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Stanley Johnson: we must ban keeping elephants captive in UK zoos

Stanley Johnson: we must ban keeping elephants captive in UK zoos
3 min read

The world’s largest land animal, elephants are sentient, intelligent and socially complex beings. In my life I have been fortunate enough to observe them up close in the wild, and unfortunate enough to see them in cramped captivity.

It is quite clear to me that these animals are not suited for life in confinement, within the restricted habitats that even the biggest safari parks and most well-intentioned zoos have to offer.

As Defra reviews the keeping of elephants in the United Kingdom, I believe we must set out a planned transition away from their inclusion in zoos.

Earlier this week the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (CAWF), for whom I am a patron, published a report on the unique needs of elephants, particularly in regard to space, concluding that these complex animals cannot live meaningful lives in captivity. Simply put, there is no place for elephants in zoos, including safari parks.

The limited space elephants enjoy in comparison to their wild habitats is stark

Indeed, the limited space elephants enjoy in comparison to their wild habitats is stark. Zoo enclosures average little over 1 hectare in size, which they can walk across in just over a minute, compared to a 10,000-hectare range in the wild. This lack of space also restricts the variety of plantae that elephants can feed on and so, despite the best efforts of zoos, their diets inevitably reflect a fraction of the diversity and nutritional composition found in the wild.

These physical restrictions are reflected in high mortality rates and ill health. More than half of elephants in zoos are categorised as overweight or very overweight. Excess body mass in elephants, like humans, can cause extensive physical health problems. It is no wonder therefore that the lifespans of African elephants are drastically reduced – halved to just 17 years.

This week’s report also highlights the extensive psychological and social damage to elephants arising from life in confinement. Elephants live in layered societies in the wild, with clans consisting of several hundred. By contrast, the average group size of elephants in the UK is less than three individuals, with two even living alone. Zoo management systems are small and present limited opportunities for elephants to bond and socialise.

As a nation of animal lovers, it is unsurprising that new polling this year shows over 90 per cent of the public recognise elephants should be given more space than is provided for in zoos. Similarly, 89 per cent of people agree that elephants belong in the wild.

I was delighted to hear that Paignton Zoo in Devon recently confirmed they would not replace their two elephants who passed away in 2019. We must work together with other UK zoos to end the import and breeding of elephants, and thus prevent more individuals being brought into a life where they inevitably suffer both physically and psychologically.

I stand by the central conclusion of this week’s report that elephants cannot live meaningful lives in captivity. It therefore seems only appropriate that the UK’s remaining elephants be repatriated or transferred to spacious refuges in warm climates. Here, elephants can have multiple companions and access at least 100 hectares of the natural space they so desperately need.

 

Stanley Johnson is patron for the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. 

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