India bans keeping elephants in zoos & circuses

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2009:


NEW DELHI–The Central Zoo Authority of
India on November 9, 2009 sent a rumble
throughout the world with a decree that elephants
may no longer be exhibited by zoos and circuses.
Rumored to be coming for more than 18
months, the order came from the government of
the nation with the most captive elephants,
about 3,500 in all; the oldest history of
elephant use and exhibition, about 3,500 years;
the largest population of wild Asian elephants,
approximately 28,000; and the longest record of
protecting both elephants and elephant habitat,
beginning about 2,240 years ago.

While many Indian zoos are notoriously
substandard, several others are among the
best-regarded in Asia. In effect, the CZA has
concluded that even the best zoo elephant
exhibits are incapable of providing elephants an
acceptable quality of life.
If zoos in Asian elephants’ native
habitat cannot keep elephants in adequate
conditions–and Asian elephants are believed to
adjust much more comfortably to captivity than
African elephants–then by implication no zoo or
circus anywhere can humanely display elephants.
Zoos worldwide are not expected to
quickly or easily accept the CZA message,
especially since elephants are by far the most
popular species commonly kept by zoos and
circuses. Only a third of the zoos accredited by
the American Zoo Association have elephants, but
those zoos attract two-thirds of total U.S. zoo
If the CZA decree withstands legal and
political challenges, elephant exhibitors in
other nations are likely to have increasing
difficulty defending their practices. Especially
difficult will be making a case that zoos and
circuses should be allowed to import more
elephants to replace the rapidly aging and
dwindling captive populations they already have.
The arguments for keeping elephants in
captivity were already undercut by a 2008 study
published in the journal Science which found that
among 4,500 female elephants residing in European
zoos, Burmese logging camps, and Amboseli
National Park in Kenya, the zoo elephants had
the shortest life expectancy, less than 17
years, while wild elephants had a life
expectancy of just under 36 years–56 years if
not killed by humans.

