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BETTER OFF DEAD THAN BRED – an Article on the importation of elephants into Australasia





Though it has taken me a while, here are some comments on my report about the proposal of the three zoos to import elephants into the region.


The first is from Glyn of New South Wales. Thank you so much for your excellent response. Your report is excellently written and though we differ in our conclusions, you raise many of the same issues that I have.



ELEPHANTS and ZOOS-the BIG picture


When it comes to wild animals, few are bigger, or more charismatic, as the Elephant. Elephants are the giants of the living kingdom; the largest and heaviest land mammal alive today.

A few thousand years ago there were as many as ten elephant species, including Pygmy Elephants that once ranged throughout the Mediterranean. Our modern day elephants are descendents of the great Wooly Mammoths and Mastodons of prehistoric times. Climate change and hunting by indigenous people has since wiped them all out.

Now two species are left; the African Bush and Asian Elephants. Both face an uncertain future, with the Asian species the most severely threatened.

In the 1980’s the African Elephant population suffered a catastrophic decline at the hands of ivory poachers. They have been exterminated across vast areas of their former range. But an international ban on the sale of ivory products and the establishment of reserves saw numbers recover to more than a million.

The Asian Elephant remains in grave danger; the wild population has fallen by 65% in less than a century to just 40,000 and their distribution is increasingly fragmented. In this species normally only males have tusks, so poaching has had less of an impact. The main dilemma is habitat destruction. In one of the most densely populated regions of the world, there just isn’t enough space for both humans and elephants.

Given the conservation status of both elephant species, what role can zoos, increasingly regarded as the last chance for many threatened species, play in safeguarding these animals from extinction? People regularly associate zoos with elephants; slightly ironic because no other zoo animal seems to provoke as much debate and controversy as the elephant’s presence in these institutions seems to. In recent decades, people both within and outside the zoo community have posed the question-what are elephants in zoos for and should they actually be there at all?

In justification of these criticisms zoos the world over generally emphasize their conservation mandate in terms of their capacity as an educational facility and also as a centre in which to breed threatened species. So how does this relate to the elephant?

*Zoos provide conservationists with one of the most effective educational forums in the world-global zoo attendance presently stands at over 100 million per annum.

Zoos confront their visitors with real environmental issues and can demonstrate ways to live alongside wildlife (for example Taronga’s Backyard to Bush exhibit-a purpose built environmental discovery centre focused on sustainability in a suburban context). By seeing real elephants in zoos, audiences develop an empathy with the animals, an effect that not even the best TV documentary can create. Zoos argue, quite rightly that this empathy can translate into concern for wild animals and broader conservation issues.

*The value of zoos as a conservation tool is generally recognized by scientists around the world; zoo based captive breeding programs (CBP’s) have played a role in the preservation of many endangered animal species.

Captive breeding programs can be further broken down into two categories-in situ conservation and ex-situ conservation.

In-situ conservation may involve establishing reserves within an animal’s natural range, researching wild animals etc. Ideally, CBP’s would be located within the species normal range. Scientists state that in-situ is most effective because the animal is not being removed from its natural climate. When it works it is also generally more cost effective (a welfare agency in the UK made a valid comparison recently; that the cost of maintaining just one captive elephant p.a. in America could actually staff an African reserve for a year).

Examples of in-situ CBP’s include New Zealand programs for forest birds (although not strictly a zoo CBP), Lord Howe Island Woodhen, Galapagos Tortoise and even China’s Giant Panda Breeding Station at Wolong. In-situ conservation has its drawbacks; due to political tensions and resource scarcity (particularly in third world nations). Inadequate finances, facilities or staff expertise may also prevent the practicality of in-situ conservation.

Indian Rhinoceros, Bengal Tigers and Mountain Gorilla’s prime are examples of where the application of in-situ conservation principles has been of benefit- by developing reserves and funding research programs but unforeseen setbacks-a civilian war (Rwanda) or political coup (Nepal) may pose a threat to their status.

National parks and reserves do protect elephants in parts throughout their range in Asia, but often they are extremely small, too far apart or too close to human settlements-conflicts arise. Because of their size, elephants need vast tracts of forest to be protected to ensure their long-term survival-something that requires great willpower and political goodwill between nations.

