Concepts in the care and welfare of captive elephants



Zoos are duty bound to maintain a high standard of welfare for all animals for which they are responsible. For elephants, this represents a greater challenge than for many other species; their sheer size, sophisticated social life, high level of intelligence and large behavioural repertoire, combined with their origins in tropical and subtropical climates mean that replicating the physical, social and environmental requirements needed for a high standard of welfare in captivity is a significant challenge. This is compounded by the difficulties in measuring welfare generally, and specifically for animals such as elephants within zoo environments. Evidence does exist relating to the longevity, reproductive success and the health status of captive elephants which suggests that their management is not at as high a standard as it is for many other species kept in zoos, and that elephant welfare is likely to be compromised as a result. It is suggested that for as long as elephants remain in captivity that their management should be based around the requirements of the animals themselves taking into account an understanding of their biology and behavioural ecology. Given the difficulties in measuring welfare, it is suggested that those responsible for elephant management should not rely on proof of suffering prior to making adjustments to their programmes, but in the first instance consider the likely physical and behavioural needs of the elephant. As a minimum, facilities should provide for those behaviours and contingencies which are biologically significant in terms of survival and reproduction in the wild, which take up a significant proportion of an elephant's time in the wild and are not necessarily triggered by external stimuli alone. It is suggested that a high standard of captive elephant welfare is theoretically attainable and that significant improvements in welfare are likely to be achieved by addressing inadequacies in the physical environment which predispose captive elephants to trauma and by providing for appropriate social and foraging opportunities.