/ 4 December 2023

Elephants do not belong in zoos

Mana Pools National Park.
The vision of the Pro Elephant Network (PREN) is a future in which all elephants can thrive in freedom and dignity in their protected natural habitats as part of naturally functioning and evolving ecosystems. Photo: Godong/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Zoos are becoming less attractive to customers because the demand for animal performances and exploitation is decreasing, according to the director of the welfare organisation Animal Asia. This is despite the fact that the demand for animal exploitation is exaggerated by those who provide it. 

Zoos are increasingly searching for alternative revenue streams. For example, the Pretoria Zoo hosts public parties, festivals and after-hours events, which often feature live music, DJ line-ups and alcohol. 

The administrators and advisers of the Pretoria Zoo continue to justify the captivity of elephants for conservation purposes. But this argument is questionable because there are already large populations of elephants living in natural environments in South Africa. 

Public conservation education is a requirement for membership in professional zoo associations. But in recent years, zoos have been criticised for failing to educate the public on conservation issues and related biological concepts.

Carl Hagenbeck was a prominent animal trader and ethnographic showman in the 19th century. He was known for his enormously popular displays of humans, animals and artefacts gathered from all over the world, and he supplied many European zoos with wild animals. In 1907, he created the first modern zoo featuring wild animal enclosures that were designed without any bars. 

The Hagenbeck revolution, as it was known, included enclosures using moats and artfully arranged rock displays to discreetly confine animals. In this manner, Hagenbeck attempted to artfully disguise their captivity and in doing so created the illusion that the animals on display were living in a natural environment. 

David Hancocks, a well-renowned British zoo director, architect and consultant, envisioned and oversaw the creation of a gorilla exhibit in 1976 that featured trees and an abundance of natural foliage at the Woodland Park Zoo. Hancocks has subsequently become an outspoken critic of zoos and similar institutions. 

In an interview, commenting on zoo architecture and enrichment he concluded: “The exhibits today may now look more natural, but in terms of animal needs they are typically not much better than the old menagerie cages (which, incidentally, still remain in every detail in many holding facilities and off-exhibit zoo areas). Concrete trees, vegetation that is sealed off by electric wires, acres of fake rockwork that does not feel or act like real rocks in its thermal capacities, substrates that just get packed down harder and harder, are never tilled and become like concrete. A few dead trees perhaps, that are dried up and hard as iron, and just as useless to the animal occupants. More disturbingly, nothing ever changes in these useless zoo spaces. Zoo animals step out into the very same unchanged space every morning day after day after year after year.

“The zoo passion today for ‘enrichment’ is, to me, a public admission of defeat. In a space that gives the animals what they truly require there is no need to litter the place with junk and other distractions. Animals in the wild don’t require ‘enrichment’. They have agency and can choose to interact with the living components of their natural habitats (physical, living and social). They are able to engage the repertoire of behaviours that they evolved for use within their natural habitat and to do so without being artificially enticed to mimic a few aspects of those behaviours by a keeper. Animals in the wild do not require a keeper’s stimulation to be active; they have places worth exploring and have their natural, social mix of compatriots, and that is a sufficient stimulus for them to be active. They can dig, fly, run, climb, soar and do all manner of natural things denied to most animals in most zoos.” 

Zoos often claim that they provide an educational day out for the public by offering an entertaining way to learn about animals and conservation. This argument is frequently used by those who support keeping animals in captivity for profit. But unbiased research published in the academic journal Conservation Biology suggests that this claim is false and that children are not educated when visiting zoos.

Research conducted surveyed 2800 children after guided and unguided visits to the London Zoo. This survey revealed that 62% of children showed no change in knowledge regarding new facts about animals or any pertaining to environmental conversation. 

Modern zoos and aquariums also aspire to contribute significantly to biodiversity conservation research. This is a key criterion for accreditation by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. For instance, the Pretoria Zoo is a member of PAAZA, and PAAZA is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

On 16 November 2022, Martinette Kruger and Adam Viljoen published a paper titled Encouraging ProConservation Intentions in Urban Recreational Spaces: A South African Zoo Perspective. The paper is supported by a field survey carried out at the Johannesburg Zoo in 2019 and 445 completed questionnaires. The paper argues that zoos have an important role to play in preserving rare and endangered species of animals, which in turn helps to preserve biodiversity and natural ecosystems around the world. 

Zoos consistently rebrand themselves as serious contributors to conservation. The argument that is most commonly used is that zoo animals function as backup populations for wild animals under threat.

