Amazingly, a single elephant footprint is so big that it can create an entire micro-ecosystem when filled with water, providing a home for tadpoles and other organisms in the wild. In their herds they tread ancient migratory routes that cross thousands of miles, yet in captivity all of this is lost. Their existence is no more natural than it is to spend the rest of your life in lockdown.

These majestic animals are the largest mammals on Earth and much like humans, they’re highly social, protect one another, feed, and play together. They live in matriarchal herds led by strong, family-orientated females who share mothering responsibilities for their babies. Zoos deny them this by forcing them into captivity, claiming it’s for 'conservation' and 'education' – but in reality they provide neither.

A history of exploitation

The capture and exploitation of elephants began 4,000 years ago in Pakistan when they were sent to war or used for heavy logging and construction, and people have continued to capture, abuse, and work them ever since. 

Today, elephants are kept primarily for entertainment, with more than 20,000 in captivity across the globe, and circumstances for most are abysmal. They’re transported in tiny trailers for circuses, stuck in small enclosures at zoos, used to carry tourists on safari, paraded in the streets for ceremony and begging, and chained in the sun outside temples. 

Many have been ‘tamed’ through unbelievable brutality and kept under life-long human control with continued abuse. Most elephants used by circuses and zoos are captured in the wild and forced to leave their freedom and families behind. Speaking for World Animal Protection (WAP), global wildlife and veterinary adviser Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach says: 

The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing. We want tourists to know that many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their life.

Concerns about captivity

Wild elephants are at risk of extinction, yet zoos are still taking them into captivity; ignoring overwhelming evidence that they simply cannot thrive and often struggle to survive there. 

According to a report by Born Free, zoos have failed to educate people about elephants or produce a conservation dividend, as well as “abysmally failing to produce enough baby elephants to replace the number of elephants that have died in their care.”

Their report concludes that “The zoo environment cannot possibly provide elephants with the space or complexity of habitat they require, nor can it enable the complex social groupings and bonds to develop that are clearly so important in normal elephant society.”

Such is the concern for the welfare of elephants, some zoos are now voluntarily stopping keeping them, but we must do more. 

Why captivity kills

When a study by Harper Adams University and Nottingham Trent University was shared by national media recently with the common headline “Elephants enjoy zoo visitors, study suggests,” Freedom for Animals was compelled to call out the truth. Shorter lifespans, lower reproductive success, higher still birth rates and infant mortality, painful health issues and increased susceptibility to disease: all of these are direct impacts of captivity on elephants. 

In 2022 Endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) killed two-year-old Asian elephant Umesh in Zoo Zurich. Many captive elephants also exhibit zoochosis – repetitive behaviours induced by frustration and repeated attempts to cope, such as swaying, head-bobbing, pacing, and circling -  the same damaging mental illness indicators that are seen in many other species held prisoner in zoos and aquariums.

The destruction of family bonds and relationship dynamics is another major problem facing captive elephants. At Bristol’s Noah’s Ark Zoo in 2021 two bull males Jaku and Shaka killed twelve-year old M'Changa while he was sleeping in his enclosure - a fight that likely occurred due to a lack of space and inappropriate social grouping.

Some institutions such as Twycross Zoo are having to admit they can’t cope with their elephants. In a statement the zoo says it moved its all-female herd to Blackpool Zoo where there is a bull, to “ensure the long-term survival of this beautiful, endangered species.” But there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that the future survival of elephants depends upon zoos, or that the absence of an adult bull in a zoo elephant group seriously compromises the animals’ welfare. In fact, wild Asian elephants live in groups consisting entirely of adult females and their calves with no permanent adult bull members.

Wild conservation

Despite droughts, ivory poachers, and human-elephant-conflict (HEC) due to fights over food and water, elephants still live longer in the wild, and there are several wonderful conservation projects helping to protect them.

In Namibia trained Elephant Guards are helping with education, HEC mitigation workshops, and community empowerment, so that everyone is safer and more able to peacefully coexist. Meanwhile in Kenya, the Big Tusker Project is providing aerial surveillance and backup to anti-poaching operations, as well as participating in censuses and scientific research to monitor elephant populations. 

In Central Nepal the Community Based Elephant Conservation project works with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation to strengthen and mobilise Elephant Response Teams. They respond to HEC incidents, conduct village-level outreach, and provide education to change attitudes towards elephants. 

Conservation charity Elephant Voices encourages zoos to end elephant captivity by offering high-end virtual educational exhibits instead. These would use webcams, plus other technology to connect people to the lives of wild elephants and stimulate interest in their conservation. 

How you can help

While a wild elephant's footprint can sustain a whole ecosystem, humanity's footprint on elephants has been one of torment and destruction, but you can help. 

FFA has long fought to protect and liberate captive elephants and had great success in helping to bring about the Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019. Now we need your support to take the next steps for elephants who have long been close to our hearts and central to our work: so much so that they’ve always featured in the FFA logo. 

Help us to secure a future of freedom for elephants by signing on to our action to ban the keeping of elephants in zoos. You can use the online form to contact DEFRA and demand that the government keeps its promise and announces an end to the keeping of elephants in UK zoos.

To do something even more personal, become a Freedom Champion – by signing up to a regular monthly gift you will power all that we do to end the exploitation of elephants and all animals in captivity and you will play a critical role in stopping cruelty. Plus, all this month, as part of our Freedom Champion Sign-Up Month you will receive a free soft toy elephant as an extra special thank you too!

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