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elepha2.gif (243067 bytes)Britain’s first zoo elephant arrived in London in 1254. It was a present toelephant_ear_twitch_sm_wht.gif (6329 bytes) Henry 111 from Louis IX of France. Crowds flocked from so many miles to see the amazing creature, which was housed in the Tower of London, that a special shelter had to be built to accommodate the sheer number of visitors. His popularity was matched a little over six hundred years later by London Zoo’s ‘Jumbo’ who became such a huge attraction for Londoners that there was a great public outcry when he was sold to Barnum and Baileys, the  American circus. But in spite of the popularity of elephants, and in spite of their almost domestic use in Asia, very few have ever been bred in captivity. There is one very good reason for this: very few zoos that keep elephants keep an adult bull. Of the sixty or seventy elephants in British zoos, less than ten percent are bulls.  The same percentage holds true for most European zoos. 

It is not as though the breeding of elephants is unreasonable or uneconomic. The first zoo-bred elephant in Britain was a male, Jubilee, born at Chester Zoo in 1977. African Elephants have bred twice at Howletts Zoo in Kent. And at both zoos the resulting upturn in visitors reflected the great public interest in seeing a baby elephant. So given a pair of elephants, and good feeding, housing, and management, nature ought normally to take its course, and we all ought to be rewarded with the incomparable sight of baby elephants fairly regularly in the zoos of the world.

So why doesn’t it always happen like that? The simple answer is that adult bull elephants are probably the most difficult and dangerous of all animals to keep. There is a saying among European zoos that for every calf born, a keeper has been killed. This may no longer be true, but the danger is very real all the same. It is essential therefore for any zoo that hopes to breed its elephants to provide a secure bull corral. Bull elephants, in the past, have broken out despite a variety of barriers, including deep moats and high fences. It is a tall order, perhaps, to expect every zoo that wants to keep elephants to have to cope with these problems. How much easier it would be for them, after all, just to keep cow elephants and to let other zoos take the risks. But good zoos should not allow themselves to fall into the trap of thinking like this. Either they should be making positive plans to keep both sexes, or they should be negotiating breeding loans with other zoos; or else, perhaps, they should, like so many zoos, be deciding no longer to keep elephants at all.

One incident that illustrates something of the difficulty of keeping adult bull elephants was the sad death of an amiable African Bull, Jumbolino, at Chester in 1976. Jumbolino died after being pushed by a matriarchal Asian cow elephant into a steep sided moat. Another death to occur in a similar way was the notorious death of Dixie at London Zoo. Where an elephant is able to fall into a moat and injure itself, perhaps fatally, then this type of barrier must be unacceptable. Elephants are such heavy animals that they can easily sustain serious fractures if they fall. Better alternatives exist. Some collections use railings as barriers, and moats with a sloping approach could perhaps be used more often. Chester has replaced its inside moats with railings, and all of Aspinall’s extensive accommodation at Howletts and Port Lympne is fenced. Electric fencing is used to good effect at many safari parks. But dangerous looking moats still exist at several major zoos. Elephants are intelligent, and emotional animals. They require companionship, sensitive handling, and plenty of space. Not all zoos can, or do, provide all three of these.

Where strong fences and crushes are used, a ‘zero handling’ policy can be employed. But some collections, favour building up a closer association between elephant and keeper with daily training and handling. Tame elephants can mean closer contact for the public. London’s baby elephants are escorted around the zoo every day to meet the visitors. But there is another advantage for a zoo that trains its elephants. Zoos unable to keep a bull can more easily transport their females for mating. This is the plan for London’s cow elephants. In Europe elephants are regularly sent to be mated at other zoos. Copenhagen’s bull entertains cows from as far away as Basle in Switzerland. Today this technique is being adopted by many zoos. Chester Zoo is already playing host to cow elephants from other zoos. To sustain a population of around of each species within the zoos of the world would require no more than six or seven calves to be born and reared each year. Surely this is an achievable target.



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