August 12, 2020

It’s World Elephant Day: Help Keep Elephants in the Wild

Today is World Elephant Day, a day to celebrate these majestic animals who have close family bonds, complex emotional lives, and high levels of intelligence and empathy. In this blog, Professors Joyce Tischler and Erica Lyman address how each one of us can stop the suffering of elephants by keeping them in the wild with their families, where they belong.

Today is World Elephant Day, a day to celebrate these majestic animals who have close family bonds, complex emotional lives, and high levels of intelligence and empathy. But, it is important to also recognize the ongoing suffering of elephants at the hands of humans, to reveal why it’s happening, and how each one of us can stop it. At the Center for Animal Law Studies, we are committed to both raising awareness and using legal tools to stop the exploitation of elephants, so they may live their lives in peace and in the wild, where they belong.

The Capture

Led by a matriarch elephant, scientists confirm that female elephants live together for life, in a close-knit family that relies on cooperation to solve problems, teaches babies and juveniles everything they will need to know to survive in the wild, and grieves for the loss of family members. Elephants have large brains and central nervous systems much like that of humans.

The journey from the wild to captivity for elephants is a traumatic experience. Captive elephants have often traveled around the world to meet their fate, after being forcibly removed from their families. Juvenile elephants, more desirable and of higher value in international trade, are separated from their families through the use of helicopters or trucks and often noise making devices or shotguns, which cause the herd to move quickly and the juveniles to fatigue and fall behind. At that point, the juveniles are tranquilized and captured before the herd can return. Mothers are left traumatized, and the herd struggles with the forcible interruption of its social structure.

Trade in baby elephants is tragically common. Zimbabwe is a dominant seller of baby elephants, having captured and sold 140 wild baby elephants to China between 2012-2019. These transactions are lucrative (individual elephants are sold for between $30-40,000 in U.S. dollars), but have tragic consequences for the elephants, including the deaths of 20 baby Zimbabwean elephants during this same time period.

The Journey To Captivity

After being held in containment facilities, juvenile elephants are shipped to zoos and other entertainment facilities in China, the United States, and elsewhere. In fact, the U.S. and China are two of the leading purchasers of African elephants. This next step in the journey is no less traumatic for the elephants than the capture itself. Many babies don’t survive. For example, in 2012, the government of Zimbabwe sold four baby elephants to two zoos in China. Three of the elephants were soon deadsuccumbing to the trauma of being separated from their families and unable to survive in the cold climate to which they were sent.

The inhumanity of the international trade in wild elephants, as well as the lack of scientifically justified conservation benefits, motivated a super majority of voting Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to impose restrictions on wild elephant trade at their last meeting in August 2019. Despite the recognition that no conservation value exists and only inhumane treatment awaits elephants taken from their natural range, zoos and other facilities continue to seek permits for the import of live juvenile elephants, and the permits continue to be granted.

Captive elephants are mostly sourced from Zimbabwe, which claims it has an “excess” of elephants and has brazenly expressed its willingness to sell them to anyone willing to pay, with Zimbabwean officials declaring: “we are open to everyone who wants our wildlife.In fact, just after the 2019 CITES decision to restrict international trade in live elephants, Zimbabwe exported 32 captured baby elephants to China. This export took place despite lawsuits filed in Zimbabwean courts to protect the elephants and international condemnation of the trade. The majority of the 32 baby elephants were sent to the Longemont Animal Park, near Hangzhou, China, and now endure substandard conditions and inhumane treatment by trainers, possibly to prepare the elephants for entertainment use, according to a document submitted to CITES.

A Life Behind Bars

Elephants are wild animals, and humans are no match for their size and power. Many people do not know that training elephants to be captive is a brutal and violent process. It starts with establishing dominance. Trainers force the animals into a state of helpless submission, which the trainers justify as necessary for their own safety. The elephant is tied down, unable to move or fight back, and beaten with ax handles, bullhooks, or some other weapon. These beatings may go on for days, until the forlorn elephant submits totally, giving up any effort to fight back. When visitors see an elephant who performs tricks, they are unwittingly supporting an industry that causes ongoing harm to elephants.