Ringling et al

The future of elephant captivity is
especially keenly debated in the U.S., where the
verdict is pending in a lawsuit alleging that
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus use of
elephants violates the 1973 Endangered Species
Brought by the American SPCA, Animal
Welfare Institute, and a coalition of other
animal charities, the case was outlined in a
six-week trial that concluded on March 18, 2009
at the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.,
after eight years of preliminary legal
The antagonists and their antecedents
have fought almost since the day sea captain
Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant
seen in the Americas since the ice ages to New
York City on April 13, 1796. Customs inspector
Nataniel Hathorne, father of author Nathaniel
Hawthorne (who spelled his name differently),
logged the arrival.
Named Old Bet, the elephant was sold to
farmer Hackaliah Bailey, of Somers, New York.
Bailey formed the ancestor of the Ringling Bros.,
Barnum & Bailey circus with Old Bet, a trained
dog, a trained horse, and several trained pigs.
Bailey and Old Bet toured the east coast together
for 20 years. Eventually Bailey also founded a
Zoological Institute, which was among the first
Old Bet was reputedly shot by a religious
fanatic in either Maine or Rhode Island (accounts
differ) in 1816. Clergy from New England to the
Carolinas had denounced Bailey’s activities from
the beginning, primarily as a distraction from
churchgoing, but also on occasion as cruel
exploitation of one of God’s most magnificent
American SPCA founder Henry Bergh clashed
with Bailey’s partner and successor, P.T.
Barnum, as early as December 1866, initially
about Barnum’s practice of feeding live prey to
snakes, but soon Bergh was confronting Barnum
about elephant use and misuse too. An 1884
confrontation described by The New York Times
involved Barnum’s use of a skin-whitening bleach
designed for sale to African Americans to change
a grey elephant into an alleged sacred white
A national hue and cry rose against
elephant exhibition after Thomas Edison
electrocuted an elephant named Topsy at Luna Park
on Coney Island in 1903, and distributed film of
the killing to theatres. Topsy had killed three
handlers in three years.
The Sparks Circus elephant Mary was
hanged from a railroad crane in Erwin, Tennessee
in 1916, after killing one handler, amid
rumors, later disproven, that she had killed 18
people including a child. Her death produced a
further outcry, including from Jack London, who
denounced elephant exhibition in specific and
circuses in general in his last novel, Michael,
Brother of Jerry (1917), published two months
after London’s suicide.
Many other elephant rampages produced
sympathy for the elephants, including the
car-smashing exploits of the A.G. Barnes circus
elephant Tusko.
Editorialized the Portland Journal,
after Tusko died in 1933 at the Woodland Park Zoo
in Seattle, “He was a vivid example of
inhumanity. He was the product of the jungle.
He belonged to the jungle. And there could be no
place for him in civilization. To keep him as he
was kept, by chains, hobbles, enclosures, and
other implements of force and tyranny, was
cruelty, brutality, inhumanity. He was untamed
and untamable. He had a right to resist fetters
and shacklesÅ In his own heaven, if elephants
have a Valhalla, Tusko is back in the jungle,
entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of
Walt Disney exposed circus elephant abuse
yet again in Dumbo (1941). But, though Dumbo
remains among the most enduringly popular
animated films ever, the elephant exhibition
industry has for more than 200 years retained an
economic and political advantage against all
Few elephants, however, have entered
the U.S. since the U.S. ratified the Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species in
1973 and adopted the Endangered Species Act. In
consequence, the U.S. elephant population is now
superannuated and rapidly declining. About a
dozen national animal advocacy organizations are
actively campaigning to end elephant exhibition.
The rate of attrition suggests they might succeed
within 10 to 20 years.
There are currently about 290 elephants
in U.S. zoos. The American Zoo Association
reportedly hopes to boost the U.S. zoo population
to 532 within the next five years, through
births and acquisitions. As the U.S. zoo
elephant birth rate is far below the death rate,
most of the projected increase would appear to be
through anticipated imports. Eleven African
elephants imported from Swaziland in August 2003
were the first wild-caught elephants to reach the
U.S. from abroad in 30 years. The San Diego Zoo
received seven of the Swaziland elephants. The
Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa received the other four.
Altogether, according to the USDA Animal
& Plant Health Inspection Service, there are 488
elephants now in the U.S. The Ringling Bros.
Barnum & Bailey Circus has 54, the Elephant
Sanctuary in Tennessee has 15, the Performing
Animal Welfare Society has nine, fewer than half
a dozen are at smaller sanctuaries, and about
120 are scattered among small circuses and other
Elephant exhibition in Canada moved
closer to extinction with the November 30 death
of Tara, 41, matriarch of the Toronto Zoo herd.
The Toronto Zoo still has three elephants, ages
40, 40, and 30. Other Canadian zoos have 17
Asian elephants and 10 African elephants among
them. There are no elephants in Canada who are
not part of zoo collections.
African Lion Safari in Cambridge,
Ontario, has 16 elephants, and has had 12
elephant births since 1991, the most of any
North American zoo. The Calgary Zoo has the next
largest Canadian herd, with just four. The
Granby Zoo, with two elephants, and the
Edmonton Valley Zoo, with just one, have fewer
than the minimum of three that the American Zoo
Association recommends for zoo herds.
European zoos and circuses have among
them about 600 elephants. Britain has the most:
about 75 elephants, distributed among 13 zoos.
Slightly more than 100 elephants are believed to
exist in captivity in other nations without wild
European zoos and circuses have
encountered intense opposition to attempts to
import elephants from Asia and Africa in recent
years. British activists who hoped that circus
acts using elephants were history in the U.K.
were disappointed in February 2009, however,
when the Great British Circus bought three
elephants from Germany. The only other living
circus elephant in the U.K. had last performed a
decade earlier.

What did CZA say?

