Is there Educational Value Viewing Elephants in Captivity?

Slowing down and engaging visitors in the learning process is critically important to education and integral to generating postive conservation outcomes. Unfortunately, most people viewing elephants in captivity spend only the briefest period looking at the animals.

In 2010, Zoocheck Canada conducted a study of the amount of time zoo visitors spend watching 7 different species of animals, including elephants, at the Toronto Zoo. The study revealed that on average, visitors spent 117 seconds (less than 2 minutes) watching the elephants and the mean time (which is the more appropriate measurement to be used in viewing time studies), was 79.5 seconds. 

In addition, less than 1% of the people who visited the Toronto Zoo's elephant exhibit read the signage. The study was done during the summer months when the zoo experiences its highest attendance.

This Toronto Zoo study is consistent with numerous other studies conducted at other facilities, including one at the UK's Chester Zoo, where the average length of time visitors spent observing the elephants was also less than 2 minutes on average, with a median of 87.5 seconds.


Natural Behaviour vs. Captive Behaviour

In the wild, elephants spend the majority of their time foraging and socializing. A free-living elephant's daily life is distinguished by need, purpose, challenge, choice, will, autonomy, and camaraderie. The small captive environment allotted to most elephants in captivity does not allow these animals to conduct themselves in a natural way. For this reason, people learn little about these animals beyond their size, shape and colour, and even that may be misleading since many captive elephants are obese due to lack of exercise and/or don't walk normally because of foot problems and arthritis.

In addition, many captive elephants develop aberrant behaviours that are not observed in wild elephants, such as stereotypic behaviours (meaningless repetitive movements that do not occur in the wild), like swaying, head-bobbing or pacing, hyperaggressiveness or lethargy.
These behaviours often present a distorted and confused message to viewers who don't understand them and believe they are normal. One only needs to do a quick search on YouTube to find numerous videos of elephants exhibiting stereotypic behaviours while adults explain to children that the elephants are "dancing". This is only one example of miseducation conveyed through the viewing of elephants in captive situations where they are unable to engage in normal movements and behaviours. In addition to stereotypies, a range of other abnormal behaviours are common in elephants in captivity. Left on their own, many zoo visitors receive the wrong impression of these enormously intelligent, highly social, extremely active animals. 

Proof of Educational Impact?
Many zoos claim that viewing elephants in captivity creates a greater appreciation for the animals and leads to beneficial behaviour change and positive conservation outcomes that help elephants in the wild. In fact, there is no empirical data to support this assertion. There remains no compelling evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education or interest in conservation in visitors.

In any event, if zoos, who are lacking in space, resources or who are located in inappropriate climates, are focused on teaching people about African elephants and generating positive conservation outcomes, there are much more effective ways to do so than the keeping and display of elephants.

Studies show that interactive exhibits promote greater learning with longer retention of information. At the heart of interactivity is reciprocity of action, where a visitor acts on the exhibit and the exhibit reacts in some way. People learn by building their own understandings based on experience, and that educational systems should offer experiences to support learning. Research also suggests that interactive exhibits can be memorable, with many visitors able to describe the thoughts and feelings they had at the exhibits over 6 months after a visit. The Elephant Learning Centre that Zoocheck Canada is proposing for the Toronto Zoo is just one example of an elephant exhibit that includes interactive learning and will hold the attention of visitors significantly longer than they are currently spending looking at elephants.
Of course, the initial success of any exhibit is largely based on how well it is promoted. However, for an exhibit to hold public attention over the long term, it must be engaging and stimulate return visitation. 

Is there Conservation or Research Value to                Elephants in Captivity

Captive Breeding
In 2003, the International Union for Conservation of Nature / Species Survival Commission African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) included the following in a statement about the role of captive facilities in in situ African elephant conservation:

    "The AfESG is concerned by the poor breeding success and low life expectancy of captive African elephants and
    does not see any contribution to the effective conservation of the species through captive breeding per se."

The zoo industry states, unequivocally, that elephants being bred in North American Zoos will not be returned to the wild nor is there a belief that reintroduction will help save elephants from extinction.

Despite this, the general public has been given the false impression that elephants that are bred in captivity will someday be returned to the wild. While there may be significant public support for reintroduction programs, the public seems largely unaware that elephant breeding programs do no have the goal of returning animals to the wild and very few zoos have made efforts to correct this false assumption.

In the wild, a typical female elephant is in her prime reproductive age from her mid-20s to mid-40s and gives birth every four to six years, thereby producing approximately seven offspring in her approximate 70 year life span. Elephants have no problems reproducing in the wild. In fact, in some regions where elephant populations have been left alone (i.e., not subjected to hunting/poaching), their numbers have grown substantially.

In contrast, elephants in captivity in the US reproduce poorly. The North American Region Studbook for African Elephants (2000) indicates there were 30 males and 206 female African elephants. The Studbook also shows that only 8 males and 15 females who are living have reproduced, meaning only 7% of all females in captivity have reproduced.

The physically and psychologically compromised conditions of many captive situations have rendered elephant breeding programs a failure, resulting in a significant decrease in the elephant population each year
. Evidence from a number of field studies shows that, provided sufficient resources are invested, even critically threatened populations of large vertebrates can be conserved effectively in the wild. Captive breeding for reintroduction is not part of legitimate elephant conservation.


Zoos often suggest that they foster research and scientific study of elephants, thereby contributing to both education and conservation. However, much of what can be learned from these animals has in fact already been learned. Reproductive physiology, such as length of gestation, and general physiology, such as visual acuity, have already been examined in detail. Furthermore, using reproductive information from elephants may actually be detrimental to conservation and management due to unnatural and atypical breeding behaviour in the artificial groupings of captive animals. Left undisturbed, elephants reproduce well in the will.

The research being done in zoos tends to focus on solving captive animal management and breeding problems. Since elephants have no problem breeding in the wild, and captive breeding programs in zoos are failing, there is little if anything of value that can be learned by conducting this research in zoos.

A review of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums list of Scientific Advisory Groups (SAGs) corroborate this statement. The SAGs focus almost entirely on issues pertaining to the management of animals in captivity. The disciplines most active in these programs are veterinary medicine and pathology, nutrition, reproductive biology, contraception and behaviour.

There are a number of factors that restrict the ability of zoos to conduct research that will benefit elephants in the wild such as different physical and psychological ailments that result from captivity, different stressors in each environment and captive elephants not living as long as their wild counterparts.
As well, veterinary developments and techniques will be difficult to apply to wild situations, as most elephant range countries do not have the capacity to intervene in this way and some jurisdictions maintain a more or less "hands off" approach to wildlife management.
Since most research pertaining to elephants in captivity involves reproduction and behaviour, and the zoo industry has already stated there is no need or intention to breed elephants for conservation purposes, research programs involving elephants in zoos have little conservation benefit and can be a waste of scarce financial resources.

Even if there were some small benefit, one has to consider the cost to the elephants themselves (i.e., reduced welfare, pain, suffering).