Elephants in sanctuaries

23. May 2018

Photo Credit: Kit Jackson

OK, you might have some understanding why wild elephants should continue to be part of the planet’s fauna, as they have ben for almost 6 million years. You might also agree that life in captivity does not conserve the species, but even armed with this knowledge you might ask yourself why do we need sanctuaries for aging elephants in Europe? And come to think of it, how do sanctuaries differ from other facilities keeping captive elephants?

First and foremost, elephants being brought to a sanctuary will receive veterinary care to mitigate many of the chronic diseases frequently encountered by elephants coming from zoos and circuses, such as overweight, inappropriate nutrition tuberculosis, infected foot pads due to being forced to stand extended periods in their own urine and fecal matter, tooth decay, injuries from beatings and sharp instruments used to instill obedience and arthritis being aggravated by being forced to perform, to mention a few. While the physical ills in all their severity are difficult enough to treat they are nothing compared to the mental injuries inflicted on elephants during decades of ill treatments by their keepers.

Once the basic health needs of the animals are met, they must be carefully introduced to the new freedom a real sanctuary should be able to provide, by being as different as humanly possible from the prisons previously endured by captive elephants throughout Europe. This can only be achieved be ensuring that elephants have very limited  contact (if any) with the general public, giving them options to spend their days free from any human coercion. Together with other elephants there must be enough land (at least 2.5 ha per elephant) for freely roaming in a natural landscape allowing the possibility to establish communities so essential for their well-being as social animals.

Photo Credit: Kit Jackson

Given that most European climates are not well adapted to the natural habitat of elephants, they must have access to heated elephant barns, always open to be used at the elephants’ digression. Ideally all contact between elephants and human caretakers should be protected, meaning care-takers (or any other human being) will never be within the same enclosure with elephants (with he exception of surgical intervention conducted under anesthesia). Elephants learn remarkably well and fast to use protected contact for their frequent medical and hygienic maintenance. At the PAWS sanctuary in California, I had the chance to witness the male Asian elephant Nicholas wandering from the outside into a barn for his daily check-up. Not only did he stick his legs (one after the other) out of his enclosure for having the pads examined, he also opened his mouth for the inspection of his teeth and took in water with his trunk to blow it into a plastic bag for analysis to detect cold microbes. All this took place with gentle probing from his caretaker and some treats in between each task performed. The caretaker confirmed that it took only 30 minutes for the elephant to understand what was required of him.

Sanctuaries should not chain their elephants or restrain their natural movements in any way, ensure that they have sufficient food and the possibility to exercise (elephants in the wild walk up to 20 miles per day).

Sanctuaries will dnot breed elephants. A real sanctuary in Europe should have at its mission to remove elephants from exploitation for monetary gain and give them back a bit of their elephant nature for the remaining years of their lives. Such sanctuaries remain fully cognizant that their elephants are still captives, and as their ultimate goal is to  support survival of the species in its natural habitat, breeding more baby captive elephants should be out of the question.  As such the true sanctuary must be active in apposing all trade of wild elephants to captive facilities, such as documented int the CITES report above. Sanctuaries in Europe should be actively promoting the conservation of wild elephants in their natural habitat, by letting the public know know what really happens to elephants in captivity. Finally, real sanctuaries are none-profit organizations with all required funds coming only from donations.

Safaris parks, road-side zoos, circuses , so-called sanctuaries open to the public where elephants are forced to play soccer, paint, carry tourists on their backs, allowing tourists to bathe with them, are not sanctuaries as described above. Real sanctuaries’ final objective is to be able to close their doors, once there are no more captive elephants to retire and the only elephants alive are wild elephants in their natural habitat, protected and surviving as one of many species on our magnificent planet.

At this point in time, the only  elephant sanctuary in Europe is still under construction in the Limousine area of France. The land has been purchased and the first enclosures are being constructed. Plans for the first elephant barn have been drawn up and the sanctuary is accepting donations for its completion. For learning more about this effort please contact Elephant Haven directly.