Animal Welfare: Elephants

**Warning: Some of the links, videos, and stories in this post do describe graphic scenes of animal abuse. Most of the graphic nature are the stories described by different writers but I wanted to give the head’s up.**


Elephants are some of my favorite animals on earth (which coming from me, says a lot). In part, I love them because they’re such wonderful creatures and seem exceptionally graceful in their large sizes. But there are many things that are causing problems for these animals world wide – from elephants losing parts of their habitats to poaching for their ivory tusks to being forced to perform in a circus act to smuggling.

Animal abuse has been a significant issue within different circuses: violence has been used to ‘correct’ behavior, medical care has been withheld, etc. Additionally, governmental agencies, especially the USDA (which has oversight of circuses), have a history of being very lenient towards horrific animal rights violations from the companies that own different circus acts. A few years ago, Mother Jones came out with a report about the abuses experienced by elephants within different circus companies, saying despite company claims that the animals are treated well that:

… A yearlong Mother Jones investigation shows that Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity.

There is an exceptionally small piece of good news in all of this however: Ringling Bros. Circus is planning to phase out their elephant acts by 2018 (not soon enough in my opinion) and will be sending the 43 elephants to a sanctuary in central Florida. The company has cited welfare concerns for the animals as to why the decision was made. Animal welfare activists are also calling on zoos to phase out elephants, citing that stress and a lack of exercise usually means that elephants in captivity are living half as long as they might in the wild.


Poaching has also been a decades long battle for elephants, with hundreds of thousands of elephants being lost to poaching efforts in just a few years. The graphic on the left is from National Geographic and highlights the changes in elephant populations between 1979 and 2007 (on the site, they also have some other graphics that highlight more statistics around poaching and ivory smuggling). There have been international meetings and attempts to scale up the war against poaching elephants, especially because some elephant populations are starting to really decline. But not much has changed because of these meetings and attempts. Susan Lieberman wrote about the potential solutions and issues that need to be addressed with poaching and international ivory trade, particularly that:

We must all not be afraid to address greed and corruption, which are the underlying drivers of this crisis. It is not the poor poacher who is the worst offender–poverty exacerbates wildlife trafficking but doesn’t cause it. Governments must go after the kingpins and organized crime networks that are profiting the most and driving the illegal trade.

Charles Siebert wrote a piece a few years ago for the New York Times about the stress and trauma elephants are experiencing and how it has lead to numerous violent and often fatal conflicts between elephants and humans in parts of Africa, India, and southeast Asia. Poaching and other aspects of human interaction with elephants have drastically changed the demographics of many wild herds. The fabric of elephant life relies heavily on the dynamics of the herd and as those drastically and violently change, the impact causes an incredible amount of trauma and stress to the surviving animals, writing that:

The elephants of decimated herds, especially orphans who’ve watched the death of their parents and elders from poaching and culling, exhibit behavior typically associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related disorders in humans: abnormal startle response, unpredictable asocial behavior, inattentive mothering and hyperaggression.

Siebert also wrote about how the relationship between humans and elephants have really changed and that:

It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly. It is not leaving without making some kind of statement, one to which scientists from a variety of disciplines, including human psychology, are now beginning to pay close attention.

And like many things I’ve written about, all of this is only the tip of the iceberg on the issues faced by elephants in the world today. There are issues revolving wild elephants coexisting with the people and farms that live around them, issues of smuggling baby elephants, and others. As globalization and urbanization worldwide grow, learning to coexist with wild animal populations (not just elephants) is going to be a big issue to consider.

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