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Wednesday, 23 October, 2002, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Long memories, short lives
An elephant and her baby at a zoo in Germany
The RSPCA says elephants should not be kept captive
Elephants kept in captivity at zoos and safari parks live short, stressed and unhealthy lives, says an independent report commissioned by the RSPCA. BBC News Online finds out how many elephants there are in UK zoos and asks how they are looked after.

Zoos were an invention of the Victorian age when the British Empire ruled the roost and animals from Africa, India, Australasia and North America were rounded up and brought back to the motherland.

Many people believe zoos are now an anachronism and while the RSPCA's Head of Wildlife, Dr Rob Atkinson, does not go that far he believes some animals - such as elephants - should not be kept in captivity.

'They do not belong in zoos'

He told the BBC: "We are recommending all zoos phase out their elephants. Elephants do not belong in zoos."

Dr Atkinson said the report, by researchers at Oxford University, found that the average life expectancy of a captive elephant was 15, compared with 30 for animals in Asian timber yards and up to 60 in the wild.

He said while elephants bred well in the wild, zoos struggled with breeding in captivity.


We are recommending all zoos phase out their elephants. Elephants do not belong in zoos.

Dr Rob Atkinson
RSPCA

"At Whipsnade, for example, we had two pregnant females this summer. Both babies were stillborn and one of the females died," said Dr Atkinson.

He said apart from the inherent problems associated with captivity - stress and unnatural environments - there was also a problem with the hands-on management style used by most keepers.

Dr Atkinson said hands-on was a relic of circus training and was not only harmful to the elephants' welfare but dangerous for keepers. He said three keepers had been killed by elephants in the last few years.

But the zoo industry, while welcoming the research, has rejected much of the criticism.

'Impossible to compare'

A spokesman for Dudley Zoological Gardens said: "We are talking about a small number of elephants in zoos throughout the UK.

"Obviously in such situations it is easy to chronicle and compare details about these animals.


As long as these wonderful and complex animals are in our care, we will be dedicated to ensuring they enjoy the full range of their natural behaviours.

Chris West
Zoo Federation

"In the wild it is impossible to keep similar records so any comparisons are not relevant."

Last week the Zoo Federation, which represents 70 zoos and safari parks in the UK, published the world's first management guidelines for the welfare of elephants.

The federation said welfare standards had been evolving over the last 10 years but needed to be continually reviewed.

'Wonderful animals'

Chris West, the chair of the federation's Elephant Group, said: "For the first time, elephant keepers in this country have a comprehensive guide to help them provide the best possible standards of care for their elephants.

"As long as these wonderful and complex animals are in our care, we will be dedicated to ensuring they enjoy the full range of their natural behaviours."

Professor Gordon McGregor Reid, director of Chester Zoo, said the RSPCA should be trying to help conservation efforts rather than just "knocking" zoos.

He told the BBC that Asian elephants, in particular, could become extinct in 15-20 years.

Prof McGregor Reid said: "We have a happy, healthy and socially integrated group here at Chester and we have nothing to be ashamed of."

The RSPCA has stressed it was not opposed to the keeping of all zoo animals. A spokesman said many animals live longer and better lives in captivity but it said elephants were one of the exceptions.

There are 17 zoos and safari parks in the UK which house a total of 90 elephants. They are:

African elephants (Loxodonta Africana)
Colchester, Essex (one male, four females)
Knowsley, Merseyside (two males, eight females)
Paignton, Devon (one female)
Dudley, West Midlands (two females)
Blair Drummond, near Stirling (three females)
Howletts, Kent (five males, 11 females)
Longleat, Wiltshire (one male, four females)
West Midland Safari Park, near Kidderminster (two males and two females)

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus)

Belfast (one male, five females)
Blackpool, Lancashire (four females)
Chester (four males, five females)
Paignton, Devon (one female)
Twycross , Warwickshire (five females)
Whipsnade, Bedfordshire (one male, five females)
Woburn, Beds (one male, three females)
Port Lympne, Kent (two males, six females)

See also:

23 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
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