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Elephants in the Wild and in Captivity


Some of the information in this unit has been adapted from information provided by the Elephant Alliance.


Encourage more humane treatment of animals.

Developed by the Humane Education Committee, P.O. Box 445, Gracie Station, New York City 10028. Permission to reproduce is granted as long as this unit is reproduced in its entirety and credit is given to Humane Education Committee.

This unit is part of a 10 unit Humane Science Projects Manual developed for grades pre-kindergarten to eight. A secondary school manual is available as well.


Humane Education involves imparting facts, as well as sensitizing students and educators to the various social philosophies, attitudes and behaviors humans exhibit towards the other animals which share our planet. Humane Education aims to help students understand the ethical dilemmas generated by different philosophies. Programs strive to help students make informed judgments and take compassionate action. Humane Education also encourages critical thinking and problem solving as a necessary means of questioning the status quo.

Instruction aims to influence students on cognitive, affective and behavioral levels-- that is knowledge, feelings and actions. Topics in humane education typically include companion animals, "wild" or free-roaming animals, animals used in education or research and their alternatives, animals raised on farms, nutrition and a healthy, compassionate lifestyle.

The importance of human empathy and responsibility in improving the quality of life we share with each other and all living beings is stressed by educators, child-advocates and animal-advocates alike. Respect for animals and the environment are important educational objectives. Also important is inclusion of animal-rights, animal welfare and environmental philosophies as part of schooling in our pluralistic, democratic society.

Humane Education materials can readily be blended with reading, writing, science, music and art programs. Humane Education does not have to be taught as a separate subject in an already busy school day. Numerous resource organizations can provide reasonable priced materials suitable for use in primary and secondary schools.

Two Humane Science Projects Manuals have been designed to support educators in developing science units which reflect a humane ethic. It is hoped that educators will conduct units of instruction, in grades pre-kindergarten to twelve, which lead to the development of science projects which meet one or more of the following objectives developed by the LivingEarth Learning Project.

Humane Science Objectives:

  1. Promote greater understanding of other species and/or the interrelationships between species.
  2. Encourage more humane treatment of animas.
  3. Encourage a greater respect for the intrinsic value and worth of animals.
  4. Illustrate the relationship between human well-being, environmentalism and the interests of animals,
  5. Create models of non-intrusive, productive animal research through natural (non-manipulative) observations.
  6. Foster the study of threatened or endangered species in non-laboratory settings.
  7. Document epidemiological, case study, and experimental research that advances human health without harming animals.

IF ANIMALS ARE STUDIED, it should be through naturalistic observations only.

  1. No animal should be procured specifically for this project. The location(s) of the animals(s) both before and after the project must be documented.
  2. Invasive, manipulative, or intrusive studies may not be conducted.
  3. The animals' fundamental biological and social needs must not be disturbed in any way. For example, a project which denies food to an animal is not acceptable. However, one in which an animal is offered a choice of species-appropriate foods would be acceptable.
  4. Projects involving classroom pets are not acceptable.

IF ALTERNATIVES are employed:

  1. Models, computers, and other technology may bed used to simulate animals or relationships between animals and the environment,
  2. Epidemiological or human case studies may be used.

Correspondence should be addressed to:

Humane Education Committee
P.O. Box 445,
Gracie Station New York, N.Y. 10028


This unit will provide information about the physical, behavioral and social needs of elephants. Students will explore the behaviors of elephants in the wild including family structure and relationships, home ranges, and diminishing habitat. Students will compare this to the lives of elephants in captivity. The underlying goal will be to help students better understand elephant behavior and the need to establish better living conditions for elephants.


Many students are familiar with elephants through their exposure to them at zoos, circuses, fairs and carnivals. They may even have had the chance to ride an elephant or feed one peanuts. Students may be unaware of the family oriented social nature and intelligence of this animal. Conditions in which elephants are commonly viewed in captivity may be the antitheses of what they would experience in their natural habitat.


