Elephant husbandry in zoos — background


The criterion by which it is defined which species of wild animals are suitable for being kept in zoos is their natural behaviour or rather the extent to which this can be lived out in human care. In the case of elephants, it is particularly the following components that form the main elements of their natural behaviour: need for movement, comfort behaviour, social behaviour and feeding behaviour. The degree to which these needs are met differs from zoo to zoo, sometimes considerably.

Spatial requirement:


Constricted conditions

constricted outdoor enclosures

Even today, in many zoos, the biggest terrestrial animals on earth have to lead lives under the most constricted conditions. Of the 136 elephant keeping facilities in Europe, 58 have outdoor enclosures of less than 2,000 m². In 25 cases, the outside facilities are smaller than 1,000 m² (18.4 %, as of June 2010).
In 9 of 28 German zoos, elephants are kept in enclosures of less than 2,000 m². This corresponds to almost one third of all facilities (as of June 2010). In four facilities, currently the elephants have to live on an area of less than 1,000 m².
Minimum provisions for elephants in Germany:
(2014/BML (Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Forestry)).

Constricted barns For climate-related reasons, many elephants have to be kept in indoor enclosures at night or over longer periods in the winter months. Too many animals in zoos of the temperate climate zone have to stay in small concrete stables for half the day or the whole day, sometimes for weeks or even months, even chained in some cases.


Positive examples

Cabarceno zoo, Spain (20 ha outdoor)

Cologne zoo, Germany (2.750 m² indoor area)

larger outdoor areas Modern zoos exceed the legal minimum requirements by far on a voluntary basis. These days, more and more facilities provide their elephants with areas simulating the current habitat of wild elephants, i.e. 1 to 2 hectares min.: 21 European zoos have elephant facilities of more than 1 hectare (already a sixth of all owners, as of June 2010). Thirteen further owners had elephant facilities of more than half a hectare up to one hectare in 2010 already. Thus, in 2010, a fourth of all elephant-keeping zoos in Europe had outdoor enclosures of 5,000 m² to 200,000 m² (0.5 ha to 20 ha) for their trunked animals.
The largest elephant facility in a zoo worldwide is that of the Spanish zoo park Cabarceno.
indoor free moving areas

More and more zoos are establishing indoor enclosures for elephants which are adapted to the moderate climate. In modern elephant houses, the animals can use a common inside enclosure at night and during winter time. Nevertheless, temporary separation facilities are required.

Positive example: Cologne Zoo (2.750 m² indoor)


Comfort behavior and self-care:

Insufficient equipment

poor outdoor enclosures Even in 2010, too many elephant facilities were not sufficiently equipped for self-care and self-occupation. Some facilities have no bathing possibilities and not even shadow areas. A lack of possibilities to retreat increases the tensions.
Examples of insufficiently equipped elephant facilities can be found all over Europe.
un-equipped barns In most elephant houses where, in the Central European climate, the pachyderms often spend 14 or sometimes up to 23 hours per day (winter), the biggest terrestrial mammals still have to stand on concrete floors. Often, this verifiably results in foot problems which, in the past, was frequently a cause of death due to inadequate keeping conditions.


Well equipped facilities

Beauval zoo, France

Heidellberg zoo, Germany - indoor fee moving area

well-structured enclosures Well-equipped elephant facilities enable the animals to care for their skin and to preoccupy themselves – in addition to self-initiated social behaviour, food intake, etc. This can be achieved by mud wallows and suitable bathing basins, clay hills, sand heaps and chafing possibilities. Natural soil helps to keep the feet healthy. Shadowed areas for all animals can be provided by means of awnings or elevated islands of plants. Behavioural enrichment in the form of car tyres or punching balls helps to avoid boredom. Screens and circular paths create room to get out of one another’s way and to retreat. This way, social tensions can be eased.
self-care indoors Well-equipped indoor facilities (e.g. at Dublin zoo, IRL, Chester zoo, UK or Amersfoort zoo/ Netherlands) are characterised by large areas of natural soil and possibilities for comfort behaviour (bathing facility, chafing possibilities). Sand in the indoor enclosures provides additional relief for the feet and enables occupation as well as comfortable lying down at night as well as during long autumn and winter days. Provided the facilities are correspondingly structured, elephants in zoos can also live up to their comfort behavior in the same way as they would in the wild.



Social behaviour:

Examples of inadequate social groups

... for females Groups comprising exclusively adult female elephants – with no bulls or offspring – allow the elephants only little species-adequate social behaviour. Instead, among unrelated females – particularly those who have no offspring of their own – there is an increased potential for tension which may even result in fights.
When zoo-born females are transferred to other facilities without their mothers, both lose their most important social partner. A separation of mothers and daughters not only reduces the degree of self-occupation among the elephants, it can also cause severe mental stress in the affected animals.
... for males But bull elephants, too, are very social animals and not the permanent “lone wolves” they have been thought of for a long time. Zoos keeping their bulls separated from the other elephants or bringing them together with the cows for mating only - often in the too small enclosures – are not in a position to care for their male elephants in a way that is appropriate in accordance with their natural behaviour.



Adequate social structures

Howletts Sarafi park, UK

Emmen zoo, Netherlands

... for females The intelligent giants are only able to live up to their virtually proverbial intensive social behaviour if mothers and daughters can stay together, for their whole lives if possible. These days, modern owners let elephant mothers establish family groups with their daughters and their offspring. Howletts Zoo/Great Britain, for example, is breeding with a family of four generations.
Female elephants in such family groups are able to live up to their natural social behaviour to a considerable degree.
... for males Zoos keeping their adult males together with the females report about the positive effects this has on all the animals. This way, the adult males, too, have the largest possible freedom of movement.
In the case of male offspring, the owners will be faced with the challenge of keeping part of the stock of bulls in bachelor groups. In future it will not be possible to use each adult male for breeding right away; however, there are already examples of well-functioning bachelor goups of males in Europe.


