Mali, The "World's Saddest Elephant", Has Died

RIP Mali, we hardly knew you – and you hardly knew anyone at all.


Dr. Katie Spalding


Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

Mali the elephant in Manila Zoo

Mali spent much of her life alone at a Philippine zoo.

Image credit: Arturo Rivo Jr/

After living almost her entire life alone, Manila Zoo resident Mali the elephant, dubbed by animal welfare organizations as the “world’s saddest elephant”, has died.

The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to Manila Zoo Chief Veterinarian Heinrich Patrick Peña-Domingo. Speaking in a press briefing on Wednesday, November 29, he also noted a range of health problems in the middle-aged pachyderm, including inflammation in the kidneys, nodules around her liver, and “pus deposits” around her uterus.


Mali was seen running her trunk against the wall on Friday, Peña-Domingo said – a sign that she was in pain – and by Tuesday she was lying on her side and breathing heavily. Veterinarians administered antihistamines and vitamins, but she died later that afternoon. Her death was announced in a Facebook video by Manila mayor Honey Lacuna.

Reaching less than 50 years of age, Mali lived a significantly shorter life than the average Asian elephant – even those who live in the wild. Born in Sri Lanka at some point between 1974 and 1980 - sources differ - Vishwa Ma'ali, popularly known as Mali, was orphaned as a baby when her mother died of natural causes. 

For a short time, she lived at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, a captive breeding and conservation institute in Kegalle, Sri Lanka - a facility that has faced controversy in the past for its record on animal welfare.

But things would go from bad to worse for poor Mali when she was "rescued" from the Orphanage – only to be gifted by the Sri Lankan government to the then-First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos.


At her new home at Manila Zoo, Mali found herself sharing space with another elephant, the elderly ex-circus rescue Shiba. While elephants aren't usually territorial, Shiba didn't take well to her new young roommate: “Mali was scared in the beginning,” former Manila Zoo foreman Marcelino Tasiong told Animal Scene in 2019. “When she joined Shiba, the latter was caught off guard, and hit her.”

After Shiba's death in 1990, however, Mali would live alone for the rest of her life.

With only her keepers and tourists to keep her company, animal welfare groups often raised concerns over her living conditions.

“I was shocked to learn that Mali has never even received proper preventive foot care,” wrote Paul McCartney in a 2013 letter to then-president of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III. “Foot and joint problems are the leading cause of death among captive elephants kept on hard surfaces and when this type of care is something that every reputable zoo in the world offers.”


Mali's living conditions were “heartbreaking,” the former Beatle added.

Despite such international opprobrium, authorities at Manila Zoo continued to claim that Mali was better off remaining under their care, as she had never known life in the wild.

But life alone was likely “torture” for Mali, animal rights group PETA said in a statement Wednesday. 

“Female elephants… in nature spend their lives among their mothers and sisters, protecting one another and raising each other’s calves,” they said. “Now [Mali] has lost any chance of happiness.”


And if you’re hoping for a happy ending, or some kind of closure even, we’ve bad news: Manila Zoo is planning on getting a “replacement” elephant, Lacuna announced earlier today. Let’s hope that, at the very least, this one gets a friend to live out her days alongside.


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