Animal rights group says zoo's repatriation of elephants unforgivable

8:22 am on 28 November 2020

An animal rights group is dismayed Auckland Zoo is relocating its two elephants - Burma and Anjalee - overseas, saying it will cause the animals distress.

Asian elephants Burma and Anjalee will be moved from Auckland Zoo.

Asian elephants Burma and Anjalee will be moved from Auckland Zoo. Photo: Facebook / Auckland Zoo

The zoo attempted to start a breeding programme in 2011 but problems have meant both elephants will need to live with a family herd at another facility overseas.

The two female Asian elephants have become fixtures of the zoo - often sighted by those walking the neighbouring Western Springs Park.

Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley said it was a hard decision to make but both elephants needed a family herd for their long-term wellbeing.

"Over the past five years, changing circumstances beyond our control mean that we are no longer in a position to give them the long-term future they need," Buley said.

Anjalee needed to have a baby soon to avoid long-term reproductive health troubles, which elephants face if they do not breed.

But the World Animal Protection group said it was "unforgivable" that both elephants had to embark on an overseas relocation that would be "stressful for both animals".

"This could have been avoided," its head of campaigning, Ben Pearson, said.

The group raised concerns with Auckland Council about problems with in-captivity breeding and the welfare of the animals 10 years ago, Pearson said.

"Our major concern was that we didn't want Auckland Zoo to breed a family of captive elephants.

The idea they would breed a whole new generation in captivity is something we were totally opposed to," he said.

The success rate for breeding elephants in captivity is poor, he said, and this situation underscores that fact.

"Our concerns were correct and well-placed at the time and it's a shame that [Anjalee] was brought down here in the first place."

Pearson said this wasn't a 'told you so' moment but an occasion to reflect on how wild animals don't belong in captive environments, especially large animals such as elephants.

"Once you actually keep an animal in captivity, to the point where it can't be released into the wild, particularly when you breed them in captivity, you're faced with an impossible position - you can't release them into the wild but keeping them in captivity is a poor option as well."

He said the animals would have become habituated now to Auckland Zoo and its keepers, and being uplifted could cause them stress and confusion.

Zoo defends programme

But Auckland Zoo stood by its decision to attempt the programme. It said it helped raise awareness of international elephant conservation efforts.

Three million people had interacted with the two elephants since 2015, and the zoo's internal research shows 1.5 million of those went on to take conservation action, Buley said.

"In my humble opinion, that's a pretty amazing success. We could in no way mark the programme as a failure, since we've had Anjalee with us."

Kevin Buley, director of Auckland Zoo

The elephants' presence at the zoo has been a great success, its director Kevin Buley says. Photo: Auckland Zoo

But Ben Pearson rejected the idea that conservation efforts can be boosted by seeing animals in captivity. He added that anyone can see and appreciate the wonder of wild animals through a good nature documentary.

"In captive environments, those animals are not engaging in natural behaviours, so any kind of education purpose is undercut by that fact."

Buley said the pair of elephants had "exceptionally happy" lives at the zoo, which made it difficult to send them overseas to ensure their long-term health.

There will be a lot of preparation for sending the elephants overseas, which will include sending the keepers to get them settled.

"From the experience we have and the expertise we have, we don't really have any concerns."

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