6 May 2022

Recent reports have claimed that elephants should be banned from zoos. ZSL’s Chief Curator Malcolm Fitzpatrick explains why a ban on keeping elephants isn’t the solution, and how zoos like Whipsnade are ensuring the future survival of these irreplaceable creatures.

I’ve cared for elephants for much of my career, and these magnificent animals will never cease to amaze me. Their gentle nature and deep bonds are fascinating, and I’m proud to work for a zoo where a rich understanding of these animals informs every aspect of their care - their needs come first, all day, every day. 

Whipsnade Zoo – Caring for and conserving elephants 

Whipsnade Zoo is home to a herd of Asian elephants. We’re committed to providing a home for elephants where they can live their fullest lives, in a healthy, safe and enriching environment, now and in the future.

As a global conservation charity, with everything we do deeply-rooted in science and based on evidence, we believe we provide the best care for our herd of elephants at Whipsnade Zoo, all the while helping to ensure the future of their species in the wild through our global conservation projects.

Elephants at Whipsnade Zoo

Whipsnade’s family herd 

While Asian elephants are identifiable by their smaller stature and features than their African cousins, their personalities are just as big, and their daily care is tailored to meet their specific needs. Looked after by a team of expert keepers, our Asian elephants are given choice and variety throughout their day, deciding, for example, when they eat and where they sleep, and if they want to be outside or in. We do regular training to help us when we need to carry out health checks or weigh them, but if they don’t want to take part in a training session, they don’t. 

Their large home, which includes a deep sand-filled indoor space, providing comfort and enrichment for the elephants - keepers will pile the sand into mounds for the younger members of the herd to roll on or knock down or to simply give a much-needed scratch on the back for the adults – is nestled among multiple paddocks.

Zookeeper in a digger in the sand paddock at centre for elephant care

Our family herd, made up of seven individuals, comprises of male Ming Jung, matriarchs Kaylee and Lucha, adult females Karishma and Donna, our youngster Elizabeth, and our newest arrival, Donna’s daughter. The third in a matriarchal family line here at Whipsnade Zoo, she’ll grow up being nurtured and learning from her mum Donna and grandmother Kaylee, as well as her ‘aunts’ and ‘cousins’ in the herd. 

Kaylee and Lucha will both turn 40 this year, and while Kaylee has just become a grandmother, these two females are still very much in their prime. A healthy herd includes multi-generational family members, and that’s exactly where Whipsnade’s group is headed. 

The Species360 Conservation Science Alliance is reviewing the most recent data on elephants in zoos and early findings confirm that the ever increasing standards of care are leading to increasing longevity of elephants. We expect to see all of our elephants living long lives, well into their fifties and beyond, and we hope to see our herd grow further as our elephants mature, and our current youngsters become parents. 

This hope is echoed in our future plans for Whipsnade’s elephant habitat. We intend to significantly increase their already spacious home by more than tripling the size, and alongside the expansion of their outdoor areas, we’ll create brand new indoor spaces – accommodating a growing herd and allowing us even more opportunity to grow our conservation efforts. 

Zoos are leading on elephant conservation

Whipsnade Zoo doesn’t just support elephant conservation elsewhere, we’re doing it. Every visit to see our elephants is an act of support for their conservation, providing vital funds to continue our work. 

Our elephants play an active role in developing new conservation technology, they contribute to vital veterinary advancements and help conservationists through behavioural and scientific studies – all of which are applied to efforts to preserve elephants in the wild. 

Elephant dung being tested at Whipsnade Zoo

One of the key ways ZSL and other elephant conservationists monitor elephant populations in forests where even animals as large as elephants can’t be seen easily is to take samples from their dung and extract ‘genetic fingerprints'. But one of the big challenges is how best to preserve the dung samples until they reach the laboratory. So ZSL staff at Whipsnade Zoo are taking advantage of having a ready supply of fresh dung to test the best methods of preserving samples and to assess how long the samples can be stored before analysis. This work will be help elephant conservationists across Asia and Africa better monitor and conserve wild elephant populations.

Historically, wild elephants and humans have coexisted with relatively little conflict but as the elephants’ habitat is shrinking rapidly, it’s forcing them into closer proximity with humans, and increasing the risk and severity of human-wildlife conflict. Often destroying farmer’s crops or trampling their land, the elephants face being shot or trapped by farmers who need to protect their precious livelihoods. 

