Keith Lindsay Statement on Wild Elephants
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Keith Lindsay Statement on Wild Elephants

Keith Lindsay
Amboseli Elephant Research Project

The two main issues I can comment on are a. longevity and health in zoos v wild/ semi-wild ecosystems and b. the use of space by elephants. I will try to provide an answer for these two in turn.

a. Longevity

“I stated that elephants live to be 38 years old in zoos as opposed to 68-70 years old in the wild. Mr. McCusker stated, "Your life span information is wrong and was probably based on an accumulation of old, poorly developed data". “

The most useful metric is not maximum life span, which is the oldest age an animal might be able reach, but average (mean/median) life expectancy, calculated by looking at survivorship from birth to age at death. The best data that have been analysed and published in an internationally respected, peer reviewed journal is the recent study comparing African and Asian elephants in European zoos to the best available data on wild or semi-wild populations in Africa and Asia.

This was published in the journal Science, vol 322, p. 1649, 12 December 2008. (I can send you a pdf copy if you would like it.) The authors found that for Asian elephants, median lifespan for zooborn females was 18.9 years, compared to 41.7 years in a Burmese timber camp. For African elephants, median life-span for zoo-born females was 16.9 years, compared to 56.0 years for female elephants undergoing natural mortality and 35.9 years with human-induced deaths.

Zoo people have responded by claiming that this paper is flawed or “bad science”, but Science is among the most respected journals in the world, and the paper was thoroughly reviewed for its scientific rigour – what more could they want, and for that matter, where is “zoo science” published? They have said that the elephants recorded as dying in zoos were born many years ago, and conditions have improved in recent years. But the paper notes that for Asian elephants, there was no evidence of improvement in adult survival over time and for African elephants, while there has been some improvement in adult survivorship in recent years, in the final year of data (2005) zoo animals still had a 2.8 times higher mortality rate than did wild elephants. Finally, zoo people in the US have said that this study looked at European zoos, while American zoos have stricter guidelines.

First of all, this is insulting to European people, who are not in fact inferior to Americans, and secondly it is simply not true. The authors of the paper hope to replicate their study with data from American zoos in the near future.

b. Movements and need for space

“He also said, "elephants are not migratory (as determined by real science)".”

I wonder what “real science” is being talked about. If this is studies of real elephants in the habitats in Africa and Asia where they evolved and continue to live (and from whence they were taken), then the results of many, many radio/satellite/GPS tracking and studies of known individuals show that elephants have home ranges that typically vary in size from 150 to over 2000 square kilometres, depending on the nature of the habitat.

The issue of whether elephants are “migratory” or not is a red herring. Some species do show a regular seasonal movement between specific areas to which they return year after year and this is commonly understood as “migration”. But many other species undertake extensive movements between seasons or longer periods within the course of their lives, that are less regular and predictable and are based on the abundance and location of food supplies.

Elephant movements are of the latter type. A typical pattern for African elephants in semi-arid savannas is to limit their movements to areas around reliable supplies of surface water and available grass or twigs during dry periods (each dry season or in drought years) and to range widely in search of ephemeral flushes of grass during rainy spells – so they actually range more widely when food is abundant, as they search for the very best food on offer. The movements of forest elephants in Africa are strongly influenced by the distribution and seasonal production patterns of fruit-bearing trees and the location of salt licks. Daily movements in dry seasons are on the order of 5-10 miles per day, while in wet seasons they can travel 30 miles or more in directed movements.

Elephant ranges in savanna habitats vary in size in relation to rainfall, with smaller ranges in the most productive areas. This lends support to the idea that elephants move less when food is abundant. However, the smallest ranges are still on the order of 100 square kilometres, and nothing like the few acres (or fractions of acres) available to them in zoos.

The fact that elephants have evolved long legs that are clearly suited for covering large areas in their search for sufficient food of acceptable quality, and that they develop pathological problems with their joints, limb bones and feet when prevented from moving, provides overwhelming evidence that elephants are adapted to consistent, continuous movement.

I hope that these comments are useful. If you need any more information, please feel free to contact me.

Best wishes,
Keith Lindsay
Amboseli Elephant Research Project
Nairobi, Kenya/ Oxford, UK

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