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American Association for the Advancement of Science

A shorter life for elephants in the zoo

An adult female, her adult daughter, and their calves in natural free-ranging elephant population.

People have argued about it for years. Is zoo life really bad for elephants? Are they actually healthier when they roam free? Finally, the debate seems to be over.

An African elephant and calf in a European zoo.

Researchers have now provided scientific evidence that elephants that roam free are healthier and live longer than those in zoos. This finding answers a lot of questions about the physical and mental health of elephants, and it might also bring about some changes in the world's zoos.

Ros Clubb and a group of researchers studied data on more than 4,500 elephants some living in captivity and others roaming free to find that zoo elephants suffer from many physical and mental ailments. They suggest that being born into a zoo (rather than being imported from the wild), being moved between zoos, and the possible loss of their mothers, all put the animals at particular risk.

The elephants used in this study lived either in a European zoo, the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, or the Myanma Timber Enterprise.

In response to these rather dramatic findings, the authors recommend screening all zoo elephants for signs of stress and obesity, in order to identify individuals that might be in trouble.

Until these animals' problems can be solved, the researchers also call for an end to the importation of elephants from their native countries, and they suggest that breeding elephants should be restricted to the zoos that exhibit no harmful effects on their captive-born animals.


This research appears in the 12 December issue of Science.