An elephant in my backyard

Last month the Auckland Council agreed to lend Auckland Zoo the money to import two juvenile elephants into my backyard. Not my backyard exactly, but close enough – into Western Springs, our backyard.

I was present at the Council meeting, and was kindly given five minutes to speak to the discussion. I underlined the calibre and credentials of the experts who had written to the Council, recommending that Burma be sent away to a sanctuary or open-air zoo, as the most humane and sensible option.

It was a veritable herd of prominent elephant behavioural scientists and conservationists from around the world, who are following what happens here with concern.

In its press release the Council has said the decision was made with animal welfare and conservation ‘paramount’. Obviously this is not the case, as the recommendations were disregarded [see the SAFE campaign page for more details and media coverage].

But the Councillors aren’t elephant experts themselves, so mostly they’re just relying on the information that’s put in front of them. What they actually voted on was the financial plan presented by the zoo, which gave them two scenarios: either bring in elephants and revenues go up, or have nothing in their place and revenues go down. How could any rates-conscious council argue against that?

Everyone loves elephants and it seems like a cold, hard thing to say ‘no’, you can’t have them. But it’s a cold, hard fact that Burma’s future is being decided by these financial decisions. The zoo needs a ‘flagship species’ that will attract the public, and they have chosen elephants as the drawcard.  The lucky ones chosen to live the rest of their lives here with us will be the happy (or not so happy) mascots for the rest of their disappearing species, and bring in the revenue to keep the zoo afloat.

It’s widely recognised that elephants just don’t cope well in zoos. Attempts at good welfare in zoos largely depends on continual enrichment programs and efforts to replicate a natural environment, which for elephants can never be properly achieved. As such, they don’t thrive.

In 2006 Time Magazine reported on a survey of the world’s captive elephant population that showed that “once you lock up the giant, space-loving beasts, their health suffers, their median life span plummets, and they quit breeding.” Click here to read the article.

Photograph by Vincent J Musi

The UK RSPCA in 2010 called for the phase out of elephants in zoos, saying that “recent research has shown that they were suffering from severe welfare problems, which range from lameness and obesity to obsessive behaviour, and that it was inappropriate and cruel to keep them in confinement.”

As everyone knows, elephants are incredible animals [“Elephants resemble humans in a number of ways”] and we should be aiming at what’s really best for them, not just meeting the minimum standards the zoo community sets for itself. What is best for them as individuals, and as a species?

There is no consideration in Auckland Zoo’s plan of what is best for the conservation of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka, or in the world. What can we do in this faraway country to save a species that is mainly threatened with loss of habitat, and conflict with humans?

Moving a couple into my backyard is not the answer.

What of the conservation claims being made? The main point is that it will inspire the next generation of New Zealanders when they come round to visit and meet the animals in person, so they learn to care enough that when they grow up they’ll go out there and save the world.

Excuse my scepticism, but Greenpeace doesn’t imprison whales to help give people an emotional connection with them. Elephants have been sent to zoos for over a hundred years and it’s done them no good. When I was a kid I actually had a ride on an elephant at Wellington Zoo, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what turned me into an animal advocate.

The other point made by Auckland Zoo is that the elephants will raise money to support the real, underfunded conservation programmes run in their native countries. This is effectively ‘greenwash’ – spend a few million dollars on the upkeep of three elephants and then donate a few thousand to someone else’s conservation effort, and then we ourselves claim to be saving animals in the wild.

It all comes back to what’s best for the animals, including Burma. Yes, a move could be dramatic and possibly traumatic for her, however why cause that trauma for the two individuals who are being sent over here? They will be taken from their own home, put in a smaller space and limited to a tiny social grouping.

And starting this elephant programme will perpetuate an ongoing cycle over the next few decades. There wil be more transporting of these beautiful creatures around the world as new companions are needed, or with breeding are needed to be sent away, with all the associated dislocation, logistical problems and costs. And all for no real purpose.

In other parts of the world the zoo community are asking themselves the hard questions. For example Toronto Zoo made its own decision last month to say goodbye to elephants. Detroit Zoo let go of its elephants in 2006, saying it couldn’t properly meet their needs (click here to read about it). This did them no harm at all – this year it’s breaking attendance records.

The underlying question is, what relevance does the exhibiting of exotic species from around the globe have in this day and age? I don’t have an answer to that – all I know is, the answer is not moving elephants into my backyard.

Eliot Pryor, Campaign director ________________________________________________________________

The animals of the planet are in desperate peril … Without free animal life I believe we will lose the spiritual equivalent of oxygen. Alice Walker


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan Tackenberg says:

    I have read this article and even though I support ‘Safe’ in most of their actions I am still leaning towards the idea of bringing two more elephants to NZ. My main concern is the treatment of Elephants in their native countries and the problem of the population of their species reducing all the time.
    I can see that keeping Dolpins, Orca’s in captivity is totally wrong and they should be left to swim the seas at will, but it could be said if we do this to some other animals,e.g. Tigers. It would be disasterous and they would disappear all together in the next few years if this was done. As long as the elephants were well looked after, surely a small band of them kept in Auckland can’t be a bad thing.

