RSPCA Elephant Welfare Recommendations Would Compromise Zoo Breeding Programmes
An Animal Rights Article from


Paul A. Reese, School of Environment and Life Sciences and Telford Institute of Environmental Systems, on In Defense of Animals (IDA)


Most zoo elephants live in environments and social conditions that are substantially different from those experienced in the wild, and a number of welfare issues consequently arise. However, many of these animals form part of cooperative breeding programmes that aspire to maintain insurance populations of the two species as their numbers further decline in the wild, and any consideration of welfare compromises must take this into account.

A number of animal welfare organisations have called for zoos to discontinue the keeping of elephants. The Born Free Foundation is opposed to the keeping of elephants and is campaigning for all urban zoos to be made elephant-free' (Anon., 2002a). Some British zoos have recently stopped keeping elephants, either as a result of conscious decisions or by default because of the deaths of their animals. Following the death of a keeper in October 2001, the Zoological Society of London decided to move three Asian elephants from Regent's Park to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park. Edinburgh Zoo and the Welsh Mountain Zoo no longer keep elephants, and the only elephant at Bristol Zoo recently died and will not be replaced. However, other zoos are expanding their elephant groups. In recent years three Asian calves have been produced at Chester Zoo, and their bull has fathered two calves at Twycross Zoo. In December 2002 Colchester Zoo announced the first birth of an African elephant in Britain by artificial insemination, and there is clearly great potential for this procedure to be used to increase the zoo population in the future.

The RSPCA review

A Review of the Welfare of Zoo Elephants in Europe commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) in the U.K. makes a number of recommendations to improve the welfare of elephants (Clubb and Mason, 2002). Many of these are to be welcomed, such as improvements to accommodation and handling procedures, but some would undoubtedly compromise cooperative breeding programmes. The review does not call for a complete ban on the keeping of elephants in zoos. It does, however, suggest that only those zoos that solve the welfare problems of elephants` should be allowed [sic] to keep elephants in the future' and that in the meantime zoo populations should be frozen (Clubb and Mason, 2002, p. 252). But the RSPCA's summary of Clubb and Mason's report, Live Hard, Die Young – How Elephants Suffer in Zoos (Anon., 2002b), makes no such compromise and demands that:

  • No more elephants must be imported into Europe;
  • No more elephants must be bred in Europe;
  • Zoos in Europe that still keep elephants must phase them out;
  • In the future, zoos should refocus their resources on wild elephant welfare.

Asian elephant numbers in zoos around the world are already in decline (Rees, 2003). Unless there is a significant improvement in breeding success or an increase in the number of imported animals, it is likely that this species will be demographically extinct in zoos within fifty years.

At the moment, there does not appear to be any political interest in banning the keeping of elephants in U.K. zoos. However, a legal mechanism already exists that could be used to achieve this. In theory, a local authority could revoke a zoo's licence under Section 17 of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 if it did not comply with any requirements laid down by the authority. Under Section 5 (5) of the Act, the local authority can be directed by the Secretary of State to attach a condition to a licence. In theory, such a condition could require that a zoo did not keep elephants. The government could also refuse to issue any further import permits for elephants, as required under Article III of CITES.

Leaving aside the RSPCA's call for a total ban on the keeping of elephants in zoos, some of Clubb and Mason's recommendations could have a significant impact on breeding if adopted by zoos. Those recommendations that could have the greatest impact are:

  • Keeping bull calves with their mother until the age at which they normally disperse in the wild (10 to 15 years of age);
  • Allowing cow calves to remain with their mothers for life.

Chester Zoo's Chang is the most prolific bull Asian elephant in the U.K. He was born in November 1981 in Copenhagen Zoo. In June 1985 he was taken
to Odense Zoo, and in October 1988 he was moved to Chester. By the age of 21 Chang had fathered eight calves. If he had been kept with his mother until the age of 15, six of these calves would not have been conceived and three of the calves currently in the U.K. population would not exist (Table 1). Although separated from his mother at an early age (three and a half years), Chang appears to be socially and sexually normal and exhibits no stereotypic behaviour.

Table 1. Calves sired by Chang between the ages of approximately 10 and 17 years of age.

Calf Fate Birth date Conception Chang's age at (month.year) date conception (years)

Foetus A Infanticide 9.9.93 11.91 10.00
Karha Died 17 mths 19.12.95 2.94 12.25
Sithami Survived 31.12.97 2.96 14.25
Foetus B Miscarriage 25.4.98 6.96 14.58
Tara Survived 6.8.98 10.96 14.92
Karishma Survived 27.8.98 10.96 14.92
Po-Chin Survived 18.7.00 9.98 16.83
Assam Survived 7.10.00 12.98 17.08

The problem of calf mortality

In zoo elephants birth rates are low and calf mortality rates are high. Clubb and Mason suggest that reproduction and survival problems are indicators of poor welfare. However, the same cow may kill one calf and successfully raise others, so the available data mask a very complex situation.

Thi Hi Way at Chester Zoo has an interesting reproductive history (Rees, 2001). She produced her first calf in 1993 but killed it shortly post-partum. Two years later she produced a second female calf (Karha) who was attacked and rejected. This calf was hand-reared but succumbed to osteoporosis at the age of just 17 months. A further two years later Thi produced a third calf and successfully reared her, and almost three years after that she produced a fourth calf prematurely and immediately accepted him. If Thi had only produced her first two calves, some might justifiably have claimed that the zoo environment had somehow caused their loss. But she went on to successfully rear two others in the same environment. There are so many variables that are likely to affect the growth of the foetus, the success of the birth and the rearing of the calf, and so few births in zoos, that it is impossible to perform any meaningful scientific analysis that would allow us to determine why zoos' elephant breeding success is so poor. Each cow behaves differently during birth, and an individual cow may behave differently with each successive birth.

