Elephants on the Verge


Elephants are in the news lately, both in North America – where some zoos are building new, multimillion dollar facilities while other zoos are getting out of the elephant business altogether – and in Africa, where they are on the road to extinction.
In the past decade, a dozen zoos have halted their elephant programs, citing cold weather conditions or limited space. In Canada, the Toronto Zoo is sending its three adult elephants to California after the Toronto City Council overruled zoo staff and sided with animal activists. Other zoos are expanding their elephant facilities. The Pittsburgh Zoo built a 700-acre refuge; the Oregon Zoo announced plans to build a sprawling off-site reserve; and the 225-acre National Elephant Center in Florida is expected to receive its first residents in a few months. This facility, underwritten by member zoos of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, will “provide short-term and long-term care for North American elephants in support of the accredited zoo population and for the welfare of elephants in need”. 
The elephants at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., also have a new home. The old Elephant House has been renovated to include more space for the giant animals to play, rest and even take showers. The renamed Elephant Community Center, which opened last month, is the final piece of the redesigned Elephant Trails exhibition. It is designed to hold as many as 10 elephants, zoo officials said. The new space has several hands-on activities for humans, including a machine that compares elephant sounds and human voices. You can also make a pledge to save the elephants, a conservation message zoo officials everywhere hope visitors will take away from their exhibitions.
The headline out of St. Louis is “St. Louis Zoo continues to breed elephants despite protests”. The impending arrival of an Asian elephant calf at the St. Louis Zoo is cause for both celebration and concern. Celebration, keepers say, because a new elephant helps build a safety net for a species threatened by extinction. And concern because of a deadly herpes virus that has killed about 25 percent of the Asian elephants born in North American zoos in the past three decades. Animal rights activists say the St. Louis Zoo is irresponsible to breed elephants knowing the virus is present in the herd. In Defense of Animals, a California-based organization, is calling for the zoo to halt its breeding program. Steve Feldman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits North American zoos, says the answer is to find a cure, not to stop breeding. “You develop the science and the research and you prepare yourself to treat any illnesses,” Feldman said. “That’s how science advances.”
But to what end? The truth, according to some, is that captive breeding programs cannot save elephants in the wild. That would demand dramatic change from the people who slaughter elephants for tusks and meat. A world without wild elephants, everyone agrees, is a very real possibility. According toa new study published in the journal PLOS and reported at FrenchTribune.com, African forest elephants are about to reach extinction, primarily due to increased poaching for their ivory tusks. Their population has declined about 62% in just the last decade. Wildlife Conservation Societyconservationists say effective measures must be taken all over the world where elephants occur. Ivory smuggling routes and the final destination in the Far East have to be in the main agenda to protect the species from extinction.
So all this begs the question, are zoos on the right track? Those that can afford it, are building mega-spaces. Those that lack sufficient resources, or that are located in inhospitable climates, are either pooling resources or getting out of the business altogether. The business of keeping elephants is changing rapidly, but is it going to be enough? Whatever we do may be less than ideal for these challenging creatures, but we must do something. Perhaps it is enough to keep setting higher and higher standards, heeding the advice of author and animal advocate Temple Grandin who says “what we really need to do to protect animals is set high standards. People can live up to high standards, but they can’t live up to perfection”.

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