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Study Shows Elephants in Zoos Live Shorter Lives

Life Expectancy of Zoo Elephants Less Than Half That of Other Elephants

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Asian Elephant at the National Zoo

Asian elephant at the National Zoo.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

A study published in Science magazine in December, 2008, finds that zoo captivity shortens elephants' lives. An international team of researchers examined data from over 4,500 elephants, and found that African and Asian elephants in zoos live much shorter lives compared to African elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park and even compared to Asian elephants working in a logging camp in Myanmar.

Specific Findings of the Study

According to ScienceNOW Daily News:

The team's analysis revealed that African zoo elephants had life spans of about 17 years, whereas those in Amboseli lived 56 years. The median life span for Asian zoo elephants was nearly 19 years, but at (Myanma Timber Enterprises) it was almost 42 years. Death rates for infant Asian elephants were especially high in zoos.

The abstract for the article states:

One risk factor for Asian zoo elephants is being moved between institutions, with early removal from the mother tending to have additional adverse effects. Another risk factor is being born into a zoo rather than being imported from the wild, with poor adult survivorship in zoo-born Asians apparently being conferred prenatally or in early infancy. We suggest stress and/or obesity as likely causes of zoo elephants' compromised survivorship.

Animal advocates are probably not surprised to learn that zoo captivity shortens the lives of elephants, but perhaps the surprising result is that the elephants working in the logging camp live much longer lives than those in zoos.

Elephants in the Myanma Timber Enterprise

An unrelated study of the Myanma Timber Enterprise elephants describes the lives of these logging elephants:

The elephants work a five to eight hours/day, five days/week, seven working months/year. Working elephants have 12 to 16 hours of foraging time at night during working months (June to January), enabling them to socialize not only with the camp elephants but also with wild elephants, because most timber camps are situated in the vicinity of forests where wild elephants roam. The elephants have more free-ranging time during non-working periods (February to May), which coincide with summer and the highest annual temperature of approximately 45 degrees Celsius. The working elephants are maintained as mixed herds consisting of adult males and females and calves of various ages, thus mimicking the social structure of wild elephant herds. Cows with suckling calves are allowed to stay out of work until the calf reaches one year old

These results underscore the importance of social interactions, intergenerational bonds, and lack of confinement for elephant longevity. Although being forced to work in the logging camp violates the elephants' right to be free, these elephants live longer than those who lounge around a zoo enclosure all day because they are allowed to maintain their social bonds and roam over a large area. Zoos will transfer female elephants to other zoos for breeding and other purposes, breaking the familial bonds that normally last a lifetime.

Criticism of the Study

Critics of the study argue that the comparison is flawed because the Amboseli population of African elephants and the Myanmar population of Asian elephants are highly protected, while most elephants in the wild are subject to human predation. However, while the Amboseli and Myanmar populations are highly protected, this does not necessarily mean that elephants in zoos live longer than those in unprotected areas. It is possible that elephants in the wild, even taking hunting, poaching and habitat loss into consideration, live longer lives than those in zoos.

What if Elephants in Zoos Lived Longer than Wild Elephants?

Even if an elephant in a zoo had a longer life expectancy than her wild counterpart, quality of life and the elephant’s right to be free should be considered. The elephant in the wild will spend her life roaming the vast plains and jungles she has evolved to live in, and will be allowed to form and maintain natural social bonds instead of being separated from her children and transferred from zoo to zoo for breeding programs.

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