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As I See It

Transfer suffering zoo elephant to sanctuary

/ 09:08 PM July 03, 2012

There is now a raging controversy between animal welfare groups and the veterinarians of the Manila Zoo over the fate of Mali, the lone zoo elephant. The animal welfare groups want the elephant transferred to a sanctuary in Thailand because its zoo enclosure is too small and Mali cannot roam as elephants do in the wild, which makes her bored and makes her suffer and may shorten her life. What’s more, Mali is severely overweight because she lacks exercise. Obesity is one of the leading causes of death in captive elephants.

The other leading causes are foot infections and arthritis and right now Mali has a foot infection that is not being properly treated by the zoo veterinarians who have admitted that they are not elephant experts and lack the training in elephant care and the resources to be able to provide what Mali needs.

The animal welfare group, Peta, has offered to pay the expenses for the care and transportation of Mali to the Thai sanctuary.


The Manila Zoo administration, on the other hand, claims that Mali is just fine here, is well taken care of (but which she is not) and is loved by zoo visitors. Indeed, Mali is the most popular animal in the zoo and the visitors, especially children, may really love her. But just loving her is not the same as being able to care for her properly. In order for her to be happy, she has to be able to roam the forests as elephants do in the wild. In the sanctuary, Mali would be able to do that with other elephants. And elephant experts would take care of her.

Some people ask: If we transfer Mali, won’t children lose on an educational opportunity to view an elephant?

The animal welfare groups reply:

“It is only a very small portion of the children in the Philippines—those in Metro Manila—who ever have an opportunity to view Mali. We need to consider what we’re teaching our children if we don’t take this opportunity to transfer Mali when we can. If we have the opportunity to give Mali a better life, we should. Children learn little by watching a depressed elephant Mali pace in her enclosure. They would learn to appreciate elephants more by watching documentary programs, doing Internet research and reading books. When Mali leaves, it will be a massive event and everyone in the country will know that she is leaving. Youth will learn a valuable lesson by witnessing the compassionate act of transferring Mali to a sanctuary.”

Why is transferring Mali important?

Answer: “Even though Mali has lived in captivity for 35 years,  she is still a wild animal at heart. She has instincts and the desire to exhibit behaviors that come natural to her. A sanctuary can offer her acres to roam, ponds to bathe in, fresh vegetation to eat, foraging opportunities and, most importantly, the company of many other elephants. Life is more than just walls and food.

“A growing number of progressive zoos—including several in the United States and the United Kingdom—have realized that they cannot possibly fulfill the complex needs of elephants and have closed their elephant exhibits. The government of India has ordered that all elephants in zoos be transferred to government-run sanctuaries and reserves.”

Can’t changes be made at the zoo to make Mali happy there?


“The zoo has no elephant expert, and they have proven their lack of elephant knowledge by failing to provide vet care to Mali. She has two poorly designed pools (one of which we’ve never seen water in) and no soft ground for her feet). The most basic enclosure for elephants starts at about $16 million with many over $100 million. The zoo, despite their best efforts, does not have the resources or knowledge to care for Mali, and cannot add another elephant.”

Won’t Mali live longer in the zoo?

“A study published in the Journal of Science cites that captive elephants are often obese (Mali is overweight). This, coupled with stress and common feet problems, is the reason that many captive elephants die decades earlier than their wild counterparts. During the study, researchers looked at wild elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, working elephants in Burmese logging camps and elephants in zoos in Europe. The study found that, on average, African elephants lived just half as long in captivity as they do in the wild. And life is more than just existing.  In a sanctuary, Mali can truly be happy. She will finally get the opportunity to live with other elephants again.”

Do we know how she will be assimilated with other elephants?

“As Dr. Mel Richardson said, ‘In my experience, even elephants who have been alone for more than 20 years integrate well with other elephants when moved to a sanctuary.’ Here is just one example: Tina, a 33-year-old elephant, spent much of her life alone at the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Canada after she was sold there at the age of two. In 2003, after a 3.5-day cross trip to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, USA, Tina arrived at her forever home. Although Tina, as would all elephants, took some time to adjust to her new surroundings, she made many friends at the sanctuary and was successfully integrated into their herd. Her best friend at the sanctuary was Tara, and the two were almost inseparable.”

Happily, President Aquino has ordered the transfer of Mali, but zoo administrators and the Bureau of Animal Industry are still trying to make the President change his mind. If you care for Mali, write to the President in support of Mali’s transfer and salvation.

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TAGS: animal welfare, featured column, mali the elephant, Manila Zoo
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