Trunks & Leaves is dedicated to the conservation of Wild Asian elephants and their habitats. As such, we do not engage in advocacy of any kind pertaining to captive elephant welfare. However, we are from time to time asked questions regarding concerns about captive elephants or called upon to engage in actions regarding them. Here, we outline our views with respect to captive elephants in general - especially the ways in which certain issues to intersect with conservation concerns for wild Asian elephant populations, and our stance as well as actions concerning them.
1. Captive elephants outside the 13 Asian elephant range states (e.g. zoos, sanctuaries etc.):
Captive elephants outside the range states can potentially play an important role in instilling public appreciation for the species and awareness of conservation concerns. They can also be valuable subjects for conducting non-invasive research (e.g. behavioral, hormonal) that would be impossible in the wild. We believe elephants should only be kept in facilities that can meet both their psychological and physical needs as reflected by the most current research from both captivity and the wild. In the simplest terms, this means:
a) Housing females and calves in multi-generational groups, with freedom of choice in social partners as well as foraging options, in enclosures large enough and sufficiently complex enough to encourage movement and exploration while minimizing negative behaviors such as severe aggression and stereotypy, and providing sufficient physical and psychological stimulation.
b) Housing males in social groups, with regulated access to females, and appropriate physical space as well as constructs that allow the safe hands-free management of musth periods.
No captive elephant population anywhere in the world is currently self-sustaining, nor have zoo-bred elephants ever been released into back into the wild. Captive breeding in zoos currently only serves to maintain the captive populations themselves, which is necessary to overcome the need to continually obtain animals from range states. Therefore captive breeding can in no way safeguard against extinction in the wild for this species. Any facility or group that claims otherwise is not backed by science. We further believe that any facility that houses elephants has a responsibility to contribute to field conservation efforts for this species in the wild to the extent that is economically feasible (preferably, to invest at least as much in field conservation as in the maintenance of the captive individuals), and to make genuine effort to engage the global public in raising awareness about conservation concerns as well as directing resources toward addressing them.
We do not believe animals from range states that have a reasonable chance of surviving in the wild (e.g. orphaned and rehabilitated juveniles) should be a source for supplementing captive populations within or outside their native countries. They should instead be released responsibly back into the wild. Likewise, we do not believe that animals that have spent a substantial portion of their lives in captivity under human care are appropriate candidates for supplementation of wild populations.
2. Captive elephants within their native range states:
Captive elephants in range states fall into several different categories and therefore need separate treatment. Our main concern about these populations is their sourcing and interaction with wild elephants. Capture of wild elephants has long been practiced as a means of obtaining animals for use in captivity, and though this practice may no longer be considered legal in many countries, it remains a concern both in terms of illegal markets and occasional officially-sanctioned captures. Sometimes captive elephants might breed with wild elephants, supplementing the captive population but simultaneously exposing wild populations to disease and pathogens.
I. Elephants in zoos: We take the same position with respect to these populations as for elephants in zoos outside range states.
II. Elephants in “sanctuaries” or other private tourism enterprises: We are unequivocally against the use of elephants in any form of entertainment. While there is a legitimate need for economic support for ex-working elephants, these should all be adults; the continued breeding of these animals contributes to the presence of individuals of varying age, used for a range of purposes from riding to entertainment, and makes it difficult to establish clear differentiation between captive and wild populations as well as potentially hides illegal captures by providing opportunities to launder wild-caught calves. We advocate a STRICT HANDS-OFF POLICY for visitors at any captive elephant facility. Even seemingly benign experiences, such as bathing, feeding and walking, with close visitor contact, are suspect, especially when involving young animals. Where do the calves come from? While there has been progress in clamping down on illegal captures, again, there is as yet NO demographic data showing that any captive populations are actually self-sustaining. If the captive population is supplemented by breeding them with individuals from the wild, the interaction with humans via the captive populations potentially exposes wild elephants to the transmission of dangerous diseases that could easily decimate or wipe out a slow-breeding species like an elephant. We believe that all captive elephants in these contexts should eventually be phased out, removing the economic incentive to continue unsustainable breeding as well as wild capture altogether.
III. Elephants in temples and/or other cultural traditions: Elephants have long-established cultural associations in several Asian countries and often participate in them. This may make a positive contribution in addressing conflict and related concerns. However, the degree to which this actually contributes to public tolerance and acceptance of the animal is poorly researched or established. Too often today this relationship is one of exploitation. As with (II), these uses continue to present the risk of continued capture from the wild. However, we believe that cultural attitudes concerning the role of live elephants in modern society must evolve through education and dialogue within a given society, but cannot and should not be imposed from the outside by international organizations.
IV. Elephants in rehabilitation centers: Wild elephants that are temporarily homed in rehabilitation centers with the intention of eventual release are not considered captive. Elephants that have a history in captivity but are being prepared for release back into the wild, or are in various stages of this process, are potentially contributing to an important conservation experiment. Facilities engaged in these activities are rare, managed by trained professionals. Contact between animals and visitors should again be completely off limits.