Zoos Don’t Conserve Wild Animals, They Consume Them

Elephants home

Despite all the progress that has been made for captive elephants over the years, one misperception continues unabated. Though zoos relentlessly promote the idea that keeping elephants in captivity helps to conserve them in the wild, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, zoo tickets fund a conservation con.


For Elephants, Captivity Kills

Elephants die faster than they can be born in zoos. Despite the provision of veterinary treatment, food and water in zoos, elephant survival is low. Even when droughts and poaching are taken into account, elephants live longer in the wild than in captivity. 

A report by The Seattle Times in 2012 analyzed 390 elephant fatalities at accredited U.S. zoos for the previous 50 years. Of the 321 deaths in captivity for which records were available, half the elephants were dead by age 23 — about a third of their expected life span of 65 to 70 years. It found that “most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity...” 

A 2008 study in Science, Compromised Survivorship in Zoo Elephants, supports these findings. 

Zoos Grab Wild Elephants to Restock Death-Row Exhibits

Zoos are so poor at keeping elephants alive, they are forced to restock exhibits by taking elephants from the wild, even though wild elephants are already facing enormous pressures and threats to their survival. This losing formula sends zoos to the wild to steal juveniles. 

Brutal footage taken in 2017 shows babies ripped from their family herd in Zimbabwe and beaten before being shipped to zoos. Zoo grabs traumatize and kill individuals, destroy families and cultures, and fracture multi-generational elephant lineages and their ecosystems.

The most recent zoo grab of wild elephants for U.S. zoos happened in 2015, when 18 elephants from Swaziland were brutally and clandestinely removed from their home. They were sent to three U.S. zoos and earned them the dishonor of being named the No. 1 Worst Zoos for Elephants.

International Conservation Crackdown on Wild Elephant Zoo Grabs

The import was internationally condemned, and prompted a historic resolution 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 2019, supported by an overwhelming majority of governments. 

A near-total ban was introduced 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 have therefore been listed in CITES Appendix I. This means that the import of live animals for “primarily commercial purposes” is not allowed so as not to “further endanger their survival.”

China and Zimbabwe managed to manipulate their way around the ban and shipped 32 elephants that were being held in quarantine prior to the ban to Chinese zoos.

However, the CITES ban acts as a roadblock that now makes it much more difficult for zoos to import wild elephants. 

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), a U.S. zoo industry body, voiced its fervent objection to the new restrictions on importing wild elephants. 

Since CITES is a voluntary membership without a compliance mechanism, it is now up to CITES and member governments to protect elephants with ironclad enforcement policies.

Deadly Zoo “Species Survival” Programs Breed a Conservation Con

Elephants do not reproduce well in captivity. Their impoverished conditions see to that. Captive elephant breeding in zoos is a litany of brutal procedures, traumatic transfers, and dead babies.

Even if zoos were able to improve their breeding success, no baby elephant born in zoo captivity will ever be returned to the wild. 

The only place where a wild animal can perform their natural behaviors and fulfill their vital role in their ecosystem is in their wild habitat. This is why wildlife conservation efforts center on protecting wild animals in their natural habitats.

Zoo breeding programs neither maintain, restore, protect or enhance healthy wild populations and natural ecosystems. In fact, they destroy them. It is entirely false to call zoo breeding programs conservation.

The wild is the only place where true conservation of elephant families, their habitats, and their rich cultures can take place.

Zoos Divert Funds from True Conservation Programs

Zoos are primarily established for profit and entertainment. Some zoo profits make it to actual conservation programs in the wild, but it is a pathetic amount. Zoos claim to inspire zoo goers to individually donate to conservation efforts after their visit without providing any evidence or mechanism for visitors to make such donations. 

Zoo ticket fees alone divert hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used on true conservation efforts that preserve elephants in the wild, and divert them instead to put further pressure on wild elephant populations. 

Zoos raise tens of millions of dollars in donations to build and maintain elephant exhibits. Were funds spent on true conservation programs instead of in zoos, it could protect elephant populations and their entire habitats in the wild for decades.

The wild is the only place where true conservation of elephant families, their habitats, and their rich cultures can take place. If zoos were sincerely concerned about elephant conservation, they would close their expensive elephant exhibits and put their money where elephants need it most… in the wild.

Bad Education

No evidence suggests that zoo goers contribute to true wild conservation programs as a result of their visit or that make any positive changes to their behavior to benefit wild animals. Sadly, buying a ticket to a zoo is buying into the conservation con, as that money will only fund more zoo-related disease and death.

If anything, the zoo industry miseducates the public about elephants. One such distortion is its warped definition of “elephant herds.” Wild elephant herds are made up of large, multigenerational family groups. Individuals choose where to go and who to associate with. Captive groups in zoos are made up of mostly unrelated individuals who are deprived of their real families, choices, cultures, and ecosystems. Calling captive elephant collections “herds” is a misleading and dangerous fabrication. 

Threats in the Wild Made Worse by Zoos

Wherever wild elephants still exist, they are facing severe threats from ivory poaching, human encroachment, and collections by zoos. The very least we can do to help elephants is to acknowledge zoos’ role in pressuring wild populations and stop forcing them to live short, unnatural lives on display in non-native habitats.

What You Can Do For Elephants

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.

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. Please read and share it with your friends and family.

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