Cost benefit analysis

Clubb and Mason (2002) claim that cost benefit analysis does not justify the keeping of elephants in zoos. They assert that the welfare problems experienced by these elephants cannot be justified in the absence of a successful breeding programme. However, this programme is in its very early stages.

In the early stages of many activities involving animals, the costs they must bear far outweigh any possible benefits. Western intensive farming systems have evolved from a situation in which the animals were severely confined, with little concern for their welfare, to relatively humane systems which take account of the physiological and psychological needs of individual species. In the U.K. these changes were brought about as a result of the recommendations of the Brambell Committee Report (Anon., 1965), which were implemented by the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. However, where animals are used in agricultural systems there is a clear benefit to mankind.

Animals may be confined in unnatural conditions in the very early stages of a breeding programme, with no certainty that they will reproduce. It may be many years before such a programme can be justified in terms of the benefits to the species. Whether or not a project can be justified by a cost benefit analysis will obviously depend upon the stage it has reached in its development. Clubb and Mason's conclusions come at a time when many zoos are improving their elephant accommodation (Griede, 2000) and great advances have been made in artificial insemination (Hildebrandt et al., 2001). There can be no doubt that we know enough about elephant behaviour to be able to improve the conditions in which they are kept in zoos. But to call for the end of a breeding programme which is only now beginning to overcome some of its difficulties is counter-productive.

Some of Clubb and Mason's recommendation, if followed, would make their conclusion that the zoo breeding programme has failed a self-fulfilling prophecy:

  • Many zoo elephants are already too old to breed. If all breeding is stopped while welfare issues are investigated, the zoo population will continue to age with no new animals being recruited.
  • If bull calves are kept with their mothers until they are up to 15 years old (and have reached puberty), they are unlikely to be moved to herds with receptive cows even though they may be sexually competent.
  • Reproductively active cows need to be transported to bulls and must remain with them for many months to increase the chance of conception. If cow calves are to be kept with their mothers for life they would need to be taken together to bulls, causing transportation problems and increasing the pressure on accommodation at the receiving zoo.

The need for more research

Clubb and Mason have called for more research into elephant welfare in zoos, but their own attempts to collect new data failed. They sent questionnaires to the 18 zoos in the U.K. that kept elephants in an attempt to collect information on the experience of keepers, handling, health and safety issues, enclosures, reproduction, behaviour, diet and other aspects of husbandry. None of the questionnaires was returned.

They visited just three zoos in England and an elephant sanctuary in the United States. In addition they had discussions with a number of experts on elephant husbandry, scientists and others involved with the management of zoo elephants. Most of their 300-page report was based on a review of the literature and an analysis of published zoo elephant population data. However, there is so little published research on zoo elephant behaviour and welfare that many of their conclusions are based upon anecdotal evidence and extrapolations from studies of other mammalian species. Their report contains a list of 757 references, but only about 20 per cent of these are directly relevant to elephant welfare in zoos, and many do not appear in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

There is certainly a need for more research on zoo elephants, but this must be collected by impartial scientists, not specialists in animal welfare, and it should not be funded by organisations whose primary objective is to gather support for a ban on the keeping of elephants by zoos. Elephant welfare is an important issue for zoos, but if they feel that they are being besieged by animal welfare organisations they will have little incentive to undertake or co-operate with research, for fear that the results will be used as evidence to justify the closure of zoo breeding programmes.


Anon. (1965): Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals kept under Intensive Husbandry Systems (the `Brambell Committee'). Ministry of Agriculture, London (Cmnd 2836, HMSO).

Anon. (2002a): Elephant Free London. Born Free Foundation. (accessed 22 November 2002).

Anon. (2002b): Live Hard, Die Young – How Elephants Suffer in Zoos. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Horsham, West Sussex.

Clubb, R., and Mason, G. (2002): A Review of the Welfare of Zoo Elephants
in Europe: a Report Commissioned by the RSPCA. Animal Behaviour Research
Group, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

Griede, T. (2000): Results of the 1999 Elephant Space Survey. In EEP Yearbook 1998/99 including Proceedings of the 16th EAZA Conference, Basel,
7–12 September 1999 (eds. F. Rietkerk, B. Hiddinga, K. Brouwer and
S. Smits), p. 479. EAZA Executive Office, Amsterdam.

Hildebrandt, T.B., et al. (2001): Results of artificial insemination programmes in Asian and African elephants kept under different management systems. In Recent Research in Elephants and Rhinos (abstracts). Schüling Verlag, Münster, Germany.

Rees P.A. (2001): The history of the National Elephant Centre, Chester Zoo. International Zoo News 48 (3): 170–183.

Rees, P.A. (2003): Asian elephants in zoos face global extinction: should
zoos accept the inevitable? Oryx 37 (1): 20–22.

Dr Paul A. Rees, School of Environment and Life Sciences and Telford Institute of Environmental Systems, University of Salford, Salford M6 6PU, U.K. (E-mail:

Return to Animal Rights Articles