Keep Elephants in the Wild: Training Animal Advocates To Advance Protection for Elephants

Elephants are majestic animals who have close family bonds, complex emotional lives, and high levels of intelligence and empathy. At the Center for Animal Law Studies, we are committed to both raising awareness and using legal tools to advance legal protections for elephants, so they may live their lives in peace and in the wild, where they belong.

The Capture

Led by a matriarch elephant, scientists confirm that female elephants live together for life, in a close-knit family that relies on cooperation to solve problems, teaches babies and juveniles everything they will need to know to survive in the wild, and grieves for the loss of family members. Elephants have large brains and central nervous systems much like that of humans.

The journey from the wild to captivity for elephants is a traumatic experience. Captive elephants have often traveled around the world to meet their fate, after being forcibly removed from their families. Juvenile elephants, more desirable and of higher value in international trade, are separated from their families through the use of helicopters or trucks and often noise making devices or shotguns, which cause the herd to move quickly and the juveniles to fatigue and fall behind. At that point, the juveniles are tranquilized and captured before the herd can return. These captures traumatize mothers and leaves the herd to struggle with the forcible interruption of its social structure.

Tragically, trade in baby elephants is  common. Zimbabwe is a dominant seller of baby elephants, having captured and sold 140 wild baby elephants to China between 2012-2019. These transactions are lucrative (individual elephants are sold for between $30-40,000 in U.S. dollars), but have devastating consequences for the elephants, including the deaths of 20 baby Zimbabwean elephants during this same time period.

The Journey To Captivity

Juvenile elephants who are captured are then shipped to zoos and other entertainment facilities in China, the United States, and elsewhere. The U.S. and China are two of the leading purchasers of African elephants. Babies often don’t survive the journey to captivity. For example, in 2012, the government of Zimbabwe sold four baby elephants to two zoos in China. Three of the elephants were soon dead, succumbing to the trauma of being separated from their families and unable to survive in the cold climate to which they were sent.

The inhumanity of the international trade in wild elephants, as well as the lack of scientifically justified conservation benefits, motivated a super majority of voting Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to impose restrictions on wild elephant trade at their last meeting in August 2019. Yet zoos and other facilities continue to seek permits for the import of live juvenile elephants, and the permits continue to be granted.

Captive elephants are mostly sourced from Zimbabwe, which claims it has an “excess” of elephants and has expressed its willingness to sell them to anyone willing to pay, with  officials declaring: “we are open to everyone who wants our wildlife.” In fact, just after the 2019 CITES decision to restrict international trade in live elephants, Zimbabwe exported 32 captured baby elephants to China. This export took place despite lawsuits filed in Zimbabwean courts to protect the elephants and international condemnation of the trade. The majority of the 32 baby elephants were sent to the Longemont Animal Park, near Hangzhou, China, and now endure substandard conditions and inhumane treatment by trainers, possibly to prepare the elephants for entertainment use, according to a document submitted to CITES.

A Life Behind Bars

Elephants are wild animals, and humans are no match for their size and power. Training elephants to be captive is a brutal and violent process. It starts with establishing dominance. Trainers force the animals into a state of helpless submission, which the trainers justify as necessary for their own safety. The elephant is tied down, unable to move or fight back, and beaten with ax handles, bullhooks, or some other weapon. These beatings may go on for days, until the elephant submits totally, giving up any effort to fight back. When visitors see an elephant who performs tricks, they are unwittingly supporting an industry that engages in these practices.

Zoos are also a poor alternative to life in the wild, and the exhibition of elephants is the subject of intense debate between zoo supporters and those working to protect elephants. The lack of space and inability to engage in their natural behaviors, separation from their original families, and frequent social upheaval caused by trades of elephants to other zoos, cause captive elephants to suffer physically and emotionally. But, most zoos are adamant about exhibiting elephants because it’s lucrative. Visitors love and expect to see elephants, not realizing the incalculable price paid by the elephants who were captured and their families left behind.

The Effects On Elephants

Dr. Joyce Poole, who has studied wild elephants in Africa since 1975, reports that most of the problems experienced by elephants in captivity, such as arthritis, foot infections (the leading cause of death in captive elephants), and psychological problems, are not observed in the wild. She says: “In the wild, everything elephants do is an intellectual challenge: locating and manipulating a wide variety of food items; remembering the location of water during a drought; searching for potential mates; deciding where to go, who to go with, who to join and who to avoid.” Wild elephants sent to Chinese zoos and wild animal parks often suffer a particularly tragic fate.

Such zoos and parks are very popular with domestic tourists, and therefore, they are lucrative, even though the conditions that the elephants are forced to live in have been roundly criticized as being dirty, cramped, and unresponsive to the animals’ basic needs. For example, the Shanghai Wild Animal Park has a reputation, for, among other things, its popular 50-minute show in which elephants are forced to “dance.” A number of animal deaths have been reported at that facility, and the tourists who enjoy these shows have no idea about the brutal methods used to train these animals.

Stop The Cruelty

At the Center for Animal Law Studies, we strive to ensure that elephants stay with their families, in the wild, where they belong. Animal advocates from around the world—some from countries where elephants are being captured and forced into captivity such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania—come to study with us to learn how they can create a better future for elephants. As specialists in animal law, our faculty and alumni amplify the voices of these animals and train the next generation of animal law attorneys to advance protections for elephants and all wild animals forced to a life in captivity.

Erica Lyman is the Director of the International Animal and Environmental Law Clinic, a collaboration between CALS and Lewis & Clark Law School’s Environmental Law Program which is currently co-ranked as the #1 program in the U.S. She is also a Clinical Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School. Erica’s practice has included 15 years of work advocating for wildlife, including elephants, within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and work on-the-ground in elephant range States to enhance legal systems to combat ivory trafficking.

Joyce Tischler is Professor of Practice in Animal Law at the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, where she teaches Animal Law Fundamentals and Industrial Animal Agriculture Law. She is a trailblazer who pioneered the field of animal law. She is currently co-authoring the first casebook on industrial animal agriculture law. Joyce is passionate about raising awareness regarding elephant protection. She is the author of Changing the Dialogue About Elephants, 33 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 485 (2015).

Scroll to Top