Feeding behaviour:

Inadequate methods: short-time duration of food intake

Portions on the floor Just pouring “bite-sized” portions of hay and concentrated footage on the floor once or twice per day does not allow the skillful trunked animals to live up to their natural way of occupying themselves in preparing and taking in their food. In zoos where elephants are fed this way, the duration of food intake is clearly shortened. The occupation aspect is further reduced if the elephants are offered too few browse.


Adequate methods: long-time duration of food intake

Vienna zoo, Austria

Heidelberg zoo, Germany

feeding enrichment

The selection of appropriate feeding methods or systems makes it possible to occupy zoo-kept elephants almost all day long. These methods or systems include high-hanging nets with hay or feed barrels, concrete pipes full of treats, spreading of the food, and the like. If the elephants are given compact food, i.e. branches, it takes them a long time to prepare their food, something which has to be regarded as particularly positive.



Husbandry system:

Direct contact (DC = free contact or “hands on”):

Unlike other powerful wild animals, almost all elephants in zoos used to be kept, trained and dominated in free contact with humans, i.e. the keepers. Something like this is only possible if the wild animals, which the elephants are, are chained at least part of the time. The advantage: apparently easier body care and veterinary treatment and a certain occupation in the form of learning special commands. The idea that, in this way, the elephants could more or less well be “kept in safe custody” was used to justify the fact that the intelligent giants were kept in small and often insufficiently equipped facilities.
As a result of these husbandry conditions, however, the elephant became the most dangerous wild animal kept in zoos and circuses.
Thus, keeping elephants in unprotected free contact poses a considerable accident risk. The first modifications were made to bull husbandry, but this was followed by an escalation of accidents caused by cow elephants. Meanwhile, some three thirds of the attacks on humans are caused by females.
Apart from German zoos, free contact is nowadays only applied in the case of 30 % of all captive elephants
(ratio of 3:7). In Germany, on the other hand, 70 % of all elephants are still handled without protective barriers (ratio of 7:3, as of April 2009).

Provided the husbandry conditions are suitable, however, training by human bosses of the herd (dominance exerted by the keeper in his position as the so-called “super alpha”) is not required to appropriately occupy the highly mentally developed pachyderms.
All over Europe, a tendency towards a changing husbandry philosophy can be observed, resulting in a development from free contact to husbandry systems allowing high-quality elephant care without putting the keepers into danger.

Protected contact (PC, or “hands off”):

Training with protected contact enables necessary treatments to be performed and serves as complementary occupation. With trained animals, medical care is possible to the same extent as with free contact. The application of this system renders unnecessary the need to dominate the elephants, to suppress hierarchy-related behaviour or to chain the animals. To achieve good results requires sensitive work by highly qualified elephant keepers.
The husbandry system of protected contact makes it possible to occupy the animals and to perform all regularly necessary care measures without putting humans into danger.

No contact (NC, sometimes also called “hands off”, which can result in misunderstandings):

A better designation would be “no training”. The elephants are not trained at all. This husbandry system affects the animals least in their daily routine, but does not allow any care measures or treatment without sedation. There is also no mental challenge due to learning and cooperating with humans.
In our opinion, good care (skin and feet) of elephants kept without medical training is only possible if they are kept in extraordinarily well-equipped facilities whose dimensions correspond with those of their current natural habitats.



Flag ship species:

Well-kept elephants show a high degree of natural behaviour. Thus, due to their popularity, elephants kept in modern zoos can be representatives to the visitors of their species and their habitat and they can raise awareness for how human influence poses a threat to them.
Over the past decade, some zoos in Europe have improved their elephant facilities. And they did so with success. Safe bull facilities as well as bringing the bulls together with young females suitable for breeding have resulted in more than 100 elephants being born over the past 10 years. In some 70 % of all European zoos, however, the elephant facilities are a far cry from acceptable facilities that are nearly biological in their character and suitable for wild animals. In these cases, there is a massive need for future improvements.

Elefanten-Schutz Europa e.V./European Elephant Group promotes the basing on facts of both the assessment of negative aspects and the appreciation of successes. Obsolete provisions stipulated by the legislators or decisions taken by zoos or ministries are as critically challenged by our organisation as is the general criticism of human husbandry of elephants, as such criticism is technically unsustainable.

A detailed article comparing the deficits of backwards elephant facilities with the potential of modern elephant facilities in zoos can be found here.

The following can be learned from some examples: These days, progressive elephant owners in Europe are generally in a position to meet the needs of the giant animals to such an extent that, in the opinion of Elefanten-Schutz Europa e.V., both elephant species can, in principle, be kept in human care in a way that is appropriate for their behaviour (in the sense of “species appropriate”).

Our documentation 2002 – “Elephants in European Zoos and Safari Parks” – provides comprehensive data on elephant husbandry in Europe (as of 2002), including an analysis of the Oxford Study.

Our survey 2006 – “Elephants in European Zoos and Safari Parks” – contains updated data on animal stocks and husbandry systems as well as information on facility sizes (as of November 2006), in English.

Please also inform yourself about the aspects of elephant husbandry in zoos that ELEFANTEN-SCHUTZ EUROPA e.V. is particularly concerned with!