Bridget Vercoe: Elephant-herd idea cruel plan to make money

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Bridget Vercoe writes that Auckland Zoo's scheme is ill-conceived and unnecessary.

Burma the elephant at Auckland Zoo. Photo / Nigel Marple
Burma the elephant at Auckland Zoo. Photo / Nigel Marple

Auckland Zoo's $13 million plan to establish a breeding herd of elephants is cruel and will do nothing to protect this majestic animal in the wild.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the breeding programme proposed for the zoo is not linked to any valid conservation programme and probably for good reason.

Elephants born and bred in zoos cannot be, and are never, released back into the wild. Any elephant born at Auckland Zoo will remain in captivity its entire life.

It will either live out its life at the zoo or be shipped at great expense and detriment to the animal's welfare to another zoo, either in New Zealand or overseas.

Life for a zoo elephant is far from pleasant. Elephants are a notoriously difficult species to maintain in zoos. Zoo elephants suffer a range of health problems not commonly found in wild populations.

They are often overweight through lack of exercise, experience foot and leg problems, have circulatory problems such as heart attacks, suffer from arthritis and have been known to die from zoonotic diseases such as herpes and tuberculosis.

Unlike many other species kept in zoos, elephants born in captivity are more likely to die younger than those born and living in the wild.

Even with the best will in the world, relative to the wild environment, captive facilities are deeply impoverished environments. They offer little opportunity to express many of the natural behaviours that these animals would normally exhibit in the wild.

Elephants roam large distances and spend a great deal of their waking hours walking in search of food. Studies have shown that, at a minimum, a family group of Asian elephants will travel 3.2sq km in a day. The space provided in the Auckland Zoo proposal is a fraction of this recorded minimum.

Elephants are highly intelligent animals, which live in complex family groups. The males congregate in loose bachelor herds or live alone.

The females live in herds comprised of related females of varying ages, led by a matriarch. The proposed herd for Auckland Zoo is a small, artificial, grouping of unrelated captive-born elephants. There is the real possibility that the imported elephants will not successfully socialise, requiring individual enclosures and an invasive breeding programme.

Elephants do not breed well in captivity. Research shows that just more than half of all captive-bred elephants involved in breeding programmes conceive and those that do are likely only to produce one calf every 17 to 25 years.

Even females with constant access to males breed rarely - about 35 per cent do not breed at all, 50 per cent produce a calf only once every 17 to 25 years and only 10 per cent calve once every six to seven years.

Furthermore, only 20 per cent of zoo females taken to another zoo to mate actually conceive.

Possible causes include infertility linked to increasing body weight and a growing incidence of pathologies, such as cysts and early reproduction.

The reproductive life of zoo elephants is only 7.2 years, at least four times shorter than that seen in the wild.

It is not only the females fertility which is compromised. About 30 per cent of captive male elephants are infertile due to low sperm quality.

Stillbirths, infanticide and calf rejection are also common in captive situations. A calf born in a zoo has a 10 to 30 per cent chance of dying during its first year and a one in 10 chance that it will be killed or rejected by its mother.

If Auckland Zoo is, as its mission states, serious about "providing visitors with experiences that inspire and empower positive action for wildlife", it should seriously reconsider establishing an elephant herd.

The establishment of a breeding herd of elephants at Auckland Zoo is a money-making exercise, and an ill-conceived one at that.

It does nothing to protect the species in the wild, teaches our children little about the lives of these truly amazing animals and compromises severely the physical and psychological welfare of the elephants it plans to hold captive.

Furthermore, it places Auckland Zoo at odds with leading zoos around the world which are increasingly moving away from keeping elephants on welfare grounds.

Late last year, the government agency responsible for India's zoos acknowledged that zoos could not provide a suitable environment for elephants and ordered that all elephants in zoos and circuses in India be moved to sanctuaries, national parks and reserves.

Bridget Vercoe is the New Zealand country manager for the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

- NZ Herald

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