Is the small size of elephant groups in zoos damaging their welfare?

zoo elephantUniversity of Salford, UK
Feb. 20, 2009

A new study from the University of Salford has found that, despite recommendations, many zoos are still keeping elephants in small groups, which could be damaging to the animals' welfare.

Dr Paul Rees, a senior lecturer in the School of Environment & Life Sciences, has studied Asian and African elephants in 194 zoos for his paper 'The Sizes of Elephant Groups in Zoos: Implications for Elephant Welfare'.

Although it is well known the elephants are highly social animals, many zoos in Europe and North America still contain groups of seven elephants or fewer. One fifth of elephants live alone or with just one other elephant. The small group sizes bring with them welfare implications for the animals, such as a lack of opportunity to exhibit normal social behaviours.

Dr Rees said: "In the wild, elephant social structure is complex and although the mean group size is around 11.6, elephants can also live in larger 'extended family units' or 'kin groups'. Contact with members of their own species is crucial for the animals to develop normal behaviour patterns and friendships. Small group sizes in zoos may prevent this from happening. There is no good reason for a zoo to keep just one elephant."

Regional zoo associations recommend minimum group sizes for elephants, but many zoos fail to achieve these. In 2006, 69% of Asian elephants and 80% of African elephants in the world's zoos were still being kept in groups of four or fewer - below the size recommended by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums

In a 2005 survey of 78 zoos accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Dr Rees found that 40 planned to expand or build new elephant exhibits. Although Dr Rees felt that this was a good thing he said: "This transition would be difficult as it would take a lot of time and money, and the zoos would need to find the right combinations of elephants. Many animals are often incompatible due to a history of inadequate care in circuses or substandard zoos where many of them originate."

 Original Article