“Provided that certain safeguards and
animal welfare measures can be guaranteed, we
welcome the decision of the CZA, and call upon
governments in other countries to follow India”s
example and end confinement of elephants in zoos
and circuses,” said the Born Free Foundation,
PETA, and the Royal SPCA of Britain in a joint
“Importantly, the CZA confirms that
there is little or no benefit to the in situ
conservation of wild elephants derived from
keeping elephants in zoos and the like,” the
statement added. The statement was endorsed by
34 other animal advocacy organizations in 14
nations, and by nine prominent individual
elephant advocates.
But what exactly the CZA said, in full,
remained unclear. The actual text of the CZA
order was not immediately disclosed, either by
the CZA itself or by recipient zoos. The Animal
Welfare Board of India was not sent a copy.
ANIMAL PEOPLE requested a copy, but the CZA did
not respond.
According to BBC News, whose November 12
summary of the content remained the most complete
available several weeks later, the CZA order
stated that zoos and circuses are “not the best
places for the large animals” who “require a
large area to move about freely.”
Reported BBC News, “A spokesman for the
authority said a binding directive had been
issued by the authority for the animals to be
sent to national parks and sanctuariesÅ as soon as
According to BBC News, the CZA directive
said that circus and zoo elephants potentially
have “great use” in eco-tourism and patrolling
national parks and tiger reserves.
The directive applies to both Asian
elephants and African elephants, who are kept at
the Delhi and Mysore zoos. However, CZA
jurisdiction does not extend to either temple
elephants or working elephants, who are about
95% of the Indian captive population.
CZA evaluation and monitoring officer
B.K. Gupta told Neha Lalchandani and Deeksha
Chopra of the Times of India News Network that 26
Indian zoos and 16 circuses had among them 140
elephants, as of March 2009. “Of these, Mysore
and Trivandrum have the largest number at nine
and eight respectively,” Gupta said.
“The decision [to banish elephants from
zoos and circuses] was taken,” Gupta added,
“after evaluating conditions of elephants at
various zoos and circuses. We found that
circuses especially were not following the
standards set under the Recognition of Zoo Rules,
Explained Punjab State Board for Wildlife
member Sandeep K. Jain, “The CZA had laid down
certain conditions for circuses like
microchipping of elephants, possession of
tranquilizing instruments and keeping treatment
records, but these were not followed.”
“The elephants currently living in zoos
or circuses are to be moved to ‘elephant camps’
run by the government’s forest department and
located near protected areas and national parks,”
reported Associated Press writer Nirmala George.
“There they would be able to roam and graze
freely, but mahouts, or traditional elephant
trainers, would still keep an eye on them,”
George said.
“There is merit in this decision,” World
Wildlife Fund India TRAFFIC trade monitoring
program chief Samir Sinha told George. “It is
best for elephants to be as close to their
natural habitat as possible. Elephants needs a
lot of space to exercise and move about, and
they are deprived that space in zoos and
circuses,” Sinha said.
The Delhi Zoo reportedly is soon to
transfer two Asian elephants and its African
elephant–a presidential gift from Zimbabwe –to
Jim Corbett National Park.
“There are close to 20 elephants in the
Mysore Zoo and the Bannerghatta Biological Park.
We will shift them as soon as we get orders from
Delhi,” said Karnataka additional principal
chief conservator of forests B.K. Singh.
“The animals are used to a certain
lifestyle in the zoos,” Singh told Jayashree
Nandi of the Times of India News Network. “I am
not sure how quickly they will adapt to their new
life in the open. They will have to be fed
regularly because they are used to eating at
regular hours,” Singh anticipated.
“If we have to act according to the CZA
decision, the zoo would no more have the regular
visitors, especially children who come in large
numbers” to watch elephants, predicted R.K.
Sahu, superintendent of the Kamala Nehru
Zoological Garden at Kankaria, near Ahmedabad.
Sahu told Times of India News Network
correspondents Pooja Bhatt and Krishna Vyas that
there would no longer be elephants anywhere
nearby, since elephants are not native to the
But not every zoo objected to the CZA
order. “The Zoological Park at Vandalur on the
outskirts of Chennai is set to shift the four
elephants in its collection,” reported P. Oppili
of The Hindu, “and zoo officials seem not too
unhappy about the move, for some of the
elephants have in the past shown violent
tendencies and their upkeep is expensive.”
Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First,
however, told Oppili that relocating zoo
elephants to national parks, sanctuaries and
tiger reserves would become an example of solving
one problem by creating another.
“Domesticated elephants invariably suffer
from diseases which, despite screening, may get
passed on to wild elephants and other endangered
species,” Bhargav warned.
Tuberculosis, which passes readily
between humans and elephants, has killed about
100 elephants in Kerala state since 2005,
reducing the state captive elephant population to
695, veterinarian K.C. Panicker told Ignatius
Pereira of The Hindu.
Also of urgent concern is elephant
herpesvirus, which has caused about 20% of the
deaths of Asian elephants at U.S. zoos since
1983, according to the International Elephant
Foundation, and has occurred at other zoos
around the world.
However, elephant herpesvirus may
already afflict wild Asian elephants, since a
Cambodian elephant calf who died in 2006 was
apparently already ill when confiscated from
“First of all, elephants in zoos should
undergo proper and detailed medical checkups and
they have to be observed closely. Then there
should be an acclimatisation programme for these
zoo elephants before they are finally let into
the parks and sanctuaries,” recommended Kerala
state forest department veterinary officer Arun
Beyond the health issues, Bhargav
alleged that existing elephant camps at wildlife
reserves are already causing forest degradation,
and attract development that encroaches on
protected habitat. Since logging within wildlife
reserves is completely prohibited, Bhagav added,
there is no longer much work for the elephants at
elephant camps.
“Special facilities have to be created,
perhaps outside the wildlife sanctuaries,” said
Indian Institute of Science ecology professor
Raman Sukumar, of Bangalore.
Releasing elephants who are already
habituated to humans into wild habitat might
escalate conflicts which in the past five years
have already brought the deaths of 301 people and
304 elephants in Orissa state alone, warned
Satyasundar Barik of The Hindu. Seventy-three
deaths of Orissan elephants since 2001 have been
by electrocution, Barik added. Some have
resulted from accidental collisions with wires,
but in some cases wires have been hung to keep
elephants from raiding crops or trampling huts.
Assam state forest minister Rockybul
Hussain has recently asserted that his agency
needs to “acquire wild elephants and domesticate
them for government duties,” according to the
Times of India News Network, but the claim has
been denounced by Project Elephant director A.N.
Prasad, among others, as just an alleged
pretext for pressuring the federal government to
lift a ban on capturing crop-raiding elephants.
Prasad is also the current Indian federal
Inspector General of Forests. “The Wildlife Act
permits the capture of wild elephants only if
they threaten human life. No such permission has
been given to Assam in recent times,” Prasad
Now dozens of already trained elephants,
many from Assam, may be available for the
asking–but Hussain is not expected to ask for


