All elephants, including those held captive, are wild animals, and share traits that have evolved over millions of years. For over four thousands years the welfare of captive elephants has been compromised through human ignorance, indifference and self-indulgence. In an ideal world elephants would not be held in captivity, but thousands are. Captive and confined elephants suffer from a host of physical and psychological conditions not observed in the wild. Good zoos and other welfare oriented captive environments are making strides to improve the living conditions of captive elephants.
Elephants have an intrinsic right to experience a life for which, through evolutionary time, they have been adapted. We must endeavor to ensure that the core interests of captive elephants are met such that they do not suffer as a consequence of our actions. We encourage all those working toward improving the lives of captive elephants.
- All species of modern elephants are capable of being - and routinely have been - habituated and tamed by humans. They remain nevertheless wild animals. The earliest evidence for tame elephants in Asia goes back to the Indus Valley around 4,500 years ago and people have continued to capture, train and work Asian elephants at least since that time. African elephants, too, were captured and trained by the Egyptians as long ago as 3,000 years BC. Historically, the overwhelming majority of captive Asian elephants were wild caught. Among the minority born in captivity most were the progeny of wild fathers.
- In biological terms domestication - changes in the genetic makeup of a population that affect the physical or behavioural character of individuals – produces types that have different appearances, behaviours and needs from their wild counterparts. This process of domestication typically takes many generations of selective breeding by humans.
There has been no systematic selection to create domestic 'breeds' either among Asian or African elephants. The term, 'domesticated elephant,' is, therefore, a misnomer. Similarly, the terms 'zoo elephant,' 'circus elephant' and 'working elephant, do not suggest or support the belief that these individuals have basic interests that are different from those of elephants in the wild.
- Traditional practices of managing captive elephants and predate scientific knowledge in the fields of animal behavior, animal learning, stress and distress, and elephant natural history. The assimilation of contemporary scientific knowledge into the management practices of institutions holding elephants captive, including zoos in Europe and North America, remains spotty at best. Traditional methods remain in use and are strongly defended by many Westerns zoos and circuses as well as by elephant-back safari companies and remote logging camps.
- Traditional practices of captive elephant management have been passed down through generations and many of these practices involve inhumane treatment including forcible separation of elephants, restrictive chaining, beating and/or poking with sticks and metal objects and other physical abuse. Although a growing number of elephant trainers use positive reinforcement only, negative conditioning is still widespread despite unequivocal evidence that it causes physical and psychological harm.
- Elephants are still forcibly separated from their families, captured and removed from their wild habitats. They are still trained for elephant-back safaris, for circuses and zoos, using harsh and scientifically unjustified methods. Dominance and control of elephants by human beings is still maintained and reinforced through the use of an ankus, bullhook or other offensive instrument, the stimulus cue that is understood by the elephant to inflict pain. Elephants are routinely chained on concrete floors in zoos for many hours; elephants held by circuses are often chained for up to 20 hours a day; and some temple elephants remain perpetually chained. Chaining causes extreme frustration and physical and psychological harm.
- Captured from the wild, bought and sold, transported around on ships, planes, trains and trucks, the vast majority of captive elephants are routinely separated from their mothers and other family members. For a socially, emotionally and cognitively complex animal the breaking of social bonds in this manner causes psychological harm.
- Captive elephants in zoos and circuses suffer from a range of ailments and diseases not generally observed in the wild. These include obesity, bone disease, foot infections, arthritis, disorders of the reproductive tract as well as other physical and mental pathologies associated with unnatural physical environments and socio-behavioural constraints.
- The interests of elephants in captivity can be met in large environments that emphasizes respect and protection of the animal's autonomy and freedom of choice. Such environments should enable the development of normal social relationships, the formation of families, and at least small-scale fission-fusion sociality, within which cooperative behavior, social learning, play, natural foraging and activity patterns can flourish. Some captive environments meet many of these objectives.
- Some zoos play an active conservation and education role, carrying out research and funding conservation programmes in Asia and in Africa. Neverthless, the overall resources used on such efforts are extremely marginal compared to visitor related investments.