Ex-situ conservation or zoo CBP’s exist for hundreds of species. The programs may be regionally based and focus on wildlife native to that region (Australian zoos for Australian fauna) or be on an international scale, linking zoos from around the world.

Ex-situ involves establishing a secure zoo population by managing the genetic diversity and demographics of this species. A detailed studbook tracing the genetic background of all founder stock is formed to coordinate breeding and the movement of animals between zoos. The ultimate aim of a CBP is to reintroduce animals back to the wild when the threat of extinction has abated or to develop, on captive animals, technologies or techniques that can be used to aid the recovery of the wild population. The principles of ex-situ conservation seem very noble, but CBP’s and reintroduction do work. Notable examples that are often cited include the Golden Lion Tamarin, Przewalski’s Horse, Arabian Oryx, Californian Condor, Bali Mynah and locally, the Numbat and Helmeted Honeyeater. Some species extinct in the wild or in critically low numbers survive only in zoos; they include Scimitar Oryx, Guam Rail and Kingfisher.

Many other species with dwindling wild populations are managed under CBP’s as insurance against further threats. These include the Siberian Tiger, Sumatran Tiger, Red Panda, Black Rhinoceros, Orangutan, Northern Quolls and Rock Wallabies.

Ex-situ conservation may also involve zoos raising funds to finance in-situ conservation projects, both within Australia and in other parts of the world. Zoos often link their CBP’s with such in-situ projects, generating interest and financial support through captive animals to help their wild counterparts. This advocacy role is the direction in which many experts believe the zoos relationship with conservation lies, and it is a perfect fit. The recent closure of Melbourne Zoo’s independent Conservation Research Department was part of a move to streamline zoo finances and downsize the budget, but they have pledged ongoing support to established in-situ programs. Experts believe zoos have the potential to foster stronger inter-agency relationships, perhaps through this sort of funding. In Australia, government agencies and zoos have worked together on projects as varied as Malleefowl to Black-eared Miner, providing facilities, funds knowledge and techniques to help save species. At the moment, recovery programs are in place for 150 threatened native species of animals and plants.  


In mid-2004 a syndicate of Australasian zoos, namely Taronga, Melbourne and Auckland announced controversial plans to import 9 Asian elephants from Thailand. The purpose of the importation would be to establish an ex-situ CBP and to raise support for in-situ elephant conservation projects.

The position of the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (ARAZPA), the body that coordinates many of both the ex-situ and in-situ conservation projects of its 40+ members, on the importation proposal is that-

Keeping elephants in zoos allows us to assist wild elephants by…

1)     Raising and providing funds for elephant conservation in the wild

2)     Raising community support and awareness for elephant conservation in the wild

3)      Developing skills and expertise to assist future management of elephants in the wild

Currently the Federal Environment Minister Mr. Ian Campbell is reviewing the importation, which faces heavy condemnation from the Green’s parliamentary party, Humane Society International and other animal welfare agencies. The highly publicized anti-importation campaign has called into public scrutiny the broader, fundamental question of what elephants are in zoos for and the value, if any, of such a breeding program

The HIS commissioned a detailed study into the projected CBP headed by Peter Myroniuk, a former population biologist at Melbourne Zoo. He concluded the importation would be unsuccessful because it relies too heavily on unproven assisted breeding techniques. The report states that within 50 years the population would decline to non-viable levels. The fact that no elephant has ever reproduced in an Australian zoo lends uncomfortable force to these criticisms.

The report reiterates ongoing welfare concerns including high mortality rates, lack of space, unnatural social groupings and the inherent stereotypic behavioral patterns of captive animals.

The report also identifies concerns about the welfare of semi-domesticated elephants in Thailand where the Australian zoo elephants originate. Taronga’s management categorically denied that the elephants they intend to purchase have been mistreated in any way. The zoos position on animal cruelty is one of heavy condemnation.

Asian wildlife experts have suggested the importation is irresponsible because it is encouraging the exportation of wild elephants to Western zoos and circuses. They are lobbying for it to be made illegal. Topping up Western Zoo elephant populations with these animals bred in Asia, either in the wild or under human management, also threatens to undermine any role zoos state they play in the conservation of elephants. Taronga Zoo claims the breeding program will ensure a safer future for the species.

