Frequently Asked Questions
How much space do elephants need?
In the wild, elephants range widely over a variety of different terrain types and typically travel long distances. African elephants are estimated to walk 30 – 60 km (19 – 37 miles) per day, while Asian elephants are estimated to move 10 – 20 km (7 – 13 miles) per day.
Elephants can be active for up to 20 hours each day walking, foraging (browsing and grazing), dusting, mud wallowing, swimming and socializing. They require enough space to choose their own social partners, allow free association with others when they choose to be together and allow a safe haven when they want to get away. In short, they need to be able to engage in a broad range of species-typical movements and behaviours.
What does that mean exactly? According to many elephant scientists, an enclosure should be big enough to hold a couple of family groups (adults and juveniles numbering perhaps 20-30 individuals divided into several affiliated units) as well as several independent adult males. There are many other considerations, but just these criteria require space on the order of tens of square kilometres. Zoos may not be able to provide this kind of space, but it is clear they can do much better than at present.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) outdoor space requirement for an adult elephant is 1,800 ft² (167 m²), the equivalent of nine standard parking lot spaces. The AZA indoor requirement is 400 ft² (37 m²). Some zoos exceed these minimal requirements, but few provide expansive exhibits that allow species-typical movements and behaviours. In fact, the larger urban zoo elephant exhibits are only several acres in size.
An additional problem for some elephants is the fact that they are confined indoors during non-visitor hours and during cold weather. In some cases, this can be 16 hours per day or even more.
Why is space so important for captive elephants when they have food and water provided for them?
Some people claim there is no evidence that elephants require ample space and argue that elephants (and other animals) only move about in the wild because they have to. That claim is antiquated and unscientific.
What are the behavioural consequences of lack of space?
Confined in a small space with very few, if any, social partners and minimal or no autonomy over their lives, zoo elephants have very little to do each day. Being intelligent animals, they become bored. Boredom itself leads to a variety of behavioral problems including heightened aggression, in some cases, and neurotic or stereotypic behavior, such as rocking back and forth, swaying from side to side or bobbing the head up and down. Some elephants are known to pull repeatedly on their own nipples until they are abnormally elongated; others chew on the ears of other elephants, until physical damage is caused. Some elephants become lethargic, standing in one location, leaning on walls, trunk draped on the ground, a mode of behaviour that is highly unnatural and problematic.
What else is important for elephant spaces?
Being highly active, extremely intelligent animals, elephants require complex environments that encourage species-typical movements and behaviours. Landscape features such as slopes and gullies and a variety of substrate types, including earth and pasture, are important, as well as dry (dust) and wet (mud) wallows, pools, vistas for elephants to view their surroundings, rock features, rubbing surfaces, brush, trees, shady areas and quiet rest locations. Elephant environments should encourage not only mental activity, but exercise, including walking, running, turning, reaching, stretching, climbing, digging, pushing, pulling and lifting.
What’s wrong with keeping elephants in cold weather climates?
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 those 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 typically required to spend more time indoors. The lower the temperature, the longer they must stay inside. This is problematic in several respects.
The massive reduction in space, decreased activity levels and loss of autonomy often lead to frustration, boredom, the development of abnormal behaviours and compromised elephant welfare. Confinement indoors can also be a significant factor in foot problems (from standing on challenging floor surfaces), circulatory issues and obesity and cold temperatures may exacerbate arthritis and other health issues.
Unfortunately, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) requirement for indoor space for a single elephant is a mere 400 ft² (37.2 m²). While some zoos exceed that standard, no zoos are able to provide sufficient indoor space to allow for natural elephant movements and behaviour.
Can elephants acclimatize to cold weather?
No, 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.
Do micro-habitats resolve cold climate issues?
No, micro-habitat stations, such as windbreaks and heated shelters, are stopgap measures that do little to address the core issue of elephants living in inappropriate climates. Elephants in captivity should be able to roam, engage in species-typical behaviours, such as foraging, mud wallowing, swimming, socializing with other elephants or obtaining privacy at times of their choosing, throughout their entire living space all year round. Providing micro-habitat areas does little to facilitate normal elephant movements, activity and welfare on a year round basis.
What kind of ailments and diseases are the most common among elephants in zoos?
Foot disease, caused by standing on hard floor surfaces for long periods of time is the number one source of elephant pain, suffering and premature death. Prolonged standing on hard flooring and lack of exercise causes arthritis and other chronic, sometimes fatal, orthopedic disabilities. When elephants stand on wet floors, foot infections may also result.
Lack of exercise, poor physical fitness and stress may lead to obesity and exacerbate respiratory problems, as well as make it difficult for elephant cows to give birth or for old or injured elephants to get up after lying down. Many elephants also suffer from diseases, such as elephant herpes virus and tuberculosis, reproductive issues (eg. infertility, stillbirths) and nutrition-associated problems, including colic and malpositioned teeth.
Captive elephants should be well looked after – why do they get sick at all?
In professional zoos elephants are usually subject to a regular program of health-care, but they still live inpredominantly artificial, unnatural environments, under physical and psychological conditions that are impossible for an animal as large and as socially complex as an elephant to fully adapt to. The consequences of such living conditions are often the development of chronic health and behavioural problems.
Do wild elephants have foot problems?
According to the scientists who study elephants in the wild, the kinds of foot problems experienced by captive elephants are unknown in their wild counterparts. The primary reason for the difference in foot health is that wild elephants are able to walk on natural terrain which exercises their feet and legs, whereas captive elephants spend extremely long periods standing in one location, often on hard surfaces, especially elephants that are confined indoors during non-visitor hours and/or during cold weather.
Isn’t the average life expectancy about the same for wild and captive elephants?
