Captured Wild Elephants Have Shorter Lives Than Those Bred In Captivity

A timber elephant working in Thailand. Adrian Baker/Shutterstock

Thousands of elephants live in captivity across the world. Some were bred in captivity, while others were captured from the wild. They’re often used for work, tourist rides, and religious festivals, while others are housed in zoos. However, a new study shows that sadly, catching and taming wild elephants can have a significant effect on their lifespans, shortening them by several years.

The use of captive elephants for labor is most common in Asia, where around 15,000 captured elephants live today. Historically, they have been used in wars, and today they play an important role in certain industries, like the timber logging industry in Myanmar, thanks to their obvious strength.

The timber elephants of Myanmar are worked during the day, but released back into the forests at night. Some are bred in captivity, but others are caught from the wild. They can all intermingle at night, and socialize with wild elephants. Like human workers, these elephant employees are subject to certain governmental regulations – they receive maternity leave and holidays, and must retire at a certain age.

The fact that the wild-caught and captive-bred animals have the same lifestyles gives researchers the perfect opportunity to study whether being tamed affects wild-born elephants differently from those bred in captivity.

A team led by the University of Turku in Finland looked at data from over 5,000 timber elephants captured between 1951 and 2000 and discovered that those taken from the wild have a median lifespan three to seven years shorter than those bred in captivity. The findings are published in Nature Communications.

It’s not quite clear exactly why this is, but it’s likely to do with the stress of being captured and the social and dietary changes experienced by the elephants. Unsurprisingly, being captured is a very stressful process for an elephant – they can be sedated, lassoed, or herded into barriers, so it's perhaps not all that shocking that years can be taken off their life. The long-term stress of living in captivity may also play a role.

The researchers found no differences in lifespans in terms of how the elephants were initially caught. “This means that all these methods had an equally negative effect on the elephant's subsequent life. We also found that older elephants suffered the most from capture; they had increased mortality compared to elephants caught at younger ages," said lead author Mirkka Lahdenpera in a statement.

Knowing that being captured significantly effects the long-term health of elephants is important, particularly since about 60 percent of zoo elephants have been taken from the wild and one-third of Asia’s elephants live in captivity. The study shows that it is better to breed working elephants in captivity than take them from the wild.

What’s more, Asian elephants are endangered, so capturing them is not ideal, as it reduces already dwindling populations. Virpi Lummaa, the study’s senior investigator, said that it “cannot provide a viable solution to sustain captive populations.”

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