BETTER OFF DEAD
THAN BRED – an Article on the importation of elephants into
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
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.
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
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
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,
In mid-2004 a
syndicate of Australasian zoos, namely Taronga,
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
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
The HIS would like
to see elephants phased out of Australian zoos, citing the Detroit Zoo in
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
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
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
gestation period if
-The chance that a male calf may not be produced
-The 10 years it would take the calf to reach sexual maturity.
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.
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.
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.
*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
The lack of breeding
success in many American and European zoos could be directly attributed to this
housing pattern. Recent
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
A recent example essentially modeled on this concept provides us with a thought-provoking scenario…
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.
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;
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
*Postcards from the Zoo
By Darill Clements
By Vicki Croke
second comment comes from Patrick in
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
you both for your comments and ideas. Thanks also to Nigel from