The HIS would like to see elephants phased out of Australian zoos, citing the Detroit Zoo in America’s recent decision to close its elephant exhibit as a move Australian zoos should consider. Funds spent on maintaining elephants in captivity should be redirected to wild elephant conservation. They say that the estimated $168 being spent on the importation would be better used for wildlife conservation in Asia-making the comparison that the Federal Government is only spending $10 million over three years to fund numerous field projects across Asia and the Pacific region. ARAZPA and the involved Australian zoos emphasize their association and support for in-situ conservation projects for elephants and other species.

In November the International Fund for Animal Welfare released a survey reporting that two thirds of Australians were opposed to keeping elephants in captivity, believing it to be cruel. Taronga, Melbourne and Auckland Zoo are conscious of the high profile media coverage surrounding the importation proposal and are keen to avoid any long-term negative public perceptions.

It should be remembered that in 1994 the Zoological Parks Board of N.S.W established a breeding program for the Black Rhinoceros with wild animals against immense criticism. The breeding program suffered several setbacks, the most significant, in welfare and public relations terms, the death of the two wild captured males.

Welfare agencies questioned the value of this CBP-ten years later the WPZ breeding facility is internationally regarded. Many calves have been born there and the research carried out has resolved many secrets concerning the species reproductive physiology. Following the importation, poaching in the part of Zimbabwe where the rhinos came from saw the species exterminated. At least in captivity, their genes are secure.

The outcomes of this breeding program have had wide-ranging conservation benefits for the species both in ex-situ and in-situ terms.


The current scenario leaves little room for optimism for Australian zoo officials. Collectively 10 elephants are in major Australasian zoos. Several older animals, only females, are scattered between a few circuses, an elephant retirement facility in the Cathedral Ranges, Victoria and private zoos such as Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo and the Currumbin Bird Gardens, both in Queensland.

Only Perth Zoo has a viable breeding scenario, with a semi-mature bull and 3 females, two of which are capable of breeding. Auckland Zoo has two females with breeding potential but without access to a bull.

Several years ago Perth Zoo and Auckland Zoo indicated they would enter into a cooperative CBP. Any male offspring produced in Perth would be exported to New Zealand. Drawbacks include…

-The two-year gestation period if Perth’s elephants actually conceived

-The chance that a male calf may not be produced

-The 10 years it would take the calf to reach sexual maturity.

-Auckland’s animals are also ageing and within another 15 years may have passed optimum breeding age.

The timeframe makes the breeding program impractical and unrealistic.

Four elephants between Taronga and Melbourne Zoo are maintained in male-female pairs. All 4 animals are ageing and may have past their reproductive prime. Taronga’s animals are also kept separate to prevent injury to the cow by the more aggressive bull, thereby preventing mating. Pairings represent an unnatural social grouping and the situation only seems to exacerbate stereotyped behaviours and discourage breeding.

The animals currently in Australia are also of different sub-species; He-man at Taronga originates from Indo-china, Bong-Su and Mek-Kapah at Melbourne from Malaysia. There are 4 Asian sub-species, Sri Lankan, Indian, Malaysian and Sumatran. In North America, these distinctions are generally dropped because the population is so small and elephants so expensive to maintain. Inter-breeding between sub-species of other animals such as lions, orangutans and tigers is viewed as being unprofessional within the zoo industry-why allow it with elephants?

With the Australian elephant population in a critical situation a number of alternatives to importation have been explored. These proposals have included AI, breeding loans or forming a regional a super herd by combining all the zoo animals at one location. For various reasons they have all been dismissed. The animals in the country even capable of reproducing represent to small a number on which to base a viable breeding program.

Australian zoos clearly need to reinvigorate the demographically stagnant herd-ARAZPA’s importation strategy presents the only viable long-term solution.


Elephants represent a major source of revenue for Australian zoos. They are among the most popular zoo animals and are a major draw card. In spite of ARAZPA’s stated conservation intentions, the revenue generated by the presence of elephants in zoos makes the expense of importation commercially viable and welfare groups maintain this vested interest remains zoos primary motivation. 

The massive amounts of money zoos are prepared to invest in enclosures for elephants demonstrates the financial value of these animals in the zoo environ.

*Melbourne Zoo recently completed the single most expensive building project in the zoo’s history -the 3.5 hectare Asian Elephant Trail. Zoo attendance increased dramatically when it opened.

*Perth ($4.7 million) and Auckland Zoo are also about to embark on significant upgrades of their elephant facilities.