The most likely fate of the 140 Indian
zoo and circus elephants may be transfer to
relatively spacious off-exhibit Animal Rescue
Centres, featuring semi-natural habitat, but
still in captivity, still under the jurisdiction
of the CZA.
More than 280 lions, 40 tigers, and
scores of aging ex-performing bears are already
living out their lives at CZA-accredited Animal
Rescue Centres near Agra, Bangalore, Bhopal,
Chennai, Jaipur, Tirupati, and Visakhapatnam.
Some of the Animal Rescue Centres are
operated by animal welfare charities. Wildlife
SOS built the first of those, opened in February
2002, and now manages four. Several others are
operated by major zoos, including the Indira
Gandhi Zoo in Visakhapatnam, whose prototype
Animal Rescue Centre opened in February 2001 as
an intended captive breeding facility. The
mission changed after the Supreme Court of India
on May 1, 2001 moved to enforce provisions of
the Wild Life Protection Act 1972 which prohibit
the capture for exhibition of lions, tigers,
bears, and monkeys.
Zoos with documentation of captive
breeding were allowed to keep lions, tigers,
bears, and monkeys, but circuses and other
exhibitors were not.
Bears still often arrive at Animal Rescue
Centres, confiscated from dancing bear
exhibitors, often in relatively remote rural
areas, but the numbers of lions and tigers are
diminishing. Some of the facilities built to
house them could be adapted to house elephants
who are deemed unlikely to adjust adequately to
less constrained situations.
Wildlife SOS also expects to be involved
in housing ex-zoo and circus elephants. “We are
currently collaborating with the Haryana Forest
Department, with whom we signed an agreement in
July 2008 for the establishment of an elephant
rehabilitation and research center in the Ban
Santoor Forest, adjacent to the Kalesar Wildlife
Sanctuary,” said Wildlife SOS cofounder Kartick
Satyanarayan. “This center will provide a much
needed sanctuary for abused, exploited, sick
and handicapped elephants requiring retirement,
convalescence and medical care.”

