Elephants in zoos die much sooner

Hall is a Times staff writer.

Researchers have concluded that female elephants living in protected environments in Asia and Africa live longer than elephants in captivity in European zoos, saying that “bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impairs their viability.”

The study, to be released today in the journal Science, also found that for an Asian elephant -- the more endangered of the two elephant species -- being born in a zoo or separated from its mother at an early age can mean a shorter life.

The article, “Compromised Survivorship in Zoo Elephants,” in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal promises to add fuel to the controversy over whether the Los Angeles Zoo should be allowed to continue with plans to breed Asian elephants. The Los Angeles City Council last week halted construction on the zoo’s elephant enclosure, amid criticism that the project was too expensive and unsuitable for the needs of the world’s largest land mammals.

The article has already drawn the ire of officials of the North American-based Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, the trade organization that accredits zoos.


“The article is flawed,” said Paul Boyle, the senior vice president of conservation and education for the organization, who took issue with the use of the study’s data.

“This is about elephants in Europe,” he said. “There are wonderful zoos in Europe and there are zoos that are not so wonderful.”

He said his association has the “the most stringent” guidelines in the world for animal-keeping, particularly elephant management.

The researchers looked at records from 1960 to 2005 for 786 female elephants -- 302 African and 484 Asian -- in European zoos. They compared them with a population of 1,089 female African elephants at a protected preserve, Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and a group of 2,905 female Asian elephants kept as working animals in the Myanma Timber Enterprise, a Burmese logging company. According to the study, the median lifespan for African elephants born in zoos was 16.9 years while the median for Africans at the Kenyan preserve that died of natural causes was 56 years.


Georgia Mason, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and one of the authors, said that the estimated median lifespan for zoo Africans was “less precise” but added: “They have shorter lives, that we can say for sure. So far, in Europe, no African elephant has lived beyond the age of 50.”

According to the study, the median lifespan of female Asian elephants born in zoos is 18.9 years while the median for the elephants at the timber company was 41.7 years.

Also, the authors found that Asian calves born in zoos were twice as likely to die in their first year as those born at the camp.

When asked about the differences between American and European zoos, Mason said that the study data, from over 200 zoos, represent half the global zoo population.


At both the African preserve and the Myanma logging camp, elephant family members stayed together -- something researchers believe is important for pachyderms’ well-being, Mason said.

Mason said the authors are suggesting that zoos “slow down on the breeding and importation until you can ensure they live a long life.”

And she said, “Let’s slow down on the inter-zoo transfer until you can find out why they’re so bad for Asians.”