August 2022

New update:

Our friends at the Born Free Foundation have released compelling new statistics regarding the British public’s view on keeping large animals in zoos. A significant 76% of the people surveyed believed it to be “very or quite important that the next UK government phase out the keeping of large animals such as elephants, lions, tigers, rhinos and giraffes in captivity”. These findings offer a remarkable insight into how the public’s overall perception of zoos is changing, and that a large number of people are no longer convinced that the “conservation” narrative, which zoos so often push, is either a warranted or justifiable excuse for keeping these incredible animals confined to a life of imprisonment.

You can read more on the new survey here!

We are calling on the government to commit to ending the keeping of elephants in zoos in the UK

Elephants don’t belong in zoos. The evidence is overwhelming that elephants simply do not thrive in captive environments. This has been known for many years, but still many zoos hold on to the past and still hold on to their elephants.

DEFRA, the government department with responsibility for zoos, may be contemplating phasing out elephants from zoos in the near future. We are calling on DEFRA to recognise the scientific evidence and bring the shameful captivity of elephants in zoos and safari parks to an end, once and for all.

A recent report1 may convince DEFRA to do the right thing. Our friends at Born Free Foundation recently published a report entitled Elephants in Zoos: A legacy of Shame. And a shameful legacy it is too. Despite the evidence which clearly shows elephants do not thrive in zoos, more than 1000 elephants are kept captive in zoos in Europe and North America, with many in solitary confinement despite their complex social needs. 

In the UK the number of elephants in zoos has been declining over the years as individual animals have died and thankfully have not been replaced. However, there are still 49 elephants in 11 UK zoos – 49 too many. 

There is no doubt that elephants endure significant welfare problems in captivity. In the UK, captive elephants: 

  • live shorter lives than wild elephants – African savannah elephants and Asian elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild (median = 40), while the median lifespan of captive elephants is less than 20 years
  • have poor reproductive success compared to wild elephants – in the wild African and Asian elephants will not start breeding until they are about 12 years’ old. In zoos female elephants are forced to breed from as young as 4 years’ old, often through invasive artificial insemination (which has a very poor success rate)
  • have higher incidence of stillbirth and infant mortality – stillbirth rates for captive-bred elephant calves are 20% compared to about 12% for both African and Asian elephants, while 40% of captive-bred elephant calves die before they reach 5 years, compared to 9% and 5% of wild-born calves for Africa and Asian elephants, respectively
  • suffer from foot and musculoskeletal impairments mostly due to being constantly exposed to hard, artificial surfaces – wild elephants on the other hand are exposed to a wide range of substrates which helps to keep their foot pads soft and supple
  • are classified as overweight or obese – in 2008 a study of elephants in UK zoos showed that 92% (70 of 76 elephants) were overweight which in turn increases the likelihood of foot and joint problems and other health problems

There is also no doubt that zoos cannot provide appropriate environments or social requirements for elephants:

  • in the wild, African elephants’ home ranges extend from 10 – 14,000km2 while Asian elephants home range extends from about 30 – 1000km2 – captive elephants have just a fraction of this space, an average of just 0.008km2 
  • median herd size is 9 to 16 for African elephants, 7 to 10 for Asian elephants but just 3 for captive elephants 
  • in the wild, male elephants will disperse (leave the matriarchal group) at the age of 14 for African and between 11 to 20 for Asian elephants – in captivity almost 40% of males are transferred to other zoos before they are 12 years’ old
  • in both African and Asian elephants, females remain with the family herd for life – in captivity, females are often moved removed from their family group and moved to another zoo for breeding purposes or for behavioural reasons

Can you imagine the distress of an elephant being ripped from their family herd against their will and being transported to a new environment and forced to socialise with other, unfamiliar elephants?

In addition to the poor health and welfare of captive elephants the mental torture endured by captive elephants is simply unacceptable – stereotypic behaviour is widespread and an indication that captive elephants cannot cope with their surroundings. 

Capture of wild elephants

The death rate of elephants in zoos around the world is significantly higher than the birth rate meaning that zoos still need to source elephants from the wild to maintain the global zoo population – this is clear evidence that zoos contribute nothing to the conservation of elephants. Despite the fact that all elephant species numbers are declining and are at risk of extinction, zoos are still taking elephants from the wild. Few, if any, will ever be released back to the wild by zoos – they simply keep them to entertain paying visitors.

Money spent by zoos on new enclosures

Some zoos are still investing large sums of money on new elephant enclosures despite the knowledge that elephants suffer in zoos – in 2019, Blackpool Zoo spent £5 million building an enclosure measuring just 0.01km2 (2.4 acres), while in 2021 in the USA, Fort Worth Zoo in Texas spent $32 million (£23.6 million) on a new enclosure just 0.024km2 (6 acres). Incredibly, Cincinnati Zoo has announced plans to spend $50 million (£36.9 million). Just think what these staggering sums of money could achieve for conservation of elephants in the wild.

The future

Freedom for Animals believes it is time for the UK government to demonstrate its commitment to animal protection by bringing an end to the keeping of elephants in zoos and safari parks.

All remaining captive elephants should be assessed for release to the wild if appropriate or if that is not possible to be transferred to Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) accredited sanctuaries such as the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the European Elephant Sanctuary in France, where they can live out the rest of their lives in the best possible environment in the company of other elephants and away from the constant stream of gawping people.

Zoos also have a choice – continue to keep elephants in captivity despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that zoos are no place for elephants, or they can step up, admit that elephants do not thrive in zoos and commit to phasing them out.

No more elephants should be taken from the wild for the zoo industry and breeding within zoos must cease immediately. It’s time for us all to say no to elephants in zoos.

What you can do to help elephants!

Using our online form contact the government and DEFRA Minister Thérèse Coffey to politely request that the government acknowledges the scientific evidence and announce an end to the keeping of elephants in UK zoos.

Also contact your MP/MSP/MS/MLA and ask them to support an end to keeping elephants in captivity.

Support our campaign and become a Freedom Champion this August and receive a free soft toy elephant as an extra special thank you!

Case Study – Blackpool Zoo & Kate the elephant, a victim of the zoo industry

Kate, a female Indian elephant born in the wild in 1969 was transported to England when just two years' old and has spent over 50 years in captivity in Blackpool Zoo. Can you imagine the mother and calf’s distress and trauma at being separated all those years ago? Female Indian elephants remain in their family group for life in the wild, so Kate was removed from her entire family just to ‘entertain’ humans. Kate was forced to endure a long, gruelling sea journey which must have been a frightening and stressful experience. Incarcerated in Blackpool Zoo and forced to perform tricks for many years until the late 1990s which was eventually stopped thanks to pressure from animal protection advocates. In 2009, Kate’s only companion Crumple was euthanised by vets due to severe arthritis, a condition commonly suffered by captive elephants. Kate spent many years alone – deprived of her right to be part of a family group in her home country of India. 

Instead of assessing her for the possibility of release back to the wild or retiring her to an appropriate sanctuary where she could have lived out her life in a more appropriate environment, Blackpool Zoo decided to build a new elephant enclosure. 

In 2019, Blackpool Zoo spent over £5 million building an elephant enclosure which is just 2.4 acres in size to house Kate and five other Indian elephants (four females and one male). Two of these new elephants were also born in the wild and three in other zoos (two in UK and one in USA). 

On its website, Blackpool Zoo states that “Kate is a strong minded elephant, a trait which comes with age and wisdom. She's very fond of her keepers and has a strong bond with them. Kate has been known to take her time with new experiences, often waiting until she is 100% comfortable before embracing a change. Since the introduction of her herd mates, Kate continues to be independent within the herd, often choosing to keep herself to herself. A trait that comes with age and wisdom!”.

Traits that comes from ‘age and wisdom’? Or traits that are a direct result of the impact of over 50 years’ captivity in a tiny enclosure in an unnatural group with nowhere to go? It is more likely that Kate continues to be independent, often keeping herself to herself because of the completely unsuitable environment and the unnatural grouping she finds herself in.

Sadly, Blackpool Zoo seems set on perpetuating the misery of elephants in captivity – despite all of the scientific evidence which shows that elephants do not thrive in zoos, Blackpool Zoo has brought in a male elephant (Emmett) from the USA via Whipsnade Zoo and have stated “It is hoped that Emmett's experience will see the next generation of Asian elephants at Blackpool Zoo, contributing to the future of the species.”

Let’s be absolutely clear – the keeping of elephants in zoos has never and will never be of any conservation or education value and will not contribute to the future of the species. The only way to do that is to protect elephants in their natural habitats in India and Africa. Just think what conservationists in India could have done with £5 million. 




1Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame (2022), Born Free Foundation 

- 12th August 2022