Zoos Really Best Place Elephants

Are zoos really the best place for elephants?

By Evie Button for RIGHT-tourism

For most people who want to see a real elephant, the first place they’d think of going is a zoo or safari park.

Elephant in zoo

Copyright Wikimedia

The most common arguments zoos make for keeping elephants is usually that zoos allow captive breeding to occur, which is good for conservation and protects them from poachers – you can take a more detailed look at the role of captivity in conservation here. Other common reasons include educating the public about the plight of elephants and raising money to help them.

However, there is little evidence that this actually directly contributes to the survival of elephants in the wild. A more pressing concern is whether elephants can actually survive and thrive in zoos.

The welfare of the elephants in any particular zoo will of course depend on how wealthy the zoo is, and how much time and money it can spend on ensuring the health of its elephants. But even in zoos which spend millions on their elephant facilities, there are still problems.


For example, many studies have shown that despite being protected from poachers and having unlimited access to food, water and healthcare, captive elephants have a shorter lifespan than wild elephants. In one study looking at over 4500 female elephants, the authors found that wild African elephants live over twice as long as zoo-born elephants, even if their death is caused by humans. If they die of natural causes, wild African elephants can expect to live for over 56 years, compared to 17 years in captivity. Asian elephants show similar survival patterns.

While the survival rates in zoos are slowly improving over time, currently zoo elephants can still expect to have their lifespan at least halved (Clubb et al 2008). Reasons for lower survival in zoos could include obesity, increased stress, traumatic removal from their mother when young, and the stressful process of transportation between zoos (Clubb et al 2009).

Intelligent and complex social lives

In the wild, elephants form female-led groups of between 5 and 20 cows and their offspring (who are usually all related), whereas bulls are generally solitary. Being part of a group is crucial for the survival and wellbeing of the elephants, as group living enables offspring to learn from adults, adults to use their memories to guide the herd to the best food sources, and protection from invading elephants.

Usually when elephants are removed from the wild, only one or two individuals are taken, rather than the whole group. Removing even one animal from the group, especially if it’s an older animal like the matriarch, will often mean the remaining troop can’t function and will fragment. This can have fatal consequences for the younger elephants, which are left without adults to learn from. If juveniles are removed to captivity, they are especially likely to develop behavioural problems and become more aggressive, as they don’t have the comfort or experience of the adults of the troop to guide their behavioural development.

Generally, the complex social needs of elephants can’t be met in captivity as it is very difficult to exactly replicate their wild social structures. Also, elephants are often kept alone, despite guidelines from the AZA and BIAZA which recommend a group size of at least four. This can be seen by studies which show that solitary captive elephants are more likely to develop stereotypic behaviours (indicating stress) than elephants in a group (Rees 2008, Vanitha et al 2011).

Elephant in zoo

Photo credit – NY Times

Stereotypic behaviours

The result of being kept in captivity is that elephants experience stress and an inability to behave in the way they want, and develop stereotypic behaviours to try and cope with this. Stereotypic behaviours are repetitive movements which don’t have any obvious function – this could be swaying from side to side, pacing back and forwards, or bobbing the head. Any of these would indicate an elephant isn’t suited to its environment.

Common sources of stress in zoos include being kept alone or in the wrong type of social group, having unavoidable contact with the public, limited space and being restrained. One study suggested that around 60% of all zoo elephants show stereotypic behaviours (Mason and Veasey, 2010), whereas observations of stereotypic behaviour in truly wild elephants are relatively rare. Some elephants in sanctuaries or re-released elephants may also show stereotypic behaviours despite having more ‘free’ lives than zoo elephants, but these are probably lingering effects of captivity rather than having developed naturally.

Being in captivity can also cause health problems which don’t occur in the wild, such as foot infections due to their enclosures having concrete floors. Rubber floors have been shown to increase their movement, and their resting behaviour was a lot more similar to that of wild elephants – but this won’t completely solve the problem (Meller et al 2007). Some zoos even restrain their elephants by permanently chaining them, which can damage their legs and also means they have very restricted movement.

Additionally, the zoos which keep elephants are located all around the world, in different climates. This isn’t always best for elephants, which have evolved to survive in Africa and Asia. Studies have suggested that lower temperatures can increase the frequency of stereotypic behaviours which are already present in the elephant. Zoos which experience colder temperatures could therefore cause stress to the elephant and mean it would need to be kept inside in a heated area – this would then limit its ability to forage and exercise outside (Rees 2004).

