Britain's first zoo elephant arrived in London in 1254. It was a present to
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
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.