Zoos Don’t Conserve Wild Animals, They Consume Them

Zoos Don’t Conserve Wild Animals, They Consume Them

Despite all the progress that has been made for captive elephants over the last few years, including Ringling Bros. closing its doors for good and new state laws that ban the use of elephants for entertainment, one misperception continues unabated.  Zoos relentlessly promote the idea that keeping elephants in captivity helps to conserve them in the wild. Nothing could be further from the truth. This oft-repeated PR message is a way for zoos to cling to respectability, but the fact is zoo tickets fund a conservation con.

In Defense of Animals produces an annual list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America to expose how elephants suffer silently in captivity, even when confined in pricey exhibits. Elephants live longer in the wild than in captivity, even when droughts and poaching are taken into account. Elephants do not reproduce well in captivity either; they die faster than they can be born. That is why in 2015, 18 elephants from Swaziland were brutally removed from their home and sent to three U.S. zoos.

Captivity in zoos is not conservation for elephants.

The zoological industry is trying to distort the public's definition of “elephant herds” by implying that captive elephant “collections” in North America can still be called herds. It is misleading and dangerous to fabricate elephant societies with groups of mostly unrelated individuals who are deprived of their real families, choices, cultures, and ecosystems.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on elephant zoo exhibits in the U.S., yet these funds are desperately needed to avert the extinction of elephants in the wild. Where they still exist, elephants are facing severe threats from ivory poaching, human encroachment, and collections by zoos. The wild is the only place where true conservation of elephant families, their habitats, and their rich cultures can take place. 

On the good news front, following international condemnation, a historic resolution was reached at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora’s 18th Conference of the Parties held in Geneva in August 2019, supported by an overwhelming majority of governments. It introduced a near-total ban on live elephant exports from Zimbabwe and Botswana to zoos. 

African elephants from other states and all Asian elephants are considered to be “threatened with extinction” and are therefore listed in Appendix I of the CITES Convention. This means that the import of live animals for “primarily commercial purposes” is not allowed so as not to “further endanger their survival.”

Though China and Zimbabwe managed to manipulate their way around the ban and shipped 32 elephants that were being held in quarantine to Chinese zoos prior to the ban, this new ban puts up a roadblock that makes it much more difficult for zoos to import wild elephants. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) voiced its fervent objection to the new restrictions on exporting wild elephants. It is now up to CITES and member governments to protect elephants with ironclad enforcement policies.

Zoos will persist in promoting the conservation con – as long as the public buys it. That's where you can take action by turning the con into conversation. Speak up to inform friends and family about the conservation lie perpetuated by zoos, and encourage them to boycott zoos with elephants, until the elephants are released to sanctuary and the zoo pledges to shut down its elephant exhibit as 44 zoos around the world have already done. We encourage all zoos to take this same humane, and historic step.

For more info and ways to get involved, visit our Elephants campaign.

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