Can zoos help reverse falling elephant numbers in the wild? | Global Ideas | DW | 16.12.2014
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Global Ideas

Can zoos help reverse falling elephant numbers in the wild?

The elephant population in Asia and Africa is declining dramatically due to deforestation and the ivory trade. Can importing the beasts into European zoos help their preservation? The strategy remains controversial.

Three elephants with their backs to a zoo visitor. (Photo: Paul Zinken/dpa)

Zoos aren't the best place for elephants to thrive. The animals are often too old and the conditions not good enough

Everybody loves elephants. For most people, a visit to the zoo brings them into contact with the huge beasts for the first time. Though they aren't easy to tend to - the animals consume 400 kilograms of food everyday and their offspring weigh 100 kilograms at birth – the intelligent pachyderms are the star attraction at most zoos.

But are zoos the best answer to saving elephants, populations of which are close to free fall in the wild? For a number of reasons, that seems like a bad idea. On the one hand, elephant populations in zoos are ageing because the directors at several zoos have failed to systematically develop a strategy for captive breeding in recent decades.

On the other, the environment zoo elephants grow up in is often far from ideal. Too little space to move around, boredom and small groups instead of bigger breeding herds all contribute to elephants becoming reluctant to reproduce. That has led to too few male and female elephants of reproductive age among the African elephant population.

A modern-day Noah's Ark?

A bison stands under a tree in the early morning (Photo: imago/Harald Lange)

Zoos have managed to successfully breed and preserve the European bison. But not every species can be saved the same way

But there are plenty of examples in which zoos serve as modern-day Noah's Arks and can save animal species from extinction. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were just 12 European bison left – all of them in zoos. As the largest mammals on the continent, the creatures are a bit like the elephants of Europe.

In 1923, the “International Society for the Preservation of the Bison” was founded in Frankfurt. Three decades later, the first bisons were released into the wild. Today, there are several herds to be found in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Lithuania. It's considered a real success for zoos. But bisons aren't the only animals that have flourished in captivity. Even the Californian condor, the Przewalski horse or the Sumatra rhinoceros owe their survival to zoos.

Elephants better off in the wild?

But the elephant is a different story. A few zoos are now asking whether they should import the socially complex creatures from the wild or whether they should just close down their elephant enclosures as the Frankfurt zoo decided. A small inner city zoo with a total area of just 11 hectares, it simply could not offer the animals enough space.

“We should leave elephants in the wild,” Daniela Freyer from the organization Pro Wildlife, which champions the protection of animals in their original habitat, says. Freyer adds there is no evidence that zoos play a positive role in preserving species. Quite the opposite. “Zoos are the biggest net consumers because more animals have been transported to German zoos than babies being born,” she says. Indeed, between 1930 and 1988, 292 African elephants were imported to Europe and Israel while just 17 were born in captivity in the same period. Today, things look much better – since 1989, 61 elephants have been imported into zoos while 100 have been born in captivity.

“That shows that zoos only try to have breeding programs when they can no longer simply get animals from the wild,” Olaf Töffels from the European Elephant Group (EEG), which has compiled the statistics says. Töffels points out breeding programs have especially showed success with the Asian elephant, even leading to a whole self-preserved population and making wild imports reduntant. However, that has not led to elephants being released into the wild, Töffels adds.

Importing elephants a controversial issue

Small elephants in an enclosure (Photo: Holger Hollemann/dpa)

Successful breeding programs are few and far between. Zoos are often forced to import young elephants from the wild.

Olaf Töffels says he owes his passion for saving elephants to his own frequent visits to the zoo. “I was a regular at zoos right from my childhood and I loved spending time in front of the elephant enclosure,” he says.

Töffels is a proponent of keeping animals in zoos provided they follow modern approaches and forgo the import of young animals. That's because many are orphans whose herds fall victim to poachers. At times, the herds are also deliberately shot dead in order to reduce elephant populations in certain areas. That's because growing human settlements are increasingly encroaching onto elephant territory leading to human-elephant conflict in some places. “Such orphaned elephants can't adjust to new herds. They're often traumatized,” Töffels says, adding that they often miss the female animals needed for supervision and breeding. That often leads to random, mixed herds, a further reason why breeding in zoos remains so problematic.

But not everyone thinks importing wild elephants into zoos is a bad idea. Thomas Kauffels, director of the private Opel zoo in Kronberg in western Germany, says zoos are a magnet, especially for young adults, and play an important role in educating people about the natural world.

“We have 33 million visitors in the association of zoological gardens in Germany,” Kaufells says. “That's more than the football Bundesliga.” He says the money pumped into legal elephant import permits are a good investment. “It flows right back into the national parks,” he says.

Poaching, corruption big challenges

But activists like Ofir Drori beg to differ. His non-governmental organization Laga is on the frontline of the battle against poaching in Africa. With the help of his team, Drori tracks illegal animal traders, uncovers corruption and brings back captured monkeys, parrots or big cats to rehabilitation centers.

“It's naive to think that the funds flow back into species protection,” he says. Mostly, the same corrupt circles that profit from human trafficking are the ones to enrich themselves from poaching, he adds.

Elephants cannot be protected as long as there is no crackdown on criminal networks. Bribery is routine in many African countries and it's easy to get legal import permits for elephants, Drori says. Ofir Drori was there when 8 elephants from the last remaining 50 in Guinea were to be sold. He and his team managed to stop the sale. But, it was far from being a one-off case.

Too often zoos pass the buck to the people selling the animals. But, he says, they are complicit too. Drori says zoos are companies too and interested in attracting as many visitors as possible and raising their bottomline. Along with their responsibility to raise awareness about species, they need to ensure that they don't contribute to driving elephants to extinction, Drori says.