10 animals.
Elephants are highly intelligent, extremely active animals who spend the majority of each day moving about and foraging for food. In fact, most elephants are active up to 18-20 hours each day. Their movement and lifestyle keeps them fit and healthy by toning their muscles, increasing physical fitness and making them think and learn as they move from one location to another.
Elephants must be provided with complex, stimulating enclosures that encourage species-typical movements and behaviours. Different kinds of terrain, forest, scrub vegetation, pasture, mud wallows, swimming holes, privacy areas, materials to investigate and manipulate, comfortable rest areas, and other features will, when combined with ample space, encourage a broad range of movements and behaviours.
The interests of elephants in captivity can best be addressed by providing an environment that: