16th May 2023

On the 9th May 2023, it was reported that a male African elephant called Sutton, originally born at West Midlands Safari Park (WMSP) in 2014 and who has resided with his mother Five since that day, was separated from his mother and relocated to Noah’s Ark Zoo in Bristol, to live alongside two other bull males already at the zoo - Jaku and Shaka. 

The British Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) claims that, at 20 acres, ‘The Elephant Eden’ at Noah’s Ark Zoo is one of the best facilities in the world for elephants, yet in the wild, African elephants’ home ranges extend from 10 – 14,000km2 (that’s over 3,459,475 acres!) so 20 acres is actually a microscopic 0.0006% of their natural range in the wild. Zoos also prevent elephants from experiencing the wonder of their ancient migratory routes, which cross thousands of miles and provide vital knowledge to the herd through generations. BIAZA’s statement also fails to acknowledge how poor the 20 acre captive facility measures up against true sanctuaries such as ‘The Elephant Sanctuary’ in Tennessee, which provides elephants with an incredible 3,060 acres (that’s 360 acres per elephant resident housed there!) in a much more suitable climate. Zoos can never provide elephants or any other animals with the adequate space or privacy they require to live a peaceful and fulfilled life. 

There have been a litany of issues at Noah’s Ark Zoo over the years. Freedom for Animals previously investigated the zoo after complaints surfaced about the poor conditions present, and found shocking evidence including the head of resident Bengal tiger, Tira, who had recently passed away, being found in a freezer, and her body skinned for "educational purposes". And at the zoo's so-called 'Elephant Eden' in 2021, twelve-year old M'Changa sadly died after he was attacked by Jaku (who arrived at the zoo in 2014) and Shaka (who arrived in 2018) whilst he was sleeping in his enclosure - a fight that likely occurred due to a lack of space and inappropriate social grouping. It has previously been reported that Shaka was originally taken from the wild, and has spent time at a number of zoos including Vienna, Duisberg and Lisbon. It appears that he has never been successfully integrated into another group of elephants, yet WMSP and Noah's Ark Zoo are still recklessly forcing the introduction of a new bull elephant into his current enclosure.

M'Changa's tragic death once again highlights why elephants should not be in zoos, and that the unnatural forcing together of unrelated male elephants in captive conditions is detrimental to their health and welfare. It is negligent to add another male to the same enclosure after such a terrible incident has already occurred within the current social group.

Noah’s Ark Zoo has also been linked to cruel animal circuses over the years, as has WMSP. It was discovered that Noah’s Ark Zoo’s resident tiger, Tira (mentioned above) was still “owned” by The Great British Circus, and that the zoo may have been linked to the breeding of cubs for circus use. Furthermore, WMSP was investigated by BIAZA for controversially breeding white lions, and shipping them, via a UK animal trainer, to a travelling circus in Japan. More can be read on that here.

BIAZA reported on the recent relocation of Sutton, and included statements from the keepers saying “it is a bittersweet time for me and the elephant team to see Sutton leave us. He has been here at the Park since his birth in 2014 and we have built a strong bond with him, but it is time for him to continue his journey”. His journey should be to the wild or an approved sanctuary….as should all captive elephants. 

But what about the precious familial bond of Sutton and his mother Five? Did that count for nothing to BIAZA? Imagine how desperately stressful the separation must be for a mother and son, who have been each other's only family and companion for nearly a decade. 

Sutton was the world’s first male elephant to be born in captivity by controversial and unethical artificial insemination of Five using wild bull semen; meaning that Five was alone before his birth in 2014, and now, since his relocation, faces a lonely existence trapped in an unnatural environment yet again. 

BIAZA claims that bull elephants naturally distance themselves from their mothers at Sutton’s age, and the separation has been carried out with that process in mind. Yet nothing about the orchestrated relationships, environment and living condition of a zoo, is natural. In the wild, the dispersal of young male elephants (typically from 10-20 years of age) from family groups is a natural process and the matriarch will often decide when this happens. Separating animals from their families at a time that is not of their own choosing, such as the case of Sutton and his mother, is incredibly unnatural and cruel. Sutton is only nine years old, and may well have stayed with his mother for over a decade longer if allowed the freedom to live a life outside of a cage, and make his own choices. 

Female elephants remain with their family herd for life, but in captivity females are often moved and separated from their family group on a regular basis. This is now the forced reality of Five, who is currently roaming her small enclosure alone and without her child, until the zoo decides to force a new male companion into her life so that she may bear more children to be stolen from her in the future. It’s a devastating reality for many elephants held captive in zoos; condemned to a life of solitary confinement and loneliness - all endorsed by BIAZA. 

The fact that BIAZA are still relocating elephants as part of their breeding programme is incredibly concerning, since the government are still in the process of deciding whether to phase out the keeping of all elephant species in zoos altogether, after commissioning a ten-year report to investigate the negative welfare implications of holding such complex animals in captivity. 

BIAZA claims that his birth was a great stride in conservation efforts to protect the species, as his genetics apparently provide “a key supporting role in serving wider conservation efforts as part of the EEP (EAZA Ex-situ Programme) for African elephants”. What this really means, is that his genetics will allow a constant supply of baby elephants to hold captive in zoo environments, thus creating more profit for zoos.

There is no conservational benefit to holding elephants captive. The IUCN Species Survival Commission African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) recently stated that "the holding of African elephants by a captive facility is not a necessary precursor for involvement for in-situ African elephant conservation". 

Freedom for Animals believes that no animal should be kept in captivity. It is a cruel and unnecessary practice that does not belong in a modern society. It is a well known concern that elephants suffer greatly in captivity, developing debilitating illnesses such as arthritis, cancer and obesity. Many individuals die before they reach the age of 20 - almost a third of their natural lifespan in the wild. Only last week it was reported in Swiss news outlets that two captive brother elephants sadly died after contracting the Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV) whilst held captive at Zoo Zurich. This devastating virus is a widespread killer of captive elephants, whose immune systems are much more compromised than their wild relatives who have more resistance to the disease. 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. 

DEFRA must ban the use of these incredible individuals in captivity, and support their transition to conservation sites in the wild, or to Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) accredited sanctuaries, where they may live out their days in peace with freedom to roam.  

Please head to our action page and fill out the form to ask DEFRA to commit to the phasing out of elephants in zoos!

- 15th May 2023