Elephants are the largest land animal on earth. They are mammals and herbivores. The two species of elephants are the African elephants and the Asian elephants. Each of the species is different in appearance. African elephants are larger and have larger ears. They have slightly swayed backs and both males and females have tusks. The Asian elephant is smaller and has smaller ears. Male Asian elephants have tusks, but female Asian elephants do not.

A typical family unit consists of the matriarch, other elephants of her generation, their young adult daughters and all their young offspring. The oldest female in the group leads the family. She determines where the family will eat, drink and rest. A baby elephant, or calf, spends much of her (his) time walking and drinking her mothers' milk. The calf must learn not to trip over her trunk and how to use it. They receive a great deal of attention from their mothers as well as their aunts, cousins, sisters and all members of the family group. There are usually ten to twenty members in a group. Elephants live to be about 65 years of age. They die when their sixth set of teeth is so worn that they can no longer chew enough food to nourish themselves.

These are African elephants. They have large ears.

This is an Asian elephant. The ears of Asian elephants are smaller than those of African elephants.

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVE I: Students will recognize that elephants travel in "family units" which consist of related adult females and their offspring.

LEARNINGS: In the wild, elephants travel many miles a day to consume great amounts of vegetation. They eat between 200 to 500 pounds of greenery and drink about 50 gallons of water daily per adult. Elephants travel in family units which consist of related adult females and their offspring. Often these family units may belong to larger groups of related elephants. Female elephants stay with their families all of their lives and begin to bear young at the age of eleven. The female gestation period is one of the longest of any animal and lasts an average of 22 months. Male elephants leave their family unit about the time of maturity which is between 10 - 15 years. After that, they associate infrequently with female elephants, except for mating.

An elephant's family is usually made up of 9 - 11 adult females and their immature offspring. These elephant families possess incredibly strong social ties. Many of the different members of the elephant's family unit play an active and important role in raising the calves, as the young elephants are called. Older female calves spend much time taking care of their younger siblings. Adolescent female calves often accompany their mothers at the birth of a new baby. These older sisters stay in close contact with the new calf afterward and often care for it when the mother is away.

Calves will start interacting with siblings and other family members after the first week of life. It is at this time that the young elephants learn running, chasing and climbing games. At four months of age, elephants learn to use their trunks and can feed themselves. Young elephants will continue to drink from the mother for up to two and a half years -- and occasionally for years to come -- especially after the birth of a new calf.

Elephants are loyal. Members of a family will work together to lift a sick elephant and attempt to support it. Elephants experience a period of mourning for their dead during which it has been observed that they will moan quietly or even let out a passionate cry. Elephants have been observed trying to lift a dying elephant and will bury a fallen friend under branches, grass and earth. They have been documented carrying off bones and tusks of their dead and burying them.

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVE II: Students will recognize that elephants, like humans, use sounds to communicate.

LEARNINGS: Elephants communicate using a variety of sounds as well as body language. After elephants have spread out for feeding, they often come together, greeting each other with special postures and rumbles. The greeters will raise their heads, lift and spread their ears and then continue to vocalize loudly while flapping their ears.

Elephants rest in a tightly knit group touching and leaning on one another. The mother elephant makes soft humming vocalizations to her calf. In times of distress, the baby will let out a loud cry which will bring immediate attention and assistance. Elephant vocalizations range from high pitched squeaks to deep rumbles.

Elephants make sounds that are too low in frequency for humans to hear. An American scientist, Katherine Payne, used a microphone sensitive to low frequency sounds while standing near Asian elephants at a zoo in Oregon in 1985. She recorded elephant sounds for a month. these calls included barks, snorts, growls, roars, trumpets and rumbles. She recorded about 400 sounds but heard about one-third that number. Payne discovered that two-thirds of elephant vocalizations are too low for the human ear to detect. Low frequency sounds are called infrasounds. In 1987, researchers in Kenya identified more than 25 elephant calls most of which are in infrasound rumbles. There is a long soft rumble that means "Let's go," and a loud modulated rumble that is used by lost elephants to help find their relatives.

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVE III: Students will identify elephant habitats and understand the causes and problems caused by habitat destruction as well as hunting of elephants for their ivory tusks.

