Setting the Record Straight: Age and Elephants in Captivity
An Animal Rights Article from


PAWS Performing Animal Welfare Society
September 2018

As long as elephants continue to be kept in captivity deceptive terminology will be used to alleviate the public’s concern about these highly intelligent and self-aware animals.

rescued elephants
African elephants grazing on a hillside at PAWS' ARK 2000 sanctuary: left to right Toka age 48, Lulu age 52 and Maggie age 36.

PAWS is often asked about elephants and aging, particularly in light of the many captive institutions that too easily describe an elephant as “geriatric”, “senior”, or “old.” Sometimes, these elephants are still in their 30s or 40s – an age at which free-living female elephants would be considered to be in their prime and still reproductively active. Yet just recently two zoos used terminology to suggest that middle-aged elephants were old.

An Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoo in New York State just announced plans to relocate its two female Asian elephants to another zoo. Although both are in their mid-thirties, the zoo has suggested that they are in their “golden years.” In supporting the move, the AZA stated that internal and external reviews found the zoo was “not the best place for the increasing health and medical needs of aging elephants.” The receiving zoo reportedly has an elephant exhibit that was designed to address the needs of “aging” elephants specifically. Another zoo in New York State recently publicized the acquisition of a dog for its elephant barn to live with the zoo’s four “elderly” African elephants. They are aged 36 to 41 years.

The idea that elephants are “elderly” at such young ages is likely more related to physical condition than actual age. Captivity often debilitates elephants to the point where they suffer maladies normally associated with old age. This makes it is a misnomer to say they are “aging” or “elderly." Small, unnatural enclosures that restrict the movement elephants naturally need and rigid surfaces like concrete and compressed soil contribute to deadly foot disease and arthritis – the leading causes of death for elephants in captivity. Sadly, many captive elephants die well before their time.

Elephants are generally considered to have a natural life span of 60-70 years. The maximum longevity for elephants (the very oldest an individual elephant has ever lived) is unknown in the wild, however, elephant ethologist and conservationist Cynthia Moss, who has been studying African elephants in the wild for more than 45 years and is director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, writes that 70 years maximum longevity “is reasonable for African elephants in the wild.” The average longevity for African elephants in Amboseli, as reported by Moss and colleagues, is 54.4 years for females and 42.5 for males. In fact, elephants living in the Amboseli National Park are known to live into their 60s, with some females successfully giving birth to and raising offspring at that age. Asian elephants have been recorded to live into their late 70s and even 80s, so maximum longevity may be even longer for this species. This raises an important question: If captive conditions are truly enough to meet elephants’ needs, why aren’t elephants living far longer and healthier lives? Instead, elephants in captivity are dying at relatively young ages, despite daily care, veterinary interventions, and controlled diets and environments. Research indicates that female elephants living in protected populations in Asia and Africa are living longer than those in captivity in zoos.

Unfortunately, as long as elephants continue to be kept in captivity deceptive terminology will be used to alleviate the public’s concern about these highly intelligent and self-aware animals. That’s why PAWS will continue to raise awareness about the perils of captivity for elephants and other captive wildlife and the need to bring about change. 

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