for National Geographic News
While elephants are often one of a zoo's top attractions, a new report charges that their level of care often falls short of star treatment.
In a study released this week, the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) said elephants in European zoos are often unhealthy, endure considerable stress, and have a much shorter life than their counterparts in the wild.
Their condition is frequently even worse than that of elephants in Asian timber camps, alleges the RSPCA, which is calling for wide-ranging changes in the way zoo elephants are treated.
In the meantime, the group says, European zoos should stop importing and breeding elephants.
The RSPCA, based in Horsham, England, said it commissioned the study after several high-profile cases of elephant mistreatment, including one in which electric prods were being used to train elephants at a British zoo.
The authors collected data on births and deaths from a studbook of elephants at European zoos to assess life expectancy and infant mortality. Studbooks catalogue the family history of animals in captivity, especially to help prevent inbreeding.
The studbook spans 40 years of births and deaths for African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) and nearly 100 years for Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in European zoos. An estimated 500 elephants are now in zoos across Europe, from Belfast to Paris.
The researchers also reviewed more than 100 elephant studies published since 1960, as well as 500 studies on stress biology and the welfare of other captive animals.
The findings from the demographic data startled the researchers. They found that Asian elephants in European zoos typically live about 15 years, only half as long as elephants in timber camps. Asian elephants can live as long as 65 years in the wild, the researchers said.
Rebecca Hawkes, a spokesperson for the RSPCA, said the extensive study "provides compelling, substantiated information that leaves no doubt that elephants' welfare is compromised in European zoos."
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