Elephant FAQ

What are the AZA Standards for elephant care?

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 facilities 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.

How do AZA-accredited zoos contribute to elephant conservation?

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 facilities 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.

Is it a problem to have elephants in cold climates?

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.

Are AZA's elephant care standards adequate for the needs of the animals?

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 facility’s financial stability.

Are private elephant ranches or sanctuaries good places for elephants?

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:

  • Is the facility adequately funded? Elephants are long-lived animals and financial stability is a major concern when deciding on appropriate facilities in which to place them. Is there a succession plan in place to ensure the facility's operational viability should the owner or founder retire or die and not be able to continue operating the facility?
  • Does the facility provide full-time veterinary care on site? Are its veterinarians properly trained and licensed and do they have practical experience in caring for elephants? Is there a fully equipped veterinary hospital on the grounds or nearby? Are there appropriate control protocols in place to both prevent and monitor infectious and deadly diseases?
  • Does the facility have adequate environmental enrichment programs to provide the animals with physical and psychological challenges appropriate for their species?
  • Does the facility provide expert care that meets or exceed AZA's Standards for Elephant Management and Care?
  • Does the facility have appropriate indoor holding areas to bring the animals in at night (to protect them from intruders) or to hold them during emergencies (e.g., severe lightning storms or other inclement weather)?
  • Are the animal managers and keepers properly trained to work with elephants? What is the extent of their practical experience and academic training? Have they graduated from AZA's Principles of Elephant Management course which all elephant program managers in AZA accredited facilities are required to attend and pass?
  • What protocols are in place to protect the keeper staff, the animals, and visitors? What procedures are in place to monitor and assure that these protocols are consistently followed? If an injury does occur, what procedures are in place to study the event and prevent it from happening in the future?
  • Does the facility employ an effective and humane training system that meets AZA standards? Can the elephants at the facility perform all of the behaviors recommended for appropriate and professional care?
  • Depending on the management system, does the facility have the appropriate equipment to manage the animals safely with minimal risk to keeper staff?
  • Are appropriate barriers in place to contain elephants effectively? What procedures are in place to protect the safety of the public should an animal escape from its enclosure? Is there a perimeter fence around the facility to protect the animals from unwanted intruders (including unauthorized people, feral dogs, and diseased wild animals) and to contain animals in the event of an escape from the primary enclosure?

Is sending an elephant to a private elephant ranch analogous to setting the animal "free?"

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.

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