Over the past two years 30,000 thermal images of the elephants at Whipsnade Zoo have been taken, and this vast image library isn’t just a collection of fascinating pictures – it also has a vital purpose. In a bid to tackle human wildlife conflict, we’ve led the development of an affordable technology solution, the HEAT project, that uses thermal cameras to identify the heat signature of elephants – put simply, these images were taken to help computers learn what an elephant looks like. 

ZSL researchers, working with zookeepers and the Arribada Initiative, set up thermal cameras to collect the tens of thousands of images of elephants needed for to accurately confirm the presence of an elephant.  The camera system is able to detect elephants 24/7 as it can ‘see’ the thermal shape of elephants (even in the dark), sending an alert to people living around elephants so they can avoid any conflict situations.

Asian elephant thermal imaging photo of three elephants at Whipsnade Zoo, being developed for elephant conservation in the field.

Just recently we launched a new study, to help us better understand elephant behaviour in the wild.

Whipsnade’s conservation researchers hid palm-sized recording devices within the habitat of Whipsnade Zoo’s herd of six Endangered Asian elephants, to capture both the audible sounds and ultrasonic frequencies they made. Visual assessments of the herd’s behaviours were simultaneously recorded by the Zoo’s specialist elephant keepers and researchers, and then tallied up with the sound recordings, to give conservationists a picture of what each sound might indicate about elephant behaviour and communication.

The first time that this type of small, acoustic loggers have been used with elephants in a zoo, we’re already seeing exciting results. So far, our recordings reveal four distinct sounds made by the Zoo’s herd of Asian elephants; a ‘trumpet’, a ‘rumble’, a ‘roar’ and a ‘chirp’ – which we can link to specific behaviour and share with our colleagues working in the field. 

An audiomoth is installed by an elephant keeper at Whipsnade Zoo

Reintroducing elephants to the wild 

A question sometimes asked of us, is why don’t you return elephants to the wild? The simple answer is that it wouldn’t be right for the elephants. 

Reintroductions are an incredibly complex process – they need careful planning and preparation to ensure that the animals you’re releasing can survive in their new environment, they don’t come into conflict with humans, and, importantly, that they don’t cause any harm to precious ecosystems that are already under threat, for example by introducing disease that could harm local wildlife. ZSL works on the Disease Risk Analysis and Health Surveillance Project which investigates planned reintroductions, so as to mitigate against this exact risk. 

The sad truth is that the wild is not quite the haven it can be made out to be. Elephants are one of the most persecuted species in the world, facing daily threats from poachers, conflict with the communities they live alongside, droughts, as well as habitat loss and degradation. 

Elephant conservation priorities right now, must remain protecting remaining wild elephant populations and their habitat and reducing human-elephant conflict.

We don’t believe that now is the right time for us to consider relocating our elephants. We provide a safe and secure home for our herd at Whipsnade while continuing our vital work to make the wild a safer place for elephants around the world.

Asian elephant in a field at Whipsnade Zoo

ZSL’s elephant conservation

ZSL is one of the few conservation organisations working around the world to protect all three species of elephants – Asian elephants, African elephants and African forest elephants. 

In Thailand, ZSL is working to monitor and mitigate conflict between humans and elephants around the boundaries of the protected area complex in south eastern Western Forest Complex, including Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary, Kheuan Srinakarin National Park and Chaloem Ratanakosin National Park. Approximately 200 Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) live in this landscape, and working closely with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), ZSL manages a programme to monitor, mitigate and initiate community outreach activities that address conflict between humans and elephants. 

ZSL is working to address the poaching threat to elephants, big cats and other wildlife in the W-Arli-Pendjari conservation complex (WAP complex) – an area home to more than 60% of the remaining West African elephant population. Spanning the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin and encompasses five protected areas, hunting concessions and community lands, it represents the last relatively intact savannah system in the region. 

The severe decline of forest elephants in Central Africa is largely a result of the unprecedented levels of poaching for the illegal ivory trade in recent years. ZSL conservationists are focussing on conserving forest elephants in Cameroon; specifically in the forest landscape of the Dja Biosphere Reserve. The Reserve itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to an important population of the forest elephant. 

ZSL’s training initiative The Wildlife Health Bridge, a collaboration with four other international institutions, has provided Masters’ level training on elephant health, welfare, care and medicine to more than 700 wildlife health professionals from 67 countries worldwide.  Two of our courses have a specific module focused on elephant population monitoring, care, welfare and health.  Many of these alumni go onto work with wild elephants in range countries and we have graduates working in Thailand, Myanmar and India with elephants.

Learn more about Whipsnade Zoo and conservation

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