*Taronga is finalizing development of its ambitious $45 million Asian Elephant Rainforest precinct. Sprawling across 3.4 hectares, over 40 different species will be featured.

The four Thai elephants are destined for this exhibit; Taronga’s current elephants are to be relocated to a new enclosure at the Zoological Parks Board of N.S.W’s open range facility-Western Plains Zoo.

Welfare groups and indeed, some Taronga insiders have been quite critical of Taronga’s design-and, for the money being invested, presents some serious flaws. Although covering 3.4 hectares, the central area set aside for the elephant’s is no bigger than the current enclosure at Taronga.  Unlike Melbourne’s, the new enclosure provides no facilities for a bull, which presents a very clear and fundamental stumbling block for any breeding program. This no-bull scenario should be avoided.

The lack of breeding success in many American and European zoos could be directly attributed to this housing pattern. Recent ISIS figures regarding elephants in Europe shows that over a third of females have no access to a mate. Similar figures exist in American zoos, where experts warn, without major reproductive success, the breeding potential of the whole population could be lost within 15 years. Just 15 of the 50 male Asian Elephants in that country are even considered fit to breed.

Breeding transfers for Taronga would appear to be an option, but in practice they are unnaturally disruptive (removing females from their social grouping), risky (no elephant has ever left Taronga alive*) and relatively unsuccessful.

Any Taronga breeding program is more or less entirely reliant on unreliable artificial insemination.

AI is still unreliable; much has yet to be learnt about elephant reproduction. Semen still has to be sourced from somewhere-does any Australian zoo have the facilities to collect it?

Recent triumphs in American zoos are an impressive technical achievement, but it is difficult not to regard the use of AI as a palliative to disguise the failure to establish normal, natural breeding groups. These points lend a lot of sway to welfare groups criticisms and suggestions to relocate any Taronga breeding program to WPZ, where a natural herd could be established.

A think tank held in America in the 1990s saw a panel of elephant experts try to solve their breeding program dilemma. One suggestion was to establish several such regional breeding facilities, consolidating insignificant, scattered zoo herds into a few larger ones with room for more than one bull. Providing the animals with appropriate social conditions would stimulate breeding.

A recent example essentially modeled on this concept provides us with a thought-provoking scenario…

In the United Kingdom, London Zoo was forced to move its three female elephants out of the city to the expansive Whipsnade Wild Animal Park in Bedfordshire after the death of a London keeper and ongoing welfare concerns.

London’s animals were integrated with the two cows and bull already at Whipsnade; with space to move, enrichment and exercise opportunities, the zoo created an environment where natural herd behaviour is encouraged. Two cows conceived and a male and female calf were born in recent months. 

A final point on the positive side, research in zoos has provided us with a lot of useful information on elephant reproductive physiology and biochemistry that could be applied to wild animals. Taronga will probably take this stance when defending future criticisms of its breeding program.


*6 elephants have lived and died at Taronga.

1-Jessie the famous elephant from the old Moore Park Zoo

2-Jill and Joan, two Asian elephants who died in 1976 and 1977

3-Sarina, another female Asian elephant who was put down in 1979 at the grand age of 57

4-Chori, an African Elephant who died as zoo officials readied to transport her to WPZ

5-Ranee, a female Asian who died in 1998 after an operation on a vaginal wart


Do elephants need zoos as much as zoos need elephants? Zoos claim they have a role to play in breeding the species and teaching people about elephants, critics claim zoos need elephants to get people through the gates and sustain visitation.

A lot of environmental professionals say that the relationship between zoos and elephants is representative of the fundamental role of zoos-of little conservation value. Anti-zoo conservationists point out that if zoos were really focused on conserving biodiversity and teaching people about the natural kingdom, more emphasis would be placed on smaller mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. These animal types, they say, are what sustain eco-systems. As an American scientist pointed out, removing elephants from the African savannah would present serious problems; remove invertebrates and the ecosystem would crash. Few zoos, they say, are prepared to lavish extravagant amounts of money on conserving snails and spiders. Critics claim zoos want to be associated with biodiversity conservation, but when it comes to conservation spending, zoos are more interested in saving sexy species like rhinos and tigers, and this translates into a broader misrepresentation of nature.

