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Planckendael Zoo, Belgium
The main outdoor enclosure of Planckendael Zoo in Belgium. The daily routine of the elephants includes, among other things, hiding of fruit and vegetables in varying locations, so that the elephants can to some extent fulfil the need for natural foraging behaviour.

Mysore Zoo, India
Mysore Zoo in the state of Karnataka, India.

Zoos and circuses

Zoos vary widely in their standard of elephant keeping, some of them providing rather high quality. Circuses, however, face the problem that life in a travelling circus makes it inherently impossible to meet some of the basic needs of elephants.


Zoos vary widely, both around the world and sometimes even within the same country. The best zoos put considerable effort to providing a complex environment, with hidden foods and other natural ways to keep the elephants occupied, and also pay attention to social bonding between the elephants as well as with the keepers.

Each animal has an inborn, species-specific set of physiological and behavioural needs. Meeting these is necessary for welfare in captivity. The natural behaviour of elephants happens to be unusually challenging to fit together with a captive environment. In the wild, elephants roam areas of hundreds of square kilometres and live in complex fission-fusion societies, in which groups merge and divide again.

In many zoos, there is a lot of potential for improvements. For those zoos that keep the elephants chained for at least part of the time, or train them with the traditional punishment-based system, some of the most efficient welfare improvements would involve establishing a chain-free system of keeping and to seek tutoring for the staff on how to use positive reinforcement.


Some circuses have responded to public criticism of animal abuse by seeking less painful training methods, which is a laudable step in the right direction. However, unfortunately, even then there are several remaining aspects of circus life that are inherently impossible to fit together with the basic needs of elephants. One of them is the small space the elephants are confined in. Another is the significant risk of skeletal and joint problems, often associated with chronic pain, that goes hand in hand with repeated unnatural body postures, such as putting most of the body weight on the hind legs. Compared to many animals, elephants are especially vulnerable to these types of health issues, because of their massive body weight.

Bans: legislative and voluntary

Because of the inherent problems in meeting elephants' needs in circuses, approximately 20 countries have enacted legislation that bans the use of elephants in circuses. Examples of such countries include India, Singapore, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Paraguay and Colombia. A few of these have banned using any animals in circuses, and in others the ban covers some or all wild animals.

India has also banned the keeping of elephants in zoos. The existing circus and zoo elephants will be "retired" to sanctuaries, once such sanctuaries have been established. Currently elephants are still in circuses and zoos, but if the national or state governments decide to provide the necessary funding for the organizations within India that have sufficient experience to run high-quality elephant sanctuaries, the process will speed up.

In some countries such as Finland, all the zoos of the country have made a voluntary decision not to keep elephants, because the zoos have assessed they would not be able to fully meet their needs.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere