How Long Do Elephants Live In Human Care?

One of the biggest topics of the conversation regarding zoos facilities is the welfare of elephants. Recently a paper was published, that concluded that an elephant’s social life may be me more important for these animals than space. An article in the Washington Post that discussed this study mentioned that elephants in zoos would have “shortened” lives. I already wrote an article for the German page zoos.media about this issue.

Photo by Barbara Schneider

Photo by Barbara Schneider

A “favor report”

A study by Clubb and Mason (2002) concluded that elephants in human care do not live longer than their wild counterparts. This study was requested by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), British organization in Oxford. The study compared data from zoos to data from wild elephants. The European Elephant Group (EEG) criticized this study vigorously. The group exposed the methods of the study and found that  only 3 of 138 facilities housing elephants in Europe were visited. Because of this small sample size, the data is not a good representation of the facilities. Additionally, adequate conclusions cannot be drawn form such a small sample size. Therefore any conclusion made could be misleading and not be a representation of the the true data available for this study. One could even argue that this study cherrypicked their data calling the validity of the study into question. The study may have ignored (consciously or unconsciously) the efforts of more “progressive” zoos in Europe. Nevertheless opponents of zoos use this study to support their claims and advance their agendas. This science behind this study can be called into question because of the way they handled the data and because it looks as if the study was made to support the organization’s claim. The EEG call it a “favor report” (German original word, which was used: “Gefälligkeitsgutachten”).


New scientific research in 2004

Willis and Wiese published a scientific article in 2004, reporting on the calculation of longevity and life expectancy in captive elephants.. Their study uses a larger sample size and their conclusions refute the claims of the “favor study”.

“Using a life-table, the median life expectancy for female Asian elephants (Lx=0.50) is 35.9 years in North America and 41.9 years in Europe. Survival analysis estimates of average life expectancy for Asian elephants are 47.6 years in Europe and 44.8 years in North America. Survival analysis estimates for African elephants are less robust due to less data. Currently the African elephant average life expectancy estimate in North America is 33.0 years, but this is likely to increase with more data, as it has over the past 10 years.” – Willis and Wiese, 2004

It is clear that a shortened life of elephants in human care as reported by Clubb and Mason (2002) appear incorrect when compared to the data reported by Willis and Wiese (2004). It likely that elephants live as long as in the wild, Wiese explained to National Geographic.


How long do elephants live in zoos? It appears that they may live as long in human care as they do in the wild. Additionally, as the quality of  elephant husbandry increases so does the advancement of pachyderm science.  Elephants in zoos are important ambassadors for their threatened counterparts in the wild. When populations of Asian elephants are endangered and African elephant species are vulnerable, it is important to inspire people to become advocates for conservation.  Zoos motivate  people to save species such are the wild elephants of the world.





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