LEARNINGS: At one time, over thirty species of elephants existed. Twenty-eight species are now extinct leaving only two: the African elephant and its smaller Asian cousin. In the wild, African elephants were originally found over the entire tropical region of the continent from sea level to the timberline of such snowcapped peaks as Kilimanjaro and Ruwenzoi. At present, they are found living in the forests, grasslands, river valleys and deserts of the southern, central and eastern parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana.

Asian elephants are found in the tropical grassy plains and rain forests of Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula. They can also be found on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Although elephants are not territorial, they do become attached to their home range which on average is about 20 square miles although family ranges have been known to reach over 140 square miles. The paths of different family units often overlap, but for the most part the elephants coexist peacefully with one another.

Populations of both species have been severely reduced because of hunting -- mainly for their ivory tusks -- and through deforestation in their natural habitats to accommodate growing human populations. In the past, several African countries instituted organized killing programs called culls to reduce the size of herds. While elephant populations may be in danger elsewhere on the continent, there are more of them than people want in Southern Africa including the Kruger National Park. From about 1966 to 1996, an average of 600 elephants are legally killed each year in an attempt to keep the park population at about 7,500.

In 1989, CITES, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, the international organization that regulates trade in threatened wildlife, banned all commercial trade in ivory. This was done after the collapse of the Africa elephant populations from about 1.3 million in 1979 to 609,000 animals in 1989 due mainly to poaching for tusks. In 1989, the African elephant was listed, alongside the Asian species, as an endangered species. In June 1997, at the CITES biannual meeting, the 128 member nations voted to allow a one-time trade of stockpiled ivory in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, bringing these countries much needed revenue. All other African countries that are holding ivory will be able to register their inventories if, sometime in the future, they want to trade that ivory. However, there is fear that this may lead to poaching of more elephants for their tusks.

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVE IV: Students will determine the problems of elephants in captivity including physical, behavioral and social problems as well as means employed for disciplining them.

LEARNINGS: Due to the fact that the number of elephants in the wild is rapidly decreasing, there has been an increasing effort to breed elephants in captivity. These animals, who live in circuses, zoos, carnivals, and various sorts of traveling shows experience radically different lifestyles than their wild cousins -- often living in small enclosures -- chained and disciplined.

One health risk to elephants in captivity is the threat of potentially deadly foot infections. African elephants can weigh up to 16,500 pounds and their Asian cousins can weigh up to 11,000 pounds. In the wild elephants walk many miles each day and rarely have any foot problems. Captive elephants spend much of their time chained in place which does not allow for sufficient blood circulation or leg motion. This treatment appears to be one cause of degenerative joint disease found in captive elephants along with the hard, cold and uniform floors that are completely unnatural to them. Procedures such as keeping dirt out of cracks and crevices in the foot and trimming foot pads -- which occur naturally in the wild -- must be performed by keepers.

Asian elephants have been shown to sharpen their tusks on trees in the wild. In captivity, the lack of trees has caused the Asian elephants tusks to grow to lengths that have never been seen in the wild.

An elephant's skin is very sensitive. It will bleed from the slightest sting. Elephants in the wild use leaves as well as mud to cool the body and retain the skin's moisture. In the wild, they also bathe frequently in mud and water. Often this is done in large family groupings. Elephants are very susceptible to sunburn and can often be seen in the wild seeking shelter under trees and in thickets during the daytime hours. It has also been suggested that mud bathing and dusting help to cover the skin thereby protecting it from the harmful rays of the sun. Since elephants do not sweat and appear to lack sebaceous glands and sweat glands (which normally produce skin-softening sebum), mud bathing is thought to be necessary for evaporative cooling. Dust bathing also helps protect the skin from insect bites.

It appears that elephant's need to bathe and dust are compelling for their mental as well as physical well-being . Yet current laws merely mandate that washing an elephant daily with a hose is enough to provide for their needs. It is wrongfully believed that because elephants come from a warm climate, it is perfectly fine to leave them chained in the sun. Circus elephants may spend much time in very hot train cars which are not air conditioned. These elephants do not have mud and water available to them and must depend on flapping their ears as the sole source of cooling.

