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Do zoos actually do anything to help at-risk elephants in the wild? Experts say no

Chai the elephant at Oklahoma City Zoo(Photo by Gillian Lang)

Over the weekend we learned the cause of death for Chai, the 37-year-old elephant moved from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to the Oklahoma City Zoo last year. A necropsy reveals she died of a bacterial infection in her blood.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding the Woodland Park Zoo elephants, and animal activists argue that elephants shouldn’t be kept in zoos at all.

Zoos in north America are keen to argue that they’re the best place for elephants to live. Unlike sanctuaries, they have breeding programs to replenish elephants being killed in the wild, and they like to talk about the money and awareness they bring to wildlife conservation.

But are zoos actually helping at-risk elephants in Asia and Africa? Elephants in danger of being poached for ivory, elephants that lose their homes and lives due to development or conflicts with farmers?

Rob Laidlaw says zoos aren’t doing much. He is the executive director of Zoo Check, a Toronto-based wildlife protection organization focused on saving elephants in the wild and in captivity.

“When you add up the amounts they’re spending on keeping elephants in captivity and compare that to the actual contribution they’re making to elephants in the wild, I think it’s laughable that they would call themselves elephant conservationists,” Laidlaw said.

“The National Zoo in Washington D.C., newspapers reported that the new elephant facility, which is very small, cost about $50 million. If you go to many zoo websites, you’ll see that they advertise their contributions to the International Elephant Foundation. Well, according to their own website, the IEF has said that since 1999 they’ve provided about $2 million in funding to elephant conservation. I don’t know what that comprises exactly, but let’s just say it is protecting elephants in the field. That’s not a very big contribution, it works out to about $133,000 a year.”

He recognizes that $2 million is better than nothing, but he doesn’t think incarcerating 325 elephants in North America is the solution to protecting the elephants struggling in the wild.

Laidlaw talks about what action must be taken to help elephants in countries where they are being killed.

“We fund anti-poaching patrols in lower Zambezi. That consists of hiring aircraft to go out and to look for poachers, to look for dead elephants, dead rhinos. But there’s also a need to get more people on the ground, actually engaged in protecting animals. There are many protected areas in parts of the world that are protected in name only because they have very few or no staff actually out there protecting them. So we need people on the ground and obviously, those people need Jeeps, they need fuel, they need uniforms, they need guns. But then you’ve also got people who are smugglers. You need far more protected spaces, better laws within each country aimed at dealing with these issues.”

He thinks the time has come to eliminate elephant programs from all zoos.

“We found that on average, people at the Toronto Zoo were looking at the elephants for 77 seconds. The zoo did an internal poll and they found out that the visitors actually didn’t care what was in the zoo. They just wanted to come see animals, they didn’t care if elephants were there or not.”

But zoos wouldn’t have to shut down entirely.

“Very recently in Yokohama, Japan, a wildlife facility called the Orbi Zoo opened and they have no live animals and it’s quite an experience. They have theaters where all the seats move and they pump in smells. There’s another facility that has a sensorium where you hear all the auditory sounds that elephants make but then you also feel rumbling through your body, the infrasound made by elephants. There’s also – in Japan – something called indoor whale watching that involves life-size, giant screens. There are all kinds of things that are available now that zoos in North America don’t seem to be interested in at all.”

Laidlaw thinks zoos will eventually change their ways, but it will be a long, slow process.

If you’d like to donate to wildlife conservation efforts, instead of giving your money to zoos, he endorses Conservation Lower Zambezi, African Wildlife Foundation, World Animal Ne and, of course, Zoo Check.

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