  2. SAFE says:

    hi Susan, I understand there is a lot of animal lovers who love to see these animals up close and safe in a zoo, but SAFE is looking at it solely from the animals’ side. The proposal doesn’t answer the problems you raise. The captive zoo elephant population isn’t self sustaining and so will die out when the wild population dies out. I say ‘when’ and not ‘if’, not because it is inevitable but because it is heading that way right now.
    It really is a tragedy of our times, that is, the effect of human activity on the Earth’s ecosystem and other inhabitants, the wild animals. To reverse this requires serious effort, inspired leadership and action without self interest being the primary consideration.

    As pointed out above, elephants don’t do well in zoo environments, and to keep such social creatures in a group of 3 is inadequate. There is no conservationist or animal welfare advocate in NZ or the world who recommends keeping elephants in zoos.

    The latest media report on the issue


  3. Susan Tackenberg says:

    To gauge your comments on Elephants born in Zoos, I checked it out on the internet. I found that in 2007 in San Diego Zoo Safari Park there were 3 births of Asian Elephants and births of African Elephants at Whipsnade in England.
    The Taronga and Melbourne Zoos in just four years since establishing a breeding group have increased the herd by 50%.
    In Oklahoma a baby elephant was born at the OKC Zoo on the 16 April 2011.
    There are approximately only 33,000 wild Asian Elephants left and it seems that only half of the pregnances in the wild produce live births.
    EEHV is a often fatal disease that kills young Elephants and because it can be studied in the Zoo enviroment the possiblity of finding a cure can be realised to save young Elephants be they wild or in captivity.
    In a perfect world their natural habitats could be saved and they would continue to live and produce in the wild but unfortunately this is unlikely to happen in our lifetime. Therefore I see no other option but for Zoos to have small groups that manage to breed, as long as we go all out to make sure that they are given the best of enviroments possible.


  4. SAFE says:

    Zoos are having more success now with breeding but birth rates are not greater than in the wild, and the population is far from self sustaining. Check out

    Sure, zoo populations can be used for research but this is not a reason to create more captive groups, and is not the primary reason for the existing ones.

    If the intention was to design a programme and space that give the individual animals a great life, then it would look a lot different – more like an elephant park than a zoo. Unfortunately there are other considerations that are informing this proposal.

    If the international zoo elephant population were sustainable – which it presently is not, and if their needs were well-met – which they presently are not, then would Auckland Zoo still be the best place for a new group of elephants? Do elephants need Auckland Zoo? Everything we now know about them points to very different answers – as individuals they need large social groups, kilometres of space and independence from humans. The Zoo does not offer this. As a species they need protection of habitat and protection from human activity.

    A recommendation from the experts:

    “Elephant Voices standpoint is that elephants require complex social and environmental settings to thrive; to meet the interests of elephants zoos need to start thinking on the order of square kilometers.

    Or, as an even better alternative, zoos can offer high-end virtual educational exhibits that through animatronics and multimedia connect the public to the capabilities and lives of wild elephants, while stimulating the interest in their conservation.”

  5. Susan Tackenberg says:

    I understand what you are saying and in the long term this would be something to strive for . In New Zealand we have the land and could import the help to accomplish this .To start with a small group of three females that in the future could be artifically inseminated as in Australia with a view to expand the group and look towards increasing the land to make a larger park for a bigger herd with its own male etc. This would not be able to be at the Auckland Zoo I shouldn’t think but I sure there would be interest in establishing such an idea.
    The staff at Auckland Zoo do have some knowlege of Elephants and If the young ones are orphans and are coming over to what sounds a better enviroment then really it seems to be to be a good option.
    We can all look back to where the Zoos were, 20 -50 years ago, I know because I visited Zoos (Wellington and Auckland) from 55 years ago and I can tell you now, the conditions were pretty bad and we can raise our hands in horror but luckily things have improved and should go on improving if they want people to come and see the animals. I must admit because of my early experiences that I find it difficult to walk through a Zoo and see lovely wild animals confined but when you think of the alternative in their own lands where habitat is distroyed and man exploits them, then its something I have learnt to accept.

  6. SAFE says:

    I think we want the same things for these animals, and I’m glad you can see why SAFE is opposing the zoo plan. To talk about the positives:

    There are places in the world that inspire me and give me hope for the future of elephants and wildlife. Sri Lanka has a great place called the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home which is a real orphanage:

    It works to look after orphaned elephants until they can go back into the wild, and uses handling techniques that mean they do not become attached to the human handlers. This is the kind of place that should be supported and works in the best interests of the elephants themselves. I doubt if anything close to this could ever be replicated in NZ or if it’s even practical to imagine it.


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