These Zoo Elephants May Be the Loneliest in the World

An elephant named Hanako was given that distinction in 2015. But others like her are living out isolated lives in zoos across Japan.

Watch: Elephants live in isolation at more than a dozen zoos in Japan.

Lonely elephants in Japan also live in poor conditions, a new study shows.

These Zoo Elephants May Be the Loneliest in the World

An elephant named Hanako was given that distinction in 2015. But others like her are living out isolated lives in zoos across Japan.

Watch: Elephants live in isolation at more than a dozen zoos in Japan.

Lonely elephants in Japan also live in poor conditions, a new study shows.

Update, January 26, 2018: In a statement on its website this week, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced that it supports the transfer of solitary zoo elephants to more social environments. The association said it believes that elephants “should be cared [for] in a group from the perspective of animal welfare” and that it's “promoting transfer of single rearing elephants to bring them into a group wherever possible.” If placing one of the elephants with others will cause it stress, JAZA continued, then the association endorses enrichment activities for that animal. A committee devoted to elephants and their welfare will "take the lead" in working on improvements for zoo elephants in general, the statement said.

“Our intention is to improve the environment of solitary elephants,” Etsuo Narushima, JAZA’s executive director, wrote Wildlife Watch in an email.

It's unclear what steps, if any, JAZA will take to ensure that the elephants are transferred. The organization doesn't accredit zoos, so there wouldn't be any formal consequence for a zoo not complying with JAZA's recommendations. But Ulara Nakagawa, who spearheaded the campaign to help isolated zoo elephants in Japan, says this is a positive step. "I think the mind shift is enormous," she said. "They're taking this seriously."

Miyako is a female Asian elephant who has lived without other elephants since arriving at Japan's Utsunomiya Zoo, just outside of Tokyo, 44 years ago when she was six months old. She is kept in a small, concrete enclosure near the zoo’s amusement park, says Keith Lindsay, a conservation biologist and elephant expert based in Oxford, England.

“She’s been in that place her whole life, with no other elephants and nowhere to move,” he says.

Lindsay observed Miyako earlier this year, when he spent two weeks visiting 14 zoos believed to be the majority in Japan keeping elephants in isolation. He summarized the conditions of the animals and their surroundings in a new report released today, on the eve of World Elephant Day.

According to the report, five elephants have been alone their entire lives. Eight became isolated after their companions died or were moved, and one rejoined her previous companion but had to be kept in a separate enclosure. “The elephants were essentially psychotic, desperate to interact with people in some cases, turning their backs to people in other cases,” Lindsay says.

The catalyst for his Japan trip was an elephant he never met, a female named Hanako, who had lived alone in cramped quarters in Tokyo’s Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years. She became the focus of public attention in the fall of 2015. That’s when a visitor to the zoo, Ulara Nakagawa, wrote a blog post about Hanako and started a petition calling on the elephant to be moved to a sanctuary in Thailand, her home country.

“Totally alone in a small, barren, cement enclosure with absolutely NO comfort or stimulation provided, she just stood there almost lifeless—like a figurine,” Nakagawa wrote.

The petition garnered almost 470,000 signatures, and news stories about Hanako’s plight swept the Internet. But the zoo deemed it too risky to move the elderly elephant, and a few months later the so-called “loneliest elephant in the world” died at the age of 69.

For Nakagawa, Hanako’s death marked the beginning of a larger effort to help companionless zoo elephants in Japan. She teamed up with Zoocheck, a Canada-based nonprofit devoted to animal protection, and started a grassroots campaign called Elephants in Japan. And she recruited Lindsay to review how elephants—highly social and intelligent animals—are doing at zoos in Japan, which has no standards for how to keep them in captivity.

“This new campaign is in [Hanako’s] memory, to make sure that the other elephants in Japan don’t have to live out the same life she had to,” Nakagawa says. As for why she chose to examine lonely elephants in Japan when it's hardly the only country where zoos keep them, she explains, “we had to start somewhere.”

Many of the 14 solitary elephants Lindsay observed, including Miyako, were exposed to conditions he found substandard, such as too-small enclosures and a lack of stimulation.

But, he says, Miyako topped the list as the one with the most heartbreaking life. He watched her pacing back and forth and noted that she would repeatedly bite down on a metal bar in the enclosure, behaviors that signal psychological stress. “I’ve never seen that before,” he says.

Miyako’s life bears no resemblance to that of Asian elephants in the wild, where females live in tightly knit groups with as many as 50 companions, and males often associate with other males once they reach sexual maturity and leave the family unit. Even when elephants aren’t hanging out with their pals, studies show that they can still remember them and communicate with them through smell and sound. (Read more about elephant vocalizations and how you too can 'speak' like an elephant).

“The social aspect of an elephant’s life is the most important to its well-being, and we would be concerned for the psychological welfare of any elephants kept on their own,” says Georgina Allen of Wild Welfare, a nonprofit dedicated to improving conditions for captive animals. Allen wasn’t affiliated with the Elephants in Japan report.

In addition to needing companionship, Asian elephants require a lot of space, ranging over areas as large as 230 square miles in search of food or mates. Known for their smarts, they grieve and show other emotions, such as joy and anger, and are even capable of “aha” moments, such as figuring out that a step stool can help them reach food.

Animal welfare advocates say elephants’ intelligence make it all the more detrimental for them when they're kept by themselves in barren areas. Although Lindsay found Miyako’s situation particularly bleak, hers was by no means the only sad case, he says.

He also found:

  • Teru, an Asian elephant who has been kept alone at Kofu City Yuki Park Zoo since 2000. The 38-year-old has no stimulation in her concrete outdoor enclosure and was seen swaying repeatedly from side to side and bobbing her head.
  • Himeko, a 40-year-old Asian elephant who has been isolated at the Himeji City Zoo since her arrival in 1994. She is confined indoors for 18 hours a day, is forced to perform for visitors, and was observed swaying for long periods and standing in her own urine.
  • Izumi, an Asian elephant who died at age 62 soon after Lindsay saw her in Kiryugaoka Zoo. She had lived alone since 1964 in a small dark indoor stall and outdoor area with no shade.

Lindsay deemed only four of the 14 zoos as “improved,” meaning they’d at least made attempts to add innovative features, enlarge enclosures, and make other enhancements. The remaining zoos fell shorter, with some appearing to have gone without updates since their construction in the 1950s.

Most zoo associations agree that elephants should have enough room to move around, forage, and have the chance to interact with other elephants. The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting agency that has developed guidelines for keeping elephants, recommends grouping together no fewer than three females, two males, or three of mixed gender.

Elephants socialize in 2014 at the San Diego Zoo, in California.

Some zoos have even questioned the feasibility of holding elephants in captivity at all, given their complex needs. At least 44 zoos worldwide have either closed their elephant exhibits or signaled an intention to shut them down, according to the report.

But the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums hasn’t yet developed best practices, according to Lindsay, and it doesn’t routinely monitor zoos to ensure that the animals’ welfare needs are met. (At press time, the executive director of JAZA had not yet responded to a request for comment).

Lindsay hopes Japan will develop such standards. In the immediate future, he urges the zoos with solitary elephants to relocate them, if they’re healthy enough, to facilities where they at least will have the option to socialize with others—perhaps even to hang out in the dirt, lock trunks, and splash about in a pool.