10 reasons why elephants shouldn’t be kept in captivity
By Evie Button for RIGHT-tourism.org
Elephant trekking and elephant shows are under intense scrutiny right now. A key question people are asking is “Should elephants be kept captive at all?” Here’s my list of the top 10 reasons why elephants should stay in the wild.
- In order to have the best chance of conserving elephants for future generations, we need to let them breed in the wild. In captivity, breeding elephants is more complicated and much less successful than breeding in the wild – read more about the role of captivity in elephant conservation here.
- Life in a zoo can be harmful to an elephant’s welfare – for example, zoo elephants have shorter lives and experience more stress and illness than wild elephants. Often, zoo elephants are kept alone or with only a few others, whereas in the wild they would live within a large herd. They are very social animals so this is an important aspect of their welfare, and something which is often ignored in zoos. Read more about elephants in zoos here!
- Elephants are often part of the tourist industry (especially in Asia) and are trained to give rides to tourists. This training is incredibly damaging, both physically and mentally and can result in severe injury or even death of the elephant. The process of ‘domesticating’ an elephant so it will accept having humans on its back all day is called the phajaan, or ‘crushing the spirit’; and a quick Google search will give you an idea of how horrific this must be for the elephant…
- Generally, giving rides to tourists is harmful for elephants as it can damage their backs and they may be overworked by their owners. In the wild, elephants would spend up to 18 hours a day foraging for food, but if they are being used for elephant-back safaris then they won’t have enough time to eat or sleep naturally. Also, the elephants could become aggressive and harm the tourists or their mahouts – read more about elephants in tourism here.
- In Africa, there is already a successful tourist industry where you can go on safari and view elephants in the wild. While this could still cause some stress to the elephants, it is a much more responsible alternative than removing elephants from the wild for tourism. It also means tourists can go and see elephants in their natural habitat, which is a much more enjoyable experience than seeing them cooped up in a zoo!
- Captive elephants are often aggressive towards humans as they have learnt to associate us with pain and fear, during the ‘domestication’ process. This means that keepers, mahouts and tourists could be risking injury if they get too close to these huge animals. Elephants kill more zoo workers than all other species kept in zoos or circuses combined, and it is believed that around 200 mahouts are killed by their elephants each year in Thailand. Elephants are wild animals at heart, and although they may look like gentle giants, we often underestimate their power and strength – and their ability to hurt us.
- One of the most commonly given reasons for keeping animals in captivity is that it allows scientists to investigate their physiology, anatomy and behaviour in detail. But actually, because the captive environments are so different from the wild environments, any research done on captive elephants may not apply to wild elephants as well. For example, a scientific study could make all sorts of conclusions about the behaviour of captive females which are kept alone– but because females live in groups in the wild, these conclusions wouldn’t apply to them.
- Elephants are megaherbivores, which means they have a big impact on the whole ecosystem they live in. Specifically, they affect which plants and small trees grow in their habitat and also help to disperse seeds of plants around the area. If elephants were all removed from the wild, this could have a devastating impact on all the vegetation that grows in their natural habitat and also all the other species that live in harmony with elephants. Natural ecosystems are already at risk from increasing human development and climate change, and losing such a huge herbivore could be a step too far for these vulnerable areas.
- Both elephants and humans are vulnerable to zoonotic diseases: these are diseases that can be transferred between humans and animals. A well-known example is TB, which can be fatal. There’s several known instances where keepers have caught TB from their elephants or vice versa, and anyone who has close contact with elephants could be vulnerable to transmitting TB. So it’s best for everyone if we have as little contact with elephants as possible!
- In my opinion, it’s morally and ethically wrong to exploit elephants for our gain. For example, there are ‘sanctuaries’ that take elephants from the wild, and then use their captive elephants to attract the public and make money from them. There are some great sanctuaries out there which do put the welfare of the elephants first, but will also be open to the public to try and raise some much-needed funds. However it can be hard to distinguish between the good sanctuaries and the places which are just tourist traps and using elephants to attract visitors. Read the RIGHT-tourism guide to sanctuaries here.
Although captivity may have some benefits (e.g. protection from poachers), many elephants currently being held in captivity would be much better off in the wild. It would be even better if a fraction of the money spent on captive elephants could instead be used to fund anti-poaching measures, to try and keep wild elephants as safe as possible.
In my view, keeping elephants in the wild is possible – and even necessary – to ensure the survival of elephants for future generations.
All photos taken from www.elephantleague.org
https://www.ifaw.org/united-kingdom/our-work/protecting-elephants [accessed October 9th, 2014]
https://elephantleague.org/elephants-in-captivity/ [accessed October 9th, 2014]
https://www.fao.org/News/1998/981207-e.htm [accessed October 9th, 2014]
Murphree R, Warkentin J V, Dunn J R, Schaffner W, Jones T F. Elephant-to-human transmission of tuberculosis. Emerging Infectious Diseases 2011; 17 (3): 366-371