Zoos are also a poor alternative to life in the wild, and the exhibition of elephants is the subject of intense debate between zoo supporters and those working to protect these extraordinary beings. The lack of space and inability to engage in their natural behaviors, separation from their original families, and frequent social upheaval caused by trades of elephants to other zoos, cause captive elephants to suffer physically and emotionally. But, most zoos are adamant about exhibiting elephants because it’s lucrative. Visitors love and expect to see them, not realizing the incalculable price paid by the elephants captured and their families left behind.

Dr. Joyce Poole, who has studied wild elephants in Africa since 1975, reports that most of the problems experienced by elephants in captivity, such as arthritis, foot infections (the leading cause of death in captive elephants), and psychological problems, are not observed in elephants living in the wild. She says: In the wild, everything elephants do is an intellectual challenge: locating and manipulating a wide variety of food items; remembering the location of water during a drought; searching for potential mates; deciding where to go, who to go with, who to join and who to avoid.” That full, rich life, the ability to make choices, stimulation, social involvement, and physical activity cannot be duplicated in a zoo environment.

Wild elephants sent to Chinese zoos and wild animal parks often suffer a particularly tragic future. Such zoos and parks are very popular with domestic tourists, and therefore, good money makers, even though the conditions that the animals are forced to live in have been roundly criticized as being dirty, cramped and unresponsive to the basic needs of the animals. For example, the Shanghai Wild Animal Park has a particularly bad reputation, for, among other things, its popular 50-minute show in which elephants are forced to “dance.” A number of suspicious animal deaths have been reported at that facility, and the tourists who enjoy these shows have no idea about the brutal methods used to train these animals.

Elephants Deserve Our Action To Stop The Cruelty

At the Center for Animal Law Studies, we strive to ensure that wild elephants stay with their families, in the wild, where they belong. Animal advocates from around the world—some from countries where elephants are being captured in the wild such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania—come to study with us to learn how they can make a difference for elephants. As specialists in animal law, our faculty and alumni amplify the voices of animals, like the 32 elephant babies cruelly stolen from their families.

But you don’t have to be a lawyer to stop the cruelty! On August 12, World Elephant Day, please join us and take action to support and protect elephants:

  1. Ask the U.S. and Chinese governments to ban all imports of elephants;
  2. Ask your local zoo to no longer exhibit elephants, and send the elephants to a verified elephant sanctuary (sadly, they cannot be sent back to the wild);
  3. If you travel to an Asian country, do not ride elephants or visit so-called sanctuaries that exploit them;
  4. Boycott travel to Zimbabwe, Namibia, Eswatini, and Tanzania, until they stop selling elephants;
  5. Learn all you can about elephants, support efforts to protect them, and raise public awareness to stop the cruelty;
  6. On August 12, National Geographic will stream its new documentary, “Akashinga,” consider watching it, or watch “How I Became an Elephant” about one girl’s journey to inspire a movement to protect elephants; and
  7. Make a donation to the Center for Animal Law Studies to support our efforts to protect elephants through animal law education and advocacy abroad.


Erica Lyman is the Director of the International Animal and Environmental Law Clinic, a collaboration between CALS and Lewis & Clark Law School’s Environmental Law Program which is currently co-ranked as the #1 program in the U.S. She is also a Clinical Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School. Erica’s practice has included 15 years of work advocating for wildlife, including elephants, within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and work on-the-ground in elephant range States to enhance legal systems to combat ivory trafficking.


Joyce Tischler is Professor of Practice in Animal Law at the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, where she teaches Animal Law Fundamentals and Industrial Animal Agriculture Law. She is a trailblazer who pioneered the field of animal law. She is currently co-authoring the first casebook on industrial animal agriculture law. Joyce is passionate about raising awareness regarding elephant protection. She is the author of Changing the Dialogue About Elephants, 33 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 485 (2015).


The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law and three specialty Animal Law Clinics, including our newly launched International Wildlife Law Clinic. CALS is a nonprofit organization and is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.