Elephants in Captivity

Elephants, together with apes and cetaceans, are really ill-adapted to captivity.

As one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth, elephants have immensely complex needs that no captive facility can fully provide.

Elephants in the wild live in large family units, sometimes up to 100 individuals, and they have intricate social networks and long-lasting relationships. In the wild elephants are on the move about 20 hours a day, busy in foraging and socializing! And they need space, a lot of space, ranging from tens to hundreds and even thousands of square kilometers!

Elephants in captivity often live dramatically shorter lives than their counterparts in the wild, as a very comprehensive study found out in 2008. Those in the wild live decades longer, on average.

Other studies have shown that elephants in captivity suffer a wide range of problems due to the impossibility to meet their social, behavioral and ecological needs. They are often frustrated, bored and show stereotypic behaviors and aggression. Elephants in captivity also suffer a range of health problems that that are not observed among their free-living counterparts and include foot infections, arthritis, obesity, low fertility and high infant mortality, among others.

Elephants were brought to Rome already around 250 B.C. to be used in combat spectacles but the first captive elephant to arrive to the Unites States was a single animal brought to New York in 1796 from India.

Regional studbooks and government estimates (AsERSM 2006) suggest that approximately 12,000–15,000 of the world’s elephants are living in captivity. Approximately 30% of the entire Asian Elephant population is currently in captivity and the largest single population of captive elephants is in India and numbers about 3,400 individuals (AsERSM 2006). According to regional studbooks, there are about 1,000 captive African Elephants worldwide, and most of them are housed outside Africa, approximately 40% in Europe.

CIRCUSES...are you kidding right?

Elephants in circuses are abused, chained, bought and sold, separated from companions, treated as objects and forced to perform and stand for hours. Do we have to add more?

Data from 2009 show 197 elephants only in European circuses (123 Asian and 74 African). We firmly oppose and fight any use of elephants in circuses and we think that keeping elephants (and many other wild creatures) in circuses should be prohibited. Please never attend a circus that uses elephants and any wild animals.

National measures to ban wild animals in circuses have been adopted in Bolivia, Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Peru, Portugal, Sweden, Singapore, Costa Rica, India and Israel. More than 30 localities in Canada and some counties in the United States have banned shows with wild animals.

From 1994 to 2005, at least 31 circus elephants have died premature deaths. More than 60 people have been killed and more than 130 others seriously injured by captive elephants since 1990.

Photo taken by a retired  Ringling employee. The cruel training of a baby elephant.

Feld Entertainment Inc., which produces the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has agreed to pay $270,000 for allegedly violating the Animal Welfare Act on several occasions from June 2007 to August 2011, according to USDA. See a video with actor Alec Baldwin talking about it.







We understand that working with elephants is a centuries-old tradition in Asia, nevertheless we oppose the capture and taming of wild elephants for working and tourist/safari camps and for any commercial use.

The process of capture and training is extremely cruel and painful, physically and psychologically. Family members are separated, immobilized and subdued through severe emotional and physical abuse. Calves go through hell too, isolated and chained.

Read the article on National Geographic about this painful “crushing” ritual: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/10/1016_021016_phajaan.html

See a video here on the brutal cross-border trade in wild Asian elephants to serve Thailand’s tourist industry and how tourists fuel it.




We are generally against any elephant in captivity but we acknowledge the fact that in some best run zoos/facilities, captive elephant groups cannot be moved elsewhere and can provide conservation support for their wild brethren via inspiration/education, fundraising for the field and contribution to relevant research. We support those zoos that make efforts to match elephants’ needs and to provide them with much larger spaces.

In any case we share the scientific view that elephants require complex social and environmental settings to thrive and we think zoos must start aiming at large “elephant parks” measured in square kilometers rather than hectares.







We support the creation of sanctuaries for elephants coming from another form of captivity, sadly often from a life of abuse and confinement. On this subject we completely share the view of our partner ElephantVoices in what the mission of any elephant sanctuary should be: “to promote and assist the rehabilitation of captive elephants through provision of secure and naturalistic surroundings, social life and individually tailored care programs. The core focus is the physical and psychological wellbeing of individual elephants, both short- and long-term”. Please visit ElephantVoices at this link for more information about elephant sanctuaries.

Photo: The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.






A few articles if you would like to know more about elephants in captivity:

Scientific American – Compiled data on over 4,500 African and Asian elephants over 45 years in European zoos

New York Times – NY Bronx Zoo and other zoos in the US planning to phase out their elephants’ enclosures

DailyMail – The disturbing images come from a secretly shot video which campaigners say lays bare the cruel reality of Anne’s life, Britain’s last circus elephant

YouTube – Elephant abuse under the big top at Ringling Brothers circus – disturbing images

The Raw Story –  US circuses are circling the wagons against a proposed law in Congress that would ban using elephants under the big top

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