Recent studies indicate that the life expectancy of elephants in zoos is far shorter than that of elephants in protected areas in the wild. However, while the question of life expentancy is interesting, there is another more pertinent question to consider.
Elephants in zoos face none of the threats that wild elephants do, such as poaching for their ivory and/or meat, malnutrition during times of drought, occasional natural disease outbreaks or predation. As well, according to the zoo industry, elephants receive superior housing, care and medical attention. One has to wonder then, why elephants don't live significantly longer in zoos than in the wild? And why are there so many stillbirths, high infant mortality, low fertility, rampant obesity, foot problems, poor health and suffering from chronic and fatal ailments, which elephants don’t suffer from in the wild?
Is captive breeding a useful conservation strategy and are zoos returing elephants to the wild?
No, zoos are not returning elephants to the wild, nor have they any intention to do so. Zoo industry representatives are emphatic about that point. Elephants being bred in North American zoos will not be placed in the wild nor is there a belief that reintroduction will help save elephants from extinction.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature / Species Survival Commission African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) agrees. They say they do not see any contribution to the effective conservation of elephants through captive breeding.
The major threats to elephants in the wild (illegal poaching for ivory and/or meat, death during human-elephant conflict situations, human encroachment into elephant habitats, habitat fragmentation) will not be resolved through captive breeding. Wild elephants breed perfectly well on their own, and when protected from humans, thrive in their respective natural habitats.
Do zoos with elephants make valuable contributions to elephant conservation?
For example, the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, whose work helps to protect close to 1,500 elephants in 60 families in their natural habitat in Kenya, is the world’s longest field study of elephants and has produced much of the research upon which our current understanding of elephants is based.
For zoos to make a valuable contribution to conservation a significantly higher proportion of funds raised would be channeled towards research and conservation of wild elephants.
Does knowledge gained from work with captive elephants, like various medical treatments, benefit elephants in the wild?
Since elephants in the wild suffer from different ailments than zoo elephants, many of the techniques and procedures developed by zoo veterinarians are specific to life in captivity. In addition, even if the techniques could benefit wild elephants, most range states do not have the resources to deliver this level of veterinary care. Many countries, like Kenya, also have policies of primarily allowing “nature to take its course” – except in situations where people are the cause of injuries.
Isn’t it better to send elephants to zoos than let them be killed in culls?
Some African range states have conducted culls in areas where they believe there are too many elephants. Some zoos have obtained elephants, usually infants whose mothers were killed, from culling operations. These kinds of acquisitions are usually characterized as rescues.
Elephants acquired through culling operations suffer physical, psychological and emotional trauma that may last throughout their entire lives. This can be especially problematic in infants or juveniles who have witnessed their mother and family members being killed. There is now strong evidence that many of these elephants suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Is viewing elephants in captivity educational?
There is no empirical evidence supporting the notion that viewing elephants in captivity provides a positive educational experience or that it in any way results in any kind of behaviour change (or positive conservation outcomes) that benefit elephants in the wild.
In many zoos, the actual time spent watching elephants is minimal. For example, a 2010 study conducted by Zoocheck Canada showed that on average Toronto Zoo visitors spent less than 2 minutes observing elephants, with a mean time of just 77 seconds. At the UK’s Chester Zoo, an analogous study had very similar results.
Scientific studies show that education and the production of a positive conservation outcome requires time. If people are spending less than 2 minutes in front of an exhibit before moving on, there is little to be learned except the size, shape and colour of the animal (and for elephants who are prone to obesity, even that may be distorted).
Do zoos need elephants to draw visitors?
There is no evidence that zoos require elephants to attract visitors. In fact, the zoos that have ended their elephant displays report no downturn in attendance and several actually experienced an increase in visitor numbers. Many other zoos, both large and small, who do not now or never have displayed elephants maintain robust visitor numbers.
In a visitor survey conducted by the Toronto Zoo 85% of respondents said they would return to the zoo if there were no elephants. Approximately 5% of respondents had no opinion. For most people, the presence of elephants doesn't matter.
Have any zoos phased out their elephant displays?
Yes, a significant number of zoos have ended their elephant displays (or are phasing them out) for ethical or financial reasons. They include the Detroit Zoo, Henry Vilas Zoo, Bronx Zoo and London Zoo to name just a few.
India’s Central Zoo Authority (the government agency responsible for all zoos in India) issued a directive in 2009 ordering all elephants in zoos to be relocated to more natural environments in national parks, sanctuaries and elephant camps. They cited generally poor welfare conditions in zoos and lack of conservation value as the reason for the directive.
How are elephant sanctuaries different from zoos?
While there are many differences, both philosophical and practical, between elephant sanctuaries and zoos, the most obvious is the space allocated to the animals. Even the largest urban zoo elephant enclosures are tiny compared to the enclosures found in elephant sanctuaries. In addition, while many zoo elephant yards are relatively flat and devoid of vegetation, enclosures in elephant sanctuaries provide a variety of natural substrates, including areas of earth, pasture, mud wallows, living vegetation, forest, quiet areas, high points that serve as viewing vistas for the elephants, as well as slopes and other terrain to encourage significant muscular activity.
Other significant differences between elephant sanctuaries and zoos are the autonomy the elephants have, moving about their enclosures in a manner of their choosing, free association with other elephants and not being confined indoors for significant periods of time.
Are elephant sanctuaries accredited?
The Elephant Sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary was accredited by The Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS), of which they were a founding member. TAOS recently joined with GFAS.
Are there elephant deaths at sanctuaries?
Yes, from time to time elephants die at sanctuaries. While these deaths are tragic, they are not entirely unexpected. Many of the elephants currently living in sanctuaries are cast-offs from the entertainment and zoo industry and have suffered years, sometimes decades, of abuse. Many arrive at the sanctuaries in extremely poor health, but once they are in more natural conditions their health often improves.