An increasing number of modern zoos are attempting to create a physical and social environment that simulates the elephant's natural habitat as closely as possible. However, most elephants in captivity are subjected to unnatural surroundings.

Small living quarters combined with long periods of chaining do not allow elephants to release natural energy often leading to dangerously stressful situations. Reports state that one elephant keeper is killed about every two years by a frustrated captive elephant. These incidents have led to the unfortunate misconception that elephants must be severely disciplined in order to be controlled. If, instead, the physical and mental health of these animals were provided for, the elephants' stability should improve greatly.

Elephant rides are very dangerous to those riding and watching. In open contact with the public, there is the danger that the elephant may become confused, startled or frustrated by those riding him or her after years of confinement and strict training. Elephants have been known to hurl anything in sight including their passengers.

Some of the "discipline tools" used in elephant management today include:

  • Ankus or elephant hook -- This is a sharp pointed hook used for prodding which is embedded into an elephant's most sensitive areas.
  • Martingales -- These are metal rings which are attached to the elephants tusks from which chains are fastened and attached to chains around the front feet. This is done to restrict head movement. Martingales are outlawed in California.
  • Long chaining periods -- This is done to severely restrain elephants in order to establish dominance by the keeper. Chains are attached to the legs and sometimes around the feet.
  • Electric shock treatment -- The elephant is jolted with currents from an electric prod is used to deter "undesirable behavior."
  • Hitting and beating -- Ax handles and metal pipes are used by handlers to hit the elephant. They are sometimes whipped which is very brutal due to the fact that an elephant has sensitive skin.

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVE V: Students will understand the concept of stereotypic behavior and why elephants and other captive animals exhibit these behaviors.

LEARNINGS: There are specific stereotypic behaviors that occur in captivity and have never been seen or documented in wild elephant populations. The observance of elephants swaying and rocking in zoos or circuses is completely abnormal behavior and is a direct response to stress and frustration. Such behaviors are believed to be a means to help the animals cope with an adverse environment. Repetitive pacing, head tossing, weaving and bouncing are often the result of a lack of space for natural activity.

Stereotypic behaviors have been noted by experts as a sure sign that the animal has not been well kept. When done over a long period of time, these behaviors are believed to be a result of an attempt by the elephant to do something such as lying down which is impossible because of chaining or other restricting devices. While a zoo elephant with little stimulation or space will frequently exhibit stereotypic behavior, conditions are worse for elephants found in circuses and traveling shows. Circus elephants are forced to live in a rigid controlled environment, work in an atmosphere of discipline and perform monotonous and repetitive tasks as part of their daily routines. With little time for necessary socialization, much of their time is spent in cramped trailers with little or nothing to stimulate their senses. Consequently, circus and other traveling elephants exhibit more abnormal stereotypic behavior than non-working zoo elephants.


  • Obtain literature from encyclopedias, books, animal-welfare, animal-rights, elephant protection societies as well as zoos and circuses. Compare and contrast the information gathered as to the treatment of elephants in captivity including:
  • What are the physical, behavioral and social needs of elephants? Describe their activities, habitat and family groupings in the wild versus in captivity. How are their needs met in captivity?
  • Describe ways in which elephants communicate in the wild?
  • Describe elephant rides at circuses and animal shows. What are the problems at these shows for elephants and humans?
  • Describe the deaths and injuries of elephant keepers and trainers as well as precipitating factors. Describe stereotypic behaviors in elephants.
  • Describe the methods used at zoos and circuses for "training" and caring for elephants.
  • Visit your local zoo. Evaluate it in terms of meeting the physical, behavioral and social needs of elephants. Document with photographs or videotape.
  • Visit a circus or traveling zoo. Evaluate it in terms of meeting the physical, behavioral and social needs of elephants. Document your evaluation with photographs and videotape.
  • Write to humane groups for information about legislation designed to improve the care of elephants in captivity. Contrast this with information provided by zoos and circuses.


Social Studies and Geography

Students can use maps to chart the range of the elephants. Where did large populations once live? Where do most elephants live today in the wild? What kind of land regions and features are conducive to elephant survival?

