Solitary Elephants in Japan

9. August 2018

Wild elephants in National Park of Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Volodymyr Burdiak / shutterstock

During  June, 2017, after visiting 14 Japanese zoos keeping solitary elephants, Dr. Keith Lindsay’s* report Solitary Elephants in Japan, was published by Ulara Nakagawa’s Elephants in Japan** organization.

It was Ulara who first drew attention on her site to the tragic life of Hanako, an elephant who spent more than 60 years alone in a concrete prison at the Inokashira Park Zoo in Japan. The tragedy of her life soon received world wide attention. Alas, before improvements of her living conditions could be implemented, Hanako died  on May 27, 2016.

Dedicated to Hanako, the report surveys and documents the living conditions of many other solitary elephants  in Japan, with recommendations for improved future treatment, raising the long-term goal to eliminate solitary confinement of elephants altogether.

Mac the elephant is listless in his tiny indoor and outdoor stalls at the Kobe City Zoo in Japan. He faces away from the public, who can approach closely to him. Mac sways and makes chirping sounds but is overall listless and unresponsive to his keepers and the crowds. His keeper forces him to do tricks, such as kneel down for small food offerings. Bullhooks are used by staff to punish him and train him to do such tricks.


The following excerpt from the report is limited to chapter 5 : 

5. Analysis and comments

None of the zoos visited has outdoor enclosures that offered much novelty or challenge to the lives of the elephants. Since this survey was focused on solitary elephants, it is possible that the zoos visited had smaller, less developed facilities that are not broadly representative of the range of practices in modern Japanese zoos. It is thus possible that there are better conditions, approaching optimal husbandry practices, in use at some of the larger establishments. It is recommended that a wider survey of Japanese zoos, including those keeping two or more elephants, be conducted to assess the full range of elephant husbandry in the country.

All zoos visited confined their elephants indoors for most of the day, with only a maximum of 7-8 hours outside and often much less. These regimes of elephant management seemed to be more constrained by the working hours of the zoo staff than by any considerations of benefit for the elephants. In most of the zoos, the staff assigned to caring for the elephants had other duties to attend to as well, so that it was not possible to spend extended periods engaged in feeding and stimulating the elephants through behavioural interventions. The exception was Fukuyama, where specific effort was made to provide feeding challenges to the young female, Fuku-chan.

All the elephants seen (apart from Fuku-chan) exhibited some form of stereotypic behaviour, which was more extreme and pronounced in some than in others. This swaying or rocking appeared to be a response to the lack of anything to do until the next feeding time, which was generally some hours away. This stereotypic behaviour was seen in the more “modern” zoos as well as in the substandard or standard design zoos.

The solitary nature of the elephants’ lives undoubtedly added to their psychological distress and, thus, stereotypic repetitive behaviour. As was noted in the US zoo study, such abnormal behaviour is greatly reduced when animals have social companions. Stereotypic behaviour is largely absent in elephant sanctuaries, where the elephants have much larger areas to move in, more natural forage sources and very often the presence of several other elephants with whom they can interact on a voluntary basis.

The challenge of introducing elephants to companions was apparent for the elephants who had been solitary for a long period, such as Mito at Kyoto Zoo, or even a relatively short period, such as Mac at Kobe Oji. These elephants did not appear to respond well to the introduction or re-introduction of social partners. At Tennoji Zoo, the records show that Hiroko did not interact well with the other elephants who were already there, and she had to be kept separate. The small size of the current zoo enclosures does not allow elephants the space to form natural social bonds, or to avoid elephants with whom they have “disputes”.

Despite these concerns, it was encouraging to see that there are zoos in Japan that are making special efforts to adopt modern, internationally accepted best practices of elephant husbandry, and to attempt to design and build improved enclosures. However, the missing feature in the four “improved” zoos in this survey is still the size of enclosures. None of the outdoor enclosures observed approached the size of the better zoos of USA or UK, at some 4-20,000m2; and even these larger American zoos are much smaller than enclosures at sanctuaries, where it is possible to have greater success in elephant management.

It is also encouraging that some zoos appear to recognize the need to shift their focus from amusement towards education and conservation. The more modern zoos, from an elephant perspective, also appear to have better enclosures for the higher primates. It is likely that the design of these enclosures has benefitted from the advice of members of Japan’s esteemed primatological research community.

The improvement of elephant facilities could equally benefit from inputs by experts, in Japan and from overseas, in elephant biology and veterinary science.

The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums ( JAZA) could be encouraged to develop guidelines for elephant management that are in line with modern international best practice in zoos and sanctuaries. Such guidelines would build on the momentum that is already apparent in Japan, as seen in the group of four improved zoos. There is a growing body of expertise in Japan that should be encouraged, and that could work in positive partnership with international experts on elephants, from zoo and sanctuary settings as well as field researchers of wild elephants.

The adoption of such guidelines might well prescribe the closure of some facilities currently holding elephants in poor conditions, and especially where elephants are living a solitary existence. There is undoubtedly public pressure on zoos to keep elephants, because a section of the population has grown accustomed to the idea of seeing one or more elephants in their local area. However, there is a role for zoos and JAZA to explain to the public the reasons for decisions that may lead to the closure of elephant exhibits, and for changing public pressure for seeing elephants as a form of entertainment towards an interest in elephant welfare and conservation.

The fact that there are still so many zoos with solitary elephants is a cause for concern. The obvious solution would be to move those animals to facilities where they can join with other elephants, but such an operation is not always straightforward. Great care must be exercised when introducing strange elephants to each other, with patience and spatial separation important factors. There is considerable expertise available to advise Japanese zoos on such operations, especially among the operators of elephant sanctuaries.

For a more detailed reading of the report, please go to the following website: and choose The Report

Sections of special interest might be the reactions to Dr. Lindsay’s findings by elephant experts from around the world !


* Dr. Keith Lindsay is a conservation biologist with over 40 years of professional experience. His involvement   with elephants started in 1977, when he joined the Ambosi Elephant Research Project in southern Kenya.

**Ulara is the founder of Elephants in Japan: In Memory of Hanako. The Japanese-Canadian media and communications professional works to empower, inspire and connect people who want to help animals.