Captive Elephants Arent Contributing Conservation

Why captive elephants aren’t contributing to conservation

By Evie Button for RIGHT-tourism

Tourist attraction: Elephant Nature Park is an elephant 'rescue and rehabilitation' centre in Northern Thailand which claims to provide a 'natural environment' for elephants and other animals. Can you recommend them?

Elephants are disappearing from the wild at a terrifying rate due to poaching, and increasing human-elephant conflict as humans expand our developments further into the elephant’s territories.

Due to the constant deaths of adults of breeding age, more elephants are now being killed each year than are being born, resulting in an overall population decline of about 35,000 elephants per year.  If this continues, elephants could be extinct from the wild completely within 20-25 years.

Some elephant conservation strategies are clearly necessary – but removing them from the wild isn’t necessarily the best way to conserve them. The IUCN agrees, issuing a statement in 2003 that said, “Believing there to be no direct benefit for in situ conservation of African elephants, the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission does not endorse the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use.”

Currently, there are breeding groups of elephants in zoos around the world – but breeding elephants in captivity is very difficult for several reasons. Consequently, zoo populations aren’t self-sustaining. which means elephants are continually captured from the wild in order to fulfil the zoos’ demand.

Also, captive elephants which are used as working animals often aren’t allowed to breed by their owners, as this would reduce the amount of money they could earn. Sanctuaries, which help to rehabilitate and rescue elephants, shouldn’t breed them. Captive elephants can therefore only be bred in zoos.

Additionally, elephants which are bred within zoos are rarely released into the wild – they are usually transferred between zoos, but are kept in captivity for their whole life. Reintroduction to the wild is not currently the ultimate goal of most captive breeding programs, despite evidence that captive-born elephants could be released into the wild (see below).

Why don’t elephants breed in captivity?

  • The longer females are kept in captivity without being bred, the more likely they are to become infertile. They will also have a shorter reproductive lifespan (Hermes et al 2004).
  • Long term captivity can also decrease male fertility, presumably because of social stress or physical activity; there is also a lack of breeding bulls in many zoos (Hermes et al 2004).
  • It has been observed that elephants which experience stress such as moving to another zoo, having their social position challenged within the herd, or being subjected to intense physical activity, can stop their reproductive cycles
  • Calf mortality is significantly higher in captivity than in the wild – a third of all captive-born calves die because of stillbirths or infanticide, whereas these events are very rare in the wild (Kurt and Mar 1996).
  • In captivity, more males are born than females. Because the birth rate is affected by how many females there are, the number of births will decline, which makes it even harder for zoo populations to be self-sustaining (Saragusty et al 2009).
  • The behavioural problems that many elephants experience whilst in captivity, like the development of stereotypic behaviours and aggressiveness due to their removal from their family, mean captives are often less interested in breeding behaviour and therefore are less likely to reproduce. These behavioural changes can also persist if the elephant was re-released into the wild which would make it difficult for the individual to become successfully integrated within an existing social group – this process is necessary for the survival of an elephant.

While captive breeding does help to increase the genetic diversity of the elephant population as animals are transferred between zoos and family groups from different subpopulations are mixed, there are other ways to do this. It is now possible to freeze sperm from males, transport it across the world and artificially inseminate wild females if necessary. This reduces the need for elephants to be removed from the wild and transported around the world for breeding (Hildebrandt et al 2012).

Minneriya National Park

Photo – Emma Rathbone

Captivity doesn’t contribute to conservation

Sanctuaries are great for rescuing elephants which have been abused, and trying to rehabilitate and release them if possible or giving them a safe place to live out their lives. However some ‘sanctuaries’ have been set up specifically for profit, and they take animals from the wild and provide tourism opportunities rather than putting the welfare of the animals first. This doesn’t benefit conservation of the elephants as they aren’t allowed to breed, and if they’re being used for the entertainment of tourists then they are unlikely to be released. So, if anything, these sanctuaries make the situation worse.

Tourism itself has often been promoted as a way of raising money and awareness to help conserve endangered species. While this is true, some aspects of tourism actually go directly against the principles of conservation.

Elephants are kidnapped from the wild and smuggled across borders to be part of the tourism industry, and become working animals which aren’t allowed to breed. Riding a captive elephant doesn’t educate you about the problems faced by wild elephants, and the money you spend to buy that ride is likely to be used by the company to buy more wild elephants, rather than genuinely contributing to their conservation.

It could be argued that captive elephants can contribute to conservation because they educate the public about the state of the wild elephant population, and money raised by the zoos could be used to fund conservation programs in the wild and can help to preserve the species this way.

However in reality, most members of the public come to a zoo to see animals and for a good day out rather than to learn about conservation.Any scientific research done on captive elephants often can’t be generalised to their wild counterparts because the behaviour and physiology of captives is so different to wild elephants which means the conclusions may not be valid; and most zoos spend more on their current elephant enclosures than helping to protect elephants in the wild.

Elephants Minneriya National Park

Photo – Emma Rathbone

How to conserve elephants in the wild

The first priority of elephant conservation should be stopping the destruction of their habitat, and stopping poaching – otherwise you’ll just be releasing more animals into an environment in which they are vulnerable to being killed. Then once the wild populations are stable, you could carefully transfer, to improve genetic diversity in the wild. But captive breeding should only be a last resort option for conserving elephants, trying to maintain them in the wild is the best thing.

Aside from trying to stop poaching and the ivory trade, one of the best things that can be done to try and conserve elephants would be to release captive elephants into a protected area where they can reintegrate into wild social groups, and breed naturally. This has been done successfully with three African elephants – although it was a small sample, it’s a promising first step (Evans, Moore and Harris 2013).

Many people will protest that keeping elephants in captivity is the only way to keep them safe from poachers and conserve them for future generations. However, evidence now suggests that elephants live for much longer in the wild than captivity, even when you take poaching deaths into account.

The truth is that taking an elephant into captivity doesn’t stop another elephant from being killed by poachers. It just condemns that elephant to a life spent in captivity, and means that the public’s attention is focused on that elephant rather than the elephants in the wild that truly need the help.


To find out about Care for the Wild’s campaign to try and protect wild elephants, click here: Last Chance for Elephants

10 Reasons Why Elephants Shouldn’t be Kept in Captivity

Five Secret Horrors of Elephant Tourism

Are Zoos Really the Best Place for Elephants?


References: [accessed October 9th, 2014] [accessed October 9th, 2014]

Hermes R, Hildebrandt T B, Goritz F. Reproductive problems directly attributable to long-term captivity – asymmetric reproductive aging. Animal Reproduction Science 2004; 82-83: 49-60

Kurt F, Mar K U. Neonate mortality in captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Z. Saugetierkunde 1996; 61: 155-164
Saragusty J, Hermes R, Goritz F, Schmitt D L, Hildebrandt T B. Skewed birth sex ratio and premature mortality in elephants. Animal Reproduction Science 2009; 115: 247-254

Hildebrandt T B, Hermes R, Saragusty J, Potier R, Schwammer H M et al. Enriching the captive elephant population genetic pool through artificial insemination with frozen-thawed semen collected in the wild. Theriogenology 2012; 78: 1398-1404

Evans K, Moore R, Harris S. The social and ecological integration of captive-raised adolescent male African elephants (Loxodonta africana) into a wild population. PLoS One 2013; 8(2): e55933