Communication Arts

Read non-fiction books related to elephants. Read, talk and write about the zoological family Elephantidae and the larger group of 160 related species with a proboscis or trunk. Have students write group or individual reports describing the elephants' trunk, tusks, teeth, eating habits, how elephants help a sick or injured member of their family, elephant mourning of the dead, elephant babies and efforts to save the elephant. Have them research and write reports on elephant's art work as well.


Create a time line on which you graph the ever-decreasing number of elephants through recorded history. Have students make predictions about elephant population growth based on literature obtained from groups that are involved in trying to save the elephant as well as groups that think additional legal killing is necessary.


Elephant study lends itself to a wealth of art possibilities. Stick puppets can be made using elephant clip art. Dioramas can incorporate clay figures of elephants in different environments. Masks of elephants can be used as part of a classroom dramatization or bulletin board display. When making masks, encourage students to make the details of each ear slightly different from that designed by other students. Elephant ears are as individual as human fingerprints. The patterns of the veins in the ears and the shapes of the ear edges are distinctive. Two elephant experts, Iain Douglas and Cynthia Moss, have photographed hundreds of elephants and can identify individuals by their ears.


Cut openings for the eyes on the previous page. Also cut openings for the string which will be used to tie the mask on.

This page and the previous one contain the ears for your elephant mask. Vary the size of the ears depending upon whether your mask will depict an Asian or African elephant. Use oaktag for a sturdier mask.


The students can use information gathered in this unit, as well as from additional research. Teachers in grades four to six may wish to develop this project as a whole class endeavor. In grades seven and eight, it is suggested that a team of two students carry out the science project. Suggested projects include:

  1. Compare and contrast available information concerning animals in captivity using materials provided by humane organizations, zoos and circuses. Compare this to facts gathered about elephants' physical, behavioral and social needs.
  2. Videotape elephants in a circus and/or zoo. Evaluate their daily activities using information about their physical, behavioral and social needs provided by humane organizations, animal-rights organizations, zoos and circuses.
  3. Conduct an experimental study concerning the knowledge and attitudes of students and teachers toward the use of elephants in the circus. Form a treatment and a control group. Design and administer a pre-test to measure knowledge and attitudes concerning elephants to both groups. The control group is not to be provided with any information about elephants. Provide the treatment group with books, videos, speakers and a field-trip (if possible). Administer a post-test to both control and treatment groups at the end of the project. Chart and compare the results. Make recommendations for future study.
  4. Survey attitudes of students or adults to elephants at the zoo and circus. What do people say they have learned about elephants in each facility? What have they learned about an elephant's natural behaviors? Do they believe that it is acceptable to force elephants to perform unnatural acts to entertain people? Would they want conditions to change? What changes would they want? Chart the results of your survey.


  • Derby, Pat & Stewart, Ed, Everything You Should Know About Elephants, Performing Animal Welfare Society, 1996
  • Derby, Pat & Stewart, Ed, The Circus: A New Perspective, Performing Animal Welfare Society
  • Goodall, Jane Elephant Family, Madison Marketing Limited, 1991
  • Laub, Thomas & Shannon, Pamela & Smythe, Victoria, The Live Elephant Book: A Teacher's Guide to Fun and Learning With Elephants, Live Elephant Inc., 1993
  • Masson, Jeffrey, When Elephants Weep, Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1995
  • Redmond, Ian, Eyewitness Book: Elephant, Alfred Knopf Publishing, 1993


Center For The Study of Elephants
PO Box 4444
Carson, California 90479
Phone # 213-516-4327 or 714-897-8990

Elephant Alliance
6265 Cardeno Drive
La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone # 619-454-4959

Live Elephant
PO Box 10
Canton, MA 02021
Phone # 617-821-1512

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
501 Front Street
Norfolk, VA 23510
Phone # 757-622-7382

Performing Animal Welfare Society
PO Box 849
Galt, CA 95632
Phone # 209-745-2606

Wildlife Conservation Society Magazine
Bronx, New York 10460
Phone # 718-220-6876