Providing enrichment in captivity

Other examples of welfare issues for zoo elephants include the provision of enrichment; in the wild, they would usually spend most of their day travelling and browsing for food, but in zoos all their food is readily available, so they need other tasks to occupy them. In some zoos, food hiding is used as enrichment as it is thought that this stimulates the elephants and encourages them to forage. But research has shown that hiding food doesn’t make the elephants more likely to search around their enclosures for new objects, so isn’t actually a form of enrichment (Wiedenmayer 1998).

Alternative activities that are used as ‘enrichment’ include teaching elephants to play football or paint pictures – these attract tourists who want to see elephants ‘playing’, and who will often buy the paintings. However, recent research has shown that painting is not stimulating for the elephants as it doesn’t reduce stereotypic behaviours and they don’t anticipate the activity. In fact, if an elephant is not selected to paint on a given day this can actually induce more stress.

So the only benefit of these ‘enrichment activities’ is to the public who can watch the painting, and the elephants remain stressed and bored (English et al 2014). In most cases, the elephants will have been trained to paint using positive reinforcement and a ‘protected contact’ system– but there are some zoos where negative reinforcement or punishment is used instead, which is even worse for their welfare.

In some zoos, particularly in Asia, they are more focused on attracting tourists than on conservation of the species they keep, due to their limited budgets. This can lead to elephants being trained for displays and shows, often using punishment methods such as bullhooks. Many elephants have been permanently injured from these processes. Have a look at this video of an elephant in Thailand:

Although these displays can look like the elephants are having fun, actually they are just performing the same sequence of behaviours they have learnt in order to avoid being punished by their keepers. Often tourists don’t realise what the elephants have been through behind the scenes, before they are presented to the public as ‘playing’.

What’s the best alternative to zoos?

Overall, it’s easy to argue that zoos aren’t beneficial to elephants and at worst are actually harmful for them. However finding alternatives for elephants which are already in the zoos isn’t easy… the best option would be to release them into national parks so they can live in the wild, but this isn’t always possible because many captive elephants will have behavioural issues so can’t integrate with the existing wild elephants.

There are some genuine sanctuaries around the world which take in elephants rescued from zoos and care for them, but other ‘sanctuaries’ will train ex-zoo elephants to be used in tourism so the elephant is just going from one bad environment to another (read more about elephants in tourism here).

In the short term while elephants are still being held in zoos, some measures can be taken to try and improve their welfare. For example, make sure all the elephants are kept in the appropriate social groups, find better methods of enrichment rather than painting and don’t allow members of the public to feed them – allow them to forage for their food as they would in the wild. As is the case with the majority of animals that are kept in zoos, elephants are not suited to being kept in captivity and we should work towards changing their lives for the better.

Read more:

10 Reasons Why Elephants Shouldn’t Be Kept in Captivity

Why Captive Elephants Aren’t Contributing to Conservation

The Secret Horrors of Elephant Tourism

RIGHT-tourism on zoos


Clubb R, Rowcliffe M, Lee P, Mar KU, Moss C, Mason GJ. Compromised survivorship in zoo elephants. Science 2008; 322: 1649

Clubb R, Rowcliffe M, Lee P, Mar KU, Moss C, Mason GJ. Fecundity and population viability in female zoo elephants: problems and possible solutions. Animal Welfare 2009; 18: 237-247

Rees PA. The sizes of elephant groups in zoos: implications for elephant welfare. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2009; 12 (1): 44-60

Vanitha V, Thiyagesan K, Baskaran N. Social life of captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Southern India: Implications for elephant welfare. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2011; 14 (1): 42-58

Mason GJ, Veasey JS. What do population-level welfare indices suggest about the well-being of zoo elephants. Zoo Biology 2010; 29: 256-273

Meller CL, Croney CC, Shepherdson D. Effects of rubberized flooring on Asian elephant behaviour in captivity. Zoo Biology 2007; 26: 51-61

Rees PA. Low environmental temperature causes an increase in stereotypic behaviour in captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Journal of Thermal Biology 2004; 29: 37-43

Wiedenmayer C. Food hiding and enrichment in captive Asian elephants. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 1998; 56: 77-82

English M, Kaplan G, Rogers LJ. Is painting by elephants in zoos as enriching as we are led to believe? PeerJ 2:e471