The AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care set requirements for space requirements, enclosure design, nutrition, reproduction, enrichment, and veterinary care to give elephants a quality living environment. The standards, which became mandatory in 2006, were developed in consultation with zoo elephant experts, as well as field researchers and animal welfare advocates. AZA's standards go far beyond what is required by the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) or state regulatory agencies and AZA-accredited zoos typically exceed them to provide superior elephant care and management practices.
AZA standards continually undergo review and change because there is much that scientists are still learning about zoo elephant management and care. AZA and its accredited institutions are committed to establishing research priorities, supporting research studies, and continuously improving these Standards based on what is learned. To meet these goals, the AZA Elephant Taxonomic Advisory Group and Elephant Species Survival Plan® Programs have developed a master plan that continues to augment ex situ elephant care and management practices and expand AZA contributions towards in situ elephant conservation in Africa and Asia.
The elephant conservation missions of AZA-accredited zoos encompass a wide range of activities, including conservation education, research, development of relevant technologies, professional training, habitat restoration, ecotourism, community-based conservation, the direct support of national parks and equivalent reserves, and fund-raising to support these initiatives.
AZA and its accredited zoos are actively involved and or support a variety of elephant conservation initiatives and were also the driving force behind the creation of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF), a coalition of more than 30 major conservation organizations and zoological parks whose mission is to curb the illegal commercial trade of wildlife meat, including the forest elephants in central and western Africa. AZA-accredited institutions are also the main supporters of the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), a non-profit organization that provides financial support for a wide variety of elephant conservation and related scientific and educational projects worldwide.
People often believe that all elephants live in hot climates in Africa and Asia, but in reality, elephants live in surprisingly diverse environments, ranging from deserts to tropical jungles to cool forest regions. In addition, these animals are more flexible than most people think and can acclimatize to cold temperatures. What is most important is that the animals have access to heat and shelter when they choose to get out of the cold.
Yes, we strongly believe that the AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care are good standards, and we fully expect them to evolve as scientists learn more about the care of elephants, just as they have changed since 2001 when they were first adopted. None of these Standards however, should be viewed in isolation. For example, the space requirements must be viewed in the broader context of the entire elephant care program. While large enclosures may be appealing from an aesthetic viewpoint, space is not the only consideration when evaluating the appropriateness of any given facility. Also important are group size and composition, behavior and social compatibility of individual animals, quality of veterinary care and facilities, environmental enrichment programs, and the institution’s financial stability.
As with zoos and aquariums, not all sanctuaries or ranches are equal when it comes to animal care and welfare. AZA has a rigorous accreditation process for zoos and aquariums, as well as a certification process for animal care facilities that are not open to the public, such as wildlife research organizations and nature centers. Only the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee has achieved AZA certification. When AZA evaluates a zoo, aquarium, or other facility, the following are factors AZA considers and believes should be considered by anyone who manages elephants:
No, private elephant ranches are not analogous to life in the wild. Although some facilities may have more space than some urban zoos and are not open to the public, the animals must still be contained behind barriers, fed, have their health monitored, and be provided with veterinary care whenever necessary. Some of these facilities allow public visitation.
Private elephant ranches, unlike zoos, do not breed animals and usually do not have well-organized conservation, research, and education programs. It should be noted, however, that many national parks in Africa now require the kind of intensive wildlife management practiced by AZA-accredited zoos. This may include population control, veterinary care, food and water supplementation, and habitat enhancement. Some African national parks are fenced 360 degrees to prevent conflict between wildlife and people. Thus, in our human-dominated world, the distinction between the terms "free" and "captive" has been greatly diminished, at least when applied to elephants.