Temple elephants

Other Indian animal welfare charities are
looking ahead to a culturally more difficult
struggle. “We must now focus our efforts on
getting elephants out of temples and other
‘religious’ places,” said Blue Cross of India
chief executive Chinny Krishna.
The tradition of keeping temple elephants
originated in ancient times as a means of
retiring and honoring former working elephants,
but long ago degenerated into something closer to
a tradition of temples operating as
quasi-roadside zoos. In recent years temples in
southern India, especially Kerala, have often
become dumping grounds for problematic ex-working
elephants brought from the north–and illegally
captured wild elephants.
There are hints that some Kerala
authorities are becoming fed up with the influx
and frequent mistreatment of elephants.
Responding to a petition from Compassion
Unlimited Plus Action, the Kerala high court,
for example, in November 2009 stayed a September
2009 order from a forestry official that returned
an elephant bull to one Jacob Abraham, of
Kottayam, Kerala. Abraham earlier donated the
elephant to the Sree Ayyappa temple in Jalahalli,
but the forest department–in response to earlier
CUPA complaints–impounded the elephant due to
While the case was pending, four captive
elephants died of abuse in Kerala, three in
private custody and one at the Pullukulangara
Dharmasastha Temple in Alappuzha on October 14.
That elephant was reportedly beaten to death by a
new mahout.
“Kerala chief conservator of forests K.P.
Ouseph has written to his Bihar counterpart
Basheer Ahmed Khan not to issue permits for
transport of elephants” sold at the annual
Sonepur livestock fair, reported Ignatius
Pereira of The Hindu on November 6, 2009.
“Ouseph informed Khan that Kerala has enough
captive elephants and it does not intend relaxing
the order in the immediate future,” Pereira said.
Kerala has officially prohibited elephant
imports since August 2007. Ouseph’s action
signified that the prohibition will now be
Use of elephants by private mahouts to
beg on city streets is also common in India,
particularly in the relatively affluent cities of
Maharashtra state, including Mumbai.
Maharashtra state banned elephants from urban
areas in July 2007, but the ban is poorly
enforced, Plant & Animal Welfare Society founder
Sunish Subramanian Kunju charged in a public
complaint to several state agencies with
jurisdiction on November 23, 2009.
“These elephants are made to walk for
long distances without adequate food and water on
tar roads, they are made to walk long distances
at night too, they cause traffic jams on already
congested city roads, their stress level
increases due to the noise from vehicular traffic
and firecrackers [at weddings and festivals],
they do not get proper medical treatment, and
minor children are made to sit on the elephants
and beg with these animals, which is an offence
as per the Child Labour Law,” Kunju alleged.
“Often concerned citizens and animal lovers
complain to the police and the wildlife
department against the ill-treatment meted out to
the elephants,” Kunju continued, “but seldom
has any action been taken against the offenders,”
suggesting that bribery of public officials may
be involved.
“The elephants need to be rescued and
sent to wildlife sanctuaries,” Kunju concluded.
This would be a tourist attraction,” Kunju
hoped, and could “even earn revenue for the
state.” Adequate sanctuaries for all the begging
elephants in Inda may not exist yet. But if the
CZA directive is enforced and followed up, it
may become the impetus for creating such

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