Fecundity and population viability in female zoo elephants: problems and possible solutions
We previously reported that African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) female elephants in European zoos have shorter adult lifespans than protected conspecifics in range countries. This effect was the cause of greatest concern in Asian elephants, and risk factors within this species included being zoo-born, transferred between zoos, and possibly removed early from the mother. Here, we investigate these risk factors further; assess fecundity and sustainability in European zoos; and propose testable hypotheses as to the causes of these animals' problems. Although imported wild-born Asian elephants live longer than zoo-born conspecifics, being imported when juvenile or adult appears no more protective than being imported in infancy, suggesting that the benefits of being wild- rather than zoo-born are conferred early in life. Zoo-born Asian neonates are significantly heavier than those born to working animals in range countries, with a possible tendency to be fatter. In zoos, African elephants have tended to be removed from their mothers at older ages than young Asians, and were also transferred between zoos significantly less often: factors that could possibly underlie this species' lower calf losses and improving adult survivorship in Europe. Both species have low fecundity in European zoos compared to in situ populations, and are not self-sustaining, declining at approximately 10% per annum if reliant on captive-bred females under historically prevailing conditions. Data from other species suggest that stress and/or obesity are parsimonious explanations for the suite of problems seen. We recommend specific screens for testing these hypotheses, and for potentially identifying vulnerable individuals within the extant zoo populations.
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