Zoos justify their current species selections and CBP. They argue that saving big animals is fine because they are ‘umbrella species’. Using the same savannah analogy, making the African plains safe for elephants conserves countless other smaller species. Big animals with diminishing ranges in rapidly developing nations are also likely to be not just endangered but also more interesting to the public. In the wild, big animals are big losers because they need more space, and in zoos, their slower rate of reproduction allows zoos to use limited space more effectively.

Australian zoo populations are so small that their current viability is considered short-term. Genetic theory suggests that 200 to 400 animals are needed to retain 90% of a species genetic diversity over 100 years. That applies to animals with life spans of between four to eight years. Animals with a one-year generation length would require populations of 1600. Collectively, Australasian zoos have a holding capacity of about 20 individuals per species. Demographically this is too small a number to secure health and genetic vitality. Therefore, whilst zoo conditions are better suited to smaller animals like meerkats, otters frogs and reptiles, zoo conservation is better suited to slow breeding species like elephant.

A lot of these mega-fauna species are also already present in captivity, so maintaining breeding programs for them is sensible. Going out and capturing all of the worlds threatened insect species and creating breeding programs isn’t just impractical, it’s not going to sustain biodiversity either. Having said that, zoos don’t turn their back on the macro-fauna either. Taronga has incorporated invertebrates into many of its new developments; Melbourne has its fascinating butterfly house and the Territory Wildlife Park in NT focuses heavily on invertebrates. In conservation projects, Melbourne Zoo has secured the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, reduced to an estimated dozen or so individuals. Western Swamp Turtles, Bell Frogs, Romer’s Tree Frog and Crested Iguanas all have priority in Australian zoos, but they require just as many resources as mega-fauna conservation. Elephants might eat more, but CBP for all species, big or small, takes time and money. Zoos cant save everything.

Habitat preservation is the main key to total biodiversity conservation, and if zoos have to use sexy species to raise awareness, then so be it.


The world is changing; global environmental changes are putting increasing pressure on the world’s wildlife. Critics warn against relying too heavily on zoo-based CBP in terms of conservation, but then again they were notably pessimistic about the future for Przewalski’s Horses, Arabian Oryx, Pere David’s Deer, European Bison, Golden Lion Tamarin and Californian Condor.

Conservation and the zoo can go hand-in-hand, and it is my opinion that well-conceived CBP can and do play a meaningful role in securing a future for our wildlife. The value of zoos will be increasingly realized into the future.

Elephants also have a place in captivity. The new Australasian breeding program is founded on meaningful principles, marrying in-situ and ex-situ conservation. If bought to fruition, the CBP does represent benefit to wild elephants in decades to come. Hypothetically, wild female elephants living in a Thai reserve established with funds raised by Australasian zoos may be inseminated with semen from a male elephant, born and bred naturally in captivity in Australia. Some of his brothers and sisters had been conceived through AI, and the technique, refined and developed in Australia, was now being practiced to help wild animals.

This is the sort of role future zoos will play. In the mean time, if elephants are to survive in captivity at all, zoos need to get the captive elephant population breeding and off the ground. If zoos can manage to get the social structure right, then just like with gorillas, breeding could take care of itself. Paradoxically, it is only be identifying and meeting the needs of individual elephants that we will be able to realize the potential role of zoos in the conservation of this species as a whole. 



*Postcards from the Zoo

  By Darill Clements

*The Modern Ark-The Story of Zoos: Past, Present and Future

  By Vicki Croke


Perth, Auckland, Melbourne and Taronga Zoo websites.




A second comment comes from Patrick in Victoria (he helped me with information for my original report).


Like me he feels that the elephants shouldn’t be imported. He feels that there are enough elephants of breeding age in the region that they could have been brought together at a Free Range zoo to create a nucleus for a breeding herd. Further, if the city zoos had wanted to continue exhibiting elephants they could have taken over several circus animals. Certainly Ashtons were selling three cows (see my report on the Ashtons elephants) and there in Ana from Stardust circus. Ana is an animal that is constantly under review by animal rights groups. The zoos could have done her a great favour by taking her in. This way the zoos could have shown their dedication to elephant welfare, and if the breeding group proved successful, then they could import other animals to expand the gene pool.


Thank you both for your comments and ideas. Thanks also to Nigel from New Zealand, a dedicated and resourceful zoo fan and Gill from Brisbane for her input as a  caring animal rights activist.