6 Reasons Why Captive Elephant Breeding Does Not Help Conservation

Regarding my article about elephant riding, some readers approached me asking about my opinion in riding elephants that are born and raised in captivity. Some argue that captive born elephants are more tame and treated in a more humane way. Is it true?

Based on my knowledge, almost none of the current captive elephants used in elephant rides or tourism business are born in captivity. Most of elephant owners (apart from zoos) refuse to breed their elephants because nursing mother cannot work full-time and it will bring in less income for them.

Apart from that, captive breeding in both Asian (Elephas maximus) and African elephants (Loxodonta africana) has low successful rate and even though they can produce offspring, the calves will be raised in a non-ideal environment. Read more explanations below:

  1. During captive breeding, there is chance that a cow elephant killed by a bull elephant. This could be a result from incompatibility between the bull and the cow. However, finding a compatible elephant pair in captivity is exceptionally difficult. Keeping a bull elephant is another challenge because they have musth period when they become very aggressive, hard to handle and sometimes even kill their own mahouts. A strong (and expensive) facility is needed to hold an adult bull.
  2. Some adult cow elephants in captivity show irregular cycle. Based on scientific research, adult captive cow elephants have irregular breeding cycle and some do not cycle at all. There are many reasons to it, from lack of nutrition to lack of interaction with males. In good facilities such as high-standard zoos, they monitor the cow’s hormonal level and maintain the cycle with hormonal supplement. However, this makes the maintenance cost high and is not a solution for small elephant industries, for example in most areas where the elephants are kept by villagers.
  3. In rural areas where elephants are kept by villagers, they refuse to breed their cow elephants because breeding is not always successful and can cause hip problem, sometimes lead to broken hip. This is caused by the lack of nutrition, especially calcium. Captive elephants receive less nutrition because their diet is supplied by human and they don’t have the chance to eat various food which they usually get in the wild. In working elephants the condition is worsened because their owners want them to work as long as possible, hence limiting their time to eat and limiting the nutrition they need.
  4. Elephant calves that are born in captivity shows low survival rate with high percentage of stillbirth and infant mortality.
  5. Naturally the mother elephant and the calf stay together for 3-4 years. Elephant calf still suckles milk until almost 2 years old and will be completely weaned at the age of 4 or younger. However, if the mother has to work, carrying tourists on her back, they’ll spend less time together and sometimes they are separated when the calf is still very young.
  6. Even though born and raised in captivity, elephants used for show and tourism industry still need to be trained in order to control their behavior. I have no information about the practice of phajaan (soul crushing ritual) in captive reared elephants, mainly because the successful rate of captive breeding is very low, but I assure that all working elephants, both born in the wild and born in captivity, still have to be controlled using sharp bull hook. Naturally no elephant will allow people to ride their back because it’s not in their nature. In tourism industry, taming them is necessary and one of the very common controlling methods is by using sharp hook.

But they are contributing to conservation, aren’t they?

When we talk about conservation (conservation of any wildlife, not only elephant), we are talking about the wild population, not population in captivity. Unfortunately, there’s only a small chance that captive born wildlife will be released into the wild again because of many reasons, with main concerns are they have lost their natural behavior and may not survive from hunters. Sadly enough, there are only a small percentage of real conservation institutions while the rest are mainly profit-making organizations and get public sympathy by saying they are contributing to ‘conservation’. Last words, captive wildlife breeding without releasing the offspring into the wild does not contribute to wildlife conservation.

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