9 min read

Baby Elephants Are Dying At This Zoo — And No One's Doing Anything

This has to stop 💔

The elephants can’t move. Metal chains are wrapped around their legs, holding them firmly in place. The only thing they can do is sway their heads back and forth, and tentatively reach out their trunks.

These elephants are residents of Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, a zoo in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. Eight months ago, the elephants had access to a large enclosure where they could roam freely, stand in grass and even wade in a shallow pool. But when the enclosure shut down, the elephants were moved to a concrete area at the back of the zoo, where they spend up to 24 hours a day in chains, according to Upreshpal Singh, director of Friends of the Orangutans, a local animal welfare group.

“They chain them and force them to stand for hours and hours on concrete,” Singh told The Dodo. “Elephants should not be kept on cement. The ground should be a soft substrate, like a special kind of sand.”

The concrete area isn’t regularly cleaned, which means that the elephants are forced to stand in their own urine and feces, which can cause foot problems, Singh explained.

Elephants chained up in enclosure
Friends of the Orangutans

But the main issue is the chaining itself, which stops elephants from expressing natural behaviors such as lying down, playing, socializing and bathing themselves in dust or water. Chained elephants also tend to develop repetitive patterns of behavior due to stress, also called stereotypical behaviors, such as compulsively swaying back and forth in their chains.

Elephants chained up in concrete enclosure
Friends of the Orangutans

Curiously enough, a sign on the closed elephant enclosure says that construction was due to finish in July 2018, yet the work doesn’t seem close to being done, Singh explained — and this may have a lot to do with the zoo’s finances.

“The zoo is losing money — like millions every year,” Singh said.

Tarp over closed zoo enclosure
A tarp covering the closed elephant enclosure at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park | Friends of the Orangutans

But it’s not just the chaining of elephants that worries Singh — he’s also concerned that the zoo, which is supposed to double as a rescue and rehabilitation center, is not providing adequate medical care for its animals.

Chained elephant standing in feces
Friends of the Orangutans

In May, a critically endangered Borneo elephant named Yapid, who had been rescued from the wild 13 years prior, died at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. And a little over a month later, another Borneo elephant, a 3-year-old female named Gendu who was born in captivity, also passed away. The zoo never released any postmortem reports, so the causes of death remain mysterious.

If the other elephants continue to be chained up in unsanitary conditions, Singh fears that more elephants will die.

Dead elephant lying on ground
A photo of one of the dead elephants leaked to the media | Friends of the Orangutans

“If you stand or sleep on bare concrete, day in and day out, you are going to have problems,” Singh said. “And elephants are big and very heavy. So to make them stand or lie down on concrete is really bad for their health.”

Other animals at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, including sun bears, tigers and orangutans, are also kept in small enclosures with little or no enrichment. At night, they have to go into even smaller enclosures, according to Dave Neale, animal welfare director for Animals Asia Foundation.

Sun bears inside tiny concrete enclosure
Friends of the Orangutans

“Bears and tigers are housed in night houses too small to meet even their most basic physiological or behavioral needs,” Neale told The Dodo. “They are housed on concrete, and this has the potential to create numerous health issues: Concrete quickly accumulates urine, feces and food waste; continuous standing and lying on hard flooring can promote pressure sores, arthritis and other sources of joint pain; and these substrates conduct heat, making them hot in the summer months and conducive to bacteria breeding. Enclosures are also lacking appropriate furnishings and opportunities for resting, which are essential for the well-being of many of the animals housed at the zoo.”

Tiger kept inside concrete enclosure
Friends of the Orangutans

Like Singh, Neale is particularly concerned with how the elephants are kept at the zoo.

“Elephants are highly social animals,” Neale said. “Chaining provides them with little or no social interaction, and is likely to cause a significant amount of stress, which can result in the manifestation of behavioral abnormalities. Most importantly, they are deprived of choice: choice of behavior, social encounters, activity, cognitive engagement, foraging, foods, resting times and places. Everything with which a wild animal occupies their time with is denied and replaced by human-mandated activities.”

Animals inside tiny tiled enclosure at zoo
Friends of the Orangutans

In June, Christina Liew, the minister for tourism, culture and environment in the Malaysian state of Sabah, visited Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, but said that “all was well” at the facility, according to a media report. But Singh disagrees with Liew’s assessment, and believes she should have taken a wildlife expert with her when visiting the park.

Injured deer in zoo enclosure
An injured animal at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park | Friends of the Orangutans

“She should come out and publicly admit what is happening at the zoo,” Singh said. “I’m really disappointed that she said, ‘The zoo looks good. There’s no problem here.’”

Unfortunately, there isn’t an alternative facility for the elephants and other animals to go in Sabah, Singh said. There aren’t any animal sanctuaries nearby, and other zoos and similar facilities keep animals in equally poor — if not worse — conditions. Therefore, Singh believes the best solution is to create better living conditions for all the animals at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park.

Orangutans hiding beneath platform at zoo
Friends of the Orangtauns

“They should rebrand this place, and turn it into a sanctuary,” Singh said. “They need to provide enrichment for the animals on a daily basis, and the zoo has to come up with an area where the elephants can walk and roam freely.”

To help improve conditions for the animals at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, you can contact the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment in Sabah, and politely urge the minister to take action. You can also support further investigations of the zoo by making a donation to Friends of the Orangutans.