The elephant in the room: Life and death in UK zoos

If we really care about elephants, we must put an end to their captivity.

You may have been shocked to hear the recent news of elephants being captured in Zimbabwe for wildlife parks in China. We are too. These elephants are destined for a life of captivity and are denied the life of freedom that they should have. It is easy to read these international headlines and forget the issues facing animals here in the UK. Sadly, the elephants here cannot forget as easily.

Although UK zoos generally tend not to take elephants directly from the wild anymore, those elephants who had a taste of freedom in the wild are still in captivity in the UK today.

Tina, an elephant kept in Belfast Zoo for 50 years,was one such elephant. Born in the wild, Tina was sold to the zoo by a pet shop in Birmingham when she was just a few years old. Tina had issues with her back legs for many years, an injury she gained as a result of the zoo’s captive breeding efforts. Sadly she collapsed in the early hours of Sunday morning and was then euthanised. For decades, she has lived at the zoo while other elephants came and went. Her life was spent in an enclosure of less than acre, though in the wild she would have roamed thousands of kilometres. Last year, the zoo faced criticism from EAZA and the local council over its “terrible” conditions. Sadly, Tina is not alone – there are thousands of animals with a story like hers, kept captive in zoos across the UK.

Nala at Knowsley Safari Park faced her own tragic ending last month. Two elephants, including Nala, were taken from Knowsley Safari Park to ZooParc de’Beauval, following the transportation of two other elephants earlier this year. Nala did not survive the journey. The zoo has yet to comment on her death. During the July trip which transported Nala and Tana (Tots), scheduled stops allowed keepers, the controversial elephant ‘expert’ Alan Roocroft and Knowsley Safari’s resident vet to perform regular checks on each of the elephants as well as providing extra food and water. In addition, in-crate camera systems was to allow observation of the elephants at all times. If this was the case in Nala’s trip, surely the zoo know what happened! We can only imagine how terrified Nala must have been – separated from her family, trapped in a crate on the long journey from the UK to France, dying alone.

Zoos across the UK keep elephants in captivity for the entertainment of the public.

Aside from the responsibility zoos have to ensure the elephants under their care receive the best treatment, we feel that no elephant belongs in captivity. In the wild, elephants travel thousands of kilometres in close-knit family groups. They play, grieve, and care for each other. If a baby elephant complains, the entire family will rumble and go over to touch and caress it. Even the best zoo could never compare to a life in the wild.

A government-funded study of elephants in UK zoos found “there was a welfare concern for every elephant in the UK”. 54% of elephants in UK zoos show behavioural problems in daytime. African elephants in the wild live more than three times as long as those kept in zoos. Even Asian elephants working in timber camps live longer than those born in zoos. We must put an end to this exploitation.

We want to see ALL elephants free from captivity and we will keep up the fight, with your help, until they are. Join the fight for a world where every elephant is free.

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