International wildlife charity Born Free has today called for a phase out of elephants from UK zoos, in light of continued concerns about elephant welfare and shortened lifespan.

The charity- which was originally founded as Zoo Check in 1984 after the death at London Zoo of a wild-caught African elephant named Pole Pole – is concerned that the needs of elephants cannot be met in a zoo environment. And it seems that the UK public also has concerns with a new survey, carried out by Ipsos Mori on behalf of Born Free, indicating that more than half (56%) of those polled think that elephants should not be kept in zoos in the UK.

In 1984, there were 20 zoos in the UK keeping around 50 elephants, of which 44 had been taken from the wild. Today, 35 years later, there are 52 elephants in 12 zoos across the UK. Now, Born Free is calling for there to be no elephants in UK zoos within the next 35 years.

As if the plight of a zoo elephant were not sad enough, some UK zoos continue to permit their keepers to handle elephants using an ankus, or bullhook

Elephants in captivity risk dying younger than their wild counterparts: for example, for those African elephants present in the UK in 1984 who have since died, more than half did not reach 20 years old. In protected areas in the wild, at least half of African elephants might be expected to live to 56 years old or more.

In addition to reduced life expectancy, elephants face a range of problems from life in zoos including:

Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), the biggest killer of young elephants in captivity.

Abnormal behaviour, such as repetitive stereotypic swaying or pacing which is still seen in UK zoos.

Restricted space in relatively tiny enclosures lacking complexity, resulting in reduced activity and subsequent obesity and foot and joint problems.

The cold climate of the UK compared to elephants’ natural habitat in Africa and Asia.

Unnatural groupings of small numbers of unrelated elephants, and in some cases elephants kept alone, isolated from contact with members of their species.

Frequent transfers of individual elephants between zoos and separation from social groups, despite a need for stable life in family herds.

Take the example of elephants such as Thi Ha Way: Born in the wild in 1982, Thi Ha Way currently lives at Chester Zoo. She has birthed nine calves, only two of which are still alive. She reportedly killed her first calf shortly after birth; her second calf only survived a year; her third calf collapsed and died at 21 years old; her forth calf is 18 years old but was sent to a zoo in Hungary; her fifth calf was stillborn in 2004; her sixth, seventh and eighth calves (born 2006, 2011, 2015) all died of EEHV aged between two and three; her ninth calf was born in 2018 and is currently alive.

As if the plight of a zoo elephant were not sad enough, some UK zoos continue to permit their keepers to handle elephants using an ankus, or bullhook.  This hook-ended tool is often referred to as a “guide”, but is used to tap, pull or even hit elephants to control their movements. In order for this implement to be effective, elephants will be aware of its ability to cause pain. Born Free’s survey also found that more than three quarters (78%) of people polled, after being shown a photo of some examples of bullhooks, believed that the use of this implement is unacceptable.

“The current protection we afford to these intelligent and sensitive animals is wholly insufficient. Life for elephants in zoos is unnatural in almost every way. An honest assessment of zoos in the UK would conclude that they are no place for elephants,” said Dr Chris Draper, Born Free’s Head of Animal Welfare & Captivity.

“Life in the wild is increasingly tough for elephants, certainly, but life for elephants in zoos is neither a genuine alternative to life in the wild nor free of significant hardships. If, as has been claimed, zoos consume rather than produce elephants, the UK should have no part in continuing to subject such magnificent and complex animals to the restrictions of zoo life,” he added.

Born Free aims to phase-out the keeping of elephants in UK zoos over time. In order to make this a reality, the charity is calling, as a priority, for an end to the import of elephants to the UK and a moratorium on the breeding of elephants in zoos.

Anyone wanting to help can write to Defra Ministers and ask them to take action to phase out elephants from UK zoos. A pre-drafted letter directly to Defra can be accessed from the Born Free website: www.bornfree.org.uk/elephant-take-action.