Shar Carlin: Zoo happiest home for this elephant

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Shar Carlin says Auckland Zoo's Burma would be unlikely to have a better life in a foreign sanctuary.

Captive elephants are safer than in the wild, and in the best zoos they receive care that keeps them in peak physical and mental condition. Photo / Janna Dixon
Captive elephants are safer than in the wild, and in the best zoos they receive care that keeps them in peak physical and mental condition. Photo / Janna Dixon

Auckland Councillor Cathy Casey has put a case for getting rid of Burma, the one remaining elephant at Auckland Zoo. While her intent is likely to be honourable, such an attempt to "help" Burma could work very much against her, and paradoxically, as recent research shows, it could also work against conservation efforts.

That research shows people who have direct contact with animals tend to develop a richer understanding of them and are more likely to be attuned to their conservation. Zoo elephants are a means by which all people can embed a direct experience about what an elephant is like. For some it can be life-changing to have that contact.

Of course the "wild" is best for wild elephants. Their natural environment provides them with many things that can't be replicated in captive situations. But Burma isn't a wild elephant. She doesn't know the wild. Without Auckland Zoo she may have been worked to death in the logging camp where she was born.

Animal rights groups and others campaign to move elephants to sanctuaries away from human contact, but let's be realistic. There are only 22 elephants in two North American sanctuaries, and nowhere near enough space in either for the several hundred captive elephants in zoos and circuses today.

Sanctuaries are not so different from zoos. The elephants are still fenced in. They remain dependent on humans to feed them and keep them in good health. But true sanctuaries are closed to the public, and it's that escape from the public eye that makes them a sanctuary. And in a way, that is a lost opportunity for conservation.

In Africa it was realised that African people generally don't see animals such as elephants, gorillas or rhinos because they are somewhere far off beyond high fences where only wealthy tourists can afford to see them. Without having direct experience they form no attachment to them and so poaching an elephant is quite an unimportant idea at village level.

There are now programmes in place to bring African children into parks so they can experience what these animals are like and see the social interaction they have as an attempt to create internal village pressure to prevent poaching.

Poaching is a major issue and that lovely "wild" we see on television is anything but stress-free for the animals. An estimated 25,000 elephants were killed by poachers across Africa in 2011 alone - that's what the wild is. Fenced inside game reserves, elephants are now sitting ducks for poachers. Even the most studied elephant herd in the world, the Amboseli elephants, are not safe.

Elephants in both Africa and Asia are being shot and poisoned when they raid crops as they are forced to compete with humans for space.

Somehow, we need to make people care about that. Research shows that without interaction, humans care less.

And people do visit zoos - 175 million people in the US every year.

I would argue that pressure should be put on any zoo not up to standard, but a zoo like Auckland's needs to be acknowledged for its great work with Burma.

Burma is part of a progressive elephant management programme where her care and welfare is not only paramount, it's fun. She is managed using a completely positive regime of free contact. This requires an enormous amount of trust between Burma and the team of five keepers who care for her because they are all sharing the same space.

Her team plays the role of a herd, by growing her confidence, keeping her days busy and stimulating, and providing her with enough challenges to make sure she doesn't get bored.

Elephants are highly intelligent animals and Burma isn't fooled - she knows they're not elephants. But the relationships that have grown over many years with her team are strong and respectful.

Keeping two elephants occupied and enriched was a major commitment, but it's even more so since Burma lost her companion, Kashin, in 2009. Her team helped her through her grief, and works with her still in this time of uncertainty, filling her days with long walks, foraging and browsing in the bush behind the zoo, swimming with her and scrubbing her down to keep her skin in good condition, performing health checkups and schooling sessions to keep her mind and body fit, and most of all giving her loads of affection and tons of fun. Her life in captivity is about as good as it gets. I urge anyone to go and watch how the Auckland keepers interact with Burma to see the warmth in the relationship.

Alone or not, Burma is an ambassador for her species. Everyone who comes in contact with her will leave knowing a little more about elephants and with a greater understanding, however small, of why elephants - both Asian and African, wild and captive - need our help.

The view that Burma would be better off elsewhere carries a lot of assumption.

Another view is to keep her here with companions, to give opportunities to other young elephants whose lives would be richer in Auckland than in an orphanage or a work camp.

Let new generations of children form a bond with an elephant and some, like me, might become focused on elephant conservation.

Shar Carlin of the University of Otago is researching the future of captive elephant management.

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