Zoo life not so good for elephants

14 December 2008


Everybody loves elephants, and they're often a big attraction in any zoo. But some rather sad news in this week's edition of the journal Science suggests that zoo life my not be all that good for them.

ElephantResearchers from the RSPCA, along with other colleagues, did a survey of nearly 800 elephants living in zoos, and compared them to around 3,000 elephnts who either lived wild in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, or were working with loggers in Burma.

The results of the -ahem - mammoth survey were shocking. The African elephants in the National Park lived for around 56 years, and even those that were poached or killed by humans lived and average of 36. But African elephants in zoos only made it to an average of 17.  And we know this is because adults are dying younger, and the death rates among baby and young elephants were the same across the populations.

Looking at Asian elephants, the team found the same thing. The logging elephants in Burma made it to an average of 42 years old, compared with Asian elephants in zoos that lived to an average of just 19.  But in this case, most of the difference was due to higher death rates among newborn baby elephants in zoos, rather than adults dying younger.  The researchers think this my be due to traumatic events while the babies are still in the womb, as Asian elephants that are born wild but then captured for zoos live longer on average than those born in captivity.

So what's causing the difference? The RSPCA believe that zoo life causes the elephants stress and obesity, which affects their lifespan. And diseases such as herpes, and tuberculosis, as well as lameness and infertility play a part.  The researchers also point the finger at the stress that happens when animals are transferred between zoos - especially when this involves separating mothers and calves.

Although it's causing controversy in the world of zookeepers, this study highlights the fact that more needs to be done for the welfare of zoo elephants. And maybe we should ask if they should be kept in zoos at all.


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