Elephants may be the biggest land animals in the world, but just how long can these giant mammals live for?
In theory, elephants are amongst the longest living animals, and live longer than any other land mammal aside from humans. In the wild:
- African elephants can live up to 70 years
- Asian elephants can live up to 48 years
Unfortunately, as with most endangered species, elephants’ lives are cut short because of human actions in their environments. This holds true for elephants in the wild, as well as those in captivity.
Science reports that despite the ages we know elephants are able to live to in the wild, African elephants now actually have an expected lifespan of around 56 years while Asian elephants live around 41. 7 years. Let’s explore why the age elephants live to is reducing:
Why wild elephant lifespans are shortening
Although wild elephants live longer on average than those kept in captivity, their lives are usually cut short due to poaching or illegal hunting. Humanity’s quest for profit has driven these animals to the brink of extinction. Elephants’ lives are also made more difficult due to habitat destruction and drought (an effect of climate change).
The ivory trade
The illegal ivory trade has been incredibly detrimental to elephant populations, and during the 20th century, their numbers have significantly declined as a result. Elephant populations are more stable today than they have been in recent decades, but poaching is always a concern.
Human encroachment on land that was once elephant habitat is a less well-known but significant factor to consider when looking at an elephant’s life and habits. According to National Geographic, African elephant habitat has decreased by over 50% since 1979, and Asian elephants now have access to only 15% of their original range.
Other elephants suffer from ritual spearings, gunshot wounds, and other mishaps that wouldn’t have occurred if human beings were not present in their territory.
The shortened captive elephant lifespan problem
Like their wild counterparts, elephants in captivity have shorter lives than they ideally should. Usually, when animals are kept in a zoo, safari park, reserve, or any other place that’s safe from natural predators, they live longer than wild animals. With medical care, constant supplies of food and water, animals should, in theory, have longer lives. This is not the case for elephants, however, for a number of reasons:
Interaction with new illnesses
The elephant is one of the only exceptions to this rule. According to Scientific America, elephants kept in zoos are liable to contract new illnesses, become overweight, and suffer from life-shortening stress.
A study undertaken by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals determined that captive African elephants live less than half as long (averaging only 17 years) as those in the wild. The study also determined that Asian elephants born and bred in captivity live shorter lives than those imported into zoos. This was one data point that particularly surprised the scientists involved with the study.
Elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses (EEHV) is one particular illness that harms elephants in captivity and can kill them. It has specifically impacted the Asian elephant population. They contract it through contact with African elephants, something that would never occur in the wild.
Tiny gene pools
Infant mortality is another notable aspect in African elephants’ lives, but especially Asian elephants, born in zoos (not sure the differences between African and Asian elephants?). It’s as much as three times higher in captivity than it is in the wild, the study showed. The infants, scientists believe, are compromised due to inbreeding among the limited zoo population. This occurs in the constant quest for a steady, zoo-only based group of elephants that can be maintained for decades.
Lack of socialization
Another aspect scientists believe shortens elephants’ lives in captivity is their inability to socialize, something crucial to these highly social animals. Elephants are used to migrating hundreds of miles every year, spending time with their relations, going wild during musth, and having a generally free, unrestrained life. When these fundamentals are taken away, their stress levels increase exponentially.
Increase captive elephant life expectancy… or end captivity?
To remedy the captive elephant issues listed above, scientists suggest screening elephants for problems like obesity and a specific chemical, interleukin-6, to monitor an elephant’s stress levels. They hope that by keeping an eye on this marker that they’ll be able to tell when elephants are particularly prone to illness.
Taking a broader view, it is clearly critically important that zoos and other captive reserves consider the welfare of the animals under their care when considering what’s best for their business. Elephant advocates have, for years, been pushing for the end of captive elephant programs in zoos around the world, in addition to implementing anti-poaching and habitat restoration programs in the wild.