An academic paper titled Captivity for Conservation? Zoos at a Crossroads was published eight years ago. The paper discusses various issues that speak to the question of whether captivity for conservation can be an ethically acceptable goal of the modern zoo. The author reflects on theoretical disagreements involving animal protectionists versus wildlife conservationists. The paper highlights the practical challenges of conservation programmes in zoos, the small percentage of endangered species actually exhibited in zoos, and the disappointing results of reintroduction programmes.

The content of the aforementioned paper explains why the Noah’s Ark paradigm is being replaced by an alternative integrated approach. It explores the changes in the zoo’s core tasks that the new paradigm implies and pays special attention to the changes that would have to be made in zoos’ collection policies: connection with in situ projects, emphasising local species and the local biogeographical region, exchange of animals among zoos and between zoos and wildlife, and a shift towards smaller species. 

The author raises an important question about whether the new paradigm will achieve a morally acceptable balance between the costs of animal welfare and the benefits of species conservation. In 2000, the South African National Research Foundation put out a call for the establishment of research entities, which led to the first tourism niche research entity which was called Socio-Economic Impact of Tourism after which the name was changed to Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES). Their research focus is in line with the goals and objectives of the department of tourism with a focus on economic, environmental and community issues.

TREES support the claim made by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that coordinated breeding programmes of wild animals in captivity known as Species Survival Plans serve to guarantee the survival of the species. According to the content of the paper, zoos play a role in preserving rare and endangered species of animals, hence preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems throughout the world. However, the animals held in the zoos have little to no opportunity for release into the wild.

Based on extensive research carried out by Born Free on wild animals in captivity, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 1990 identified survival action plans for 1370 species of which 418 were endangered, “the reserve populations of animals kept and bred in captivity are almost never introduced into the wild, especially species non-native to the location to the zoo”. Only 1.4% were identified as being candidates for reintroduction of captive-bred animals. 

The academic paper titled Mind and Movement: Meeting the Interests of Elephants published by Dr Joyce Poole and Petter Granli confirms that elephants captive in zoos and circuses are plagued by a host of physical and psychological ailments that are not observed among their free-living counterparts. Regardless of the regular health care they might receive, and despite the lack of human predation and the vagaries of drought and disease, captive elephants suffer from obesity, arthritis, foot problems and reproductive and physiological disorders and die at a younger age. 

Elephants in Zoos – A Legacy of Shame is a substantial report that outlines the history and the continuing plight of elephants in zoos across the United States, Canada and Europe, using individual cases the content highlights the effects of captivity on the physical and psychological health and welfare of individual elephants, the unsustainable nature of existing captive populations, and the effects of wild capture for captive use on the social stability and conservation of wild elephant populations with the consequences and serious knock-on effects on the wider ecosystems of which they are involved. 

The Legacy of Shame Report was researched and published by Born Free and endorsed by Damian Aspinall, Chris Packham CBE, Angela Sheldrick, Cynthia Moss, Winnie Kiiru, David Casselman and Keith Lindsay. 

The current stereotypical behaviour displayed by Charlie the Elephant, presently held captive at the Pretoria Zoo, which was filmed while he was being bombarded with loud music, is extremely concerning. This behaviour is described by behavioural experts as the repetitive, purposeless habit of bobbing his head and swaying incessantly. Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished stressful captive environment physically damages the brain. Being confined in barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact has negative effects on the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain involved in higher cognitive functions, and leads to dysregulation of the parts of the brain involved with voluntary movements. This is according to Bob Jacobs in the article The Neural Cruelty of Captivity: Keeping Large Mammals in Zoos and Aquariums Damages their Brains and the peer-reviewed article Putative Neural Consequences of Captivity for Elephants and Cetaceans. 


This statement was written in response to the article published in the Mail & Guardian on 9 November 2023 headlined “The vital role of zoos in the 21st century”.

 The vision of the Pro Elephant Network (PREN) is a future in which all elephants can thrive in freedom and dignity in their protected natural habitats as part of naturally functioning and evolving ecosystems. 

Its mission is to stop the capture and exploitation of elephants by humans and to advocate for the release of captive-held elephants into the wild. Where freedom and reintegration into the wild are not possible, the PREN seeks the best ethical solutions in the most natural surroundings possible. The acceptability and viability of these ethics and conditions are to be evaluated relative to what the individual elephant would be able to experience in the wild. 

The PREN is a global community of diverse individuals and organisations, united by their common concern for nature, deep association with the natural world and commitment to applying their expertise for the greater good.