FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Mabu strolls across a grassy field and raises his long gray trunk to argue with a hole cut in a large boulder and catches the attention of a girl resting on her father’s shoulders.
At this zoo in a farming community in central California, a 32-year-old African elephant is key not only to attracting visitors, but also to ensuring there are elephants zoo-goers can see for years to come — a future some animal lovers want to avoid.
Over the past year, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has been embroiled in a growing global debate over the future of elephants in zoos. In recent years, some zoos have phased out elephant exhibits due to the complexity of the animals and their needs. Still, others, like the Fresno Zoo, say they are committed to elephant conservation and are appealing for breeding, arguing that a sustainable zoo elephant population will help foster a commitment to wildlife conservation among future generations of visitors.
A Fresno zoo beloved by locals has been targeted by animal rights activists in a report criticizing the elephants’ living conditions and in lawsuits trying to free them. In general, some elephant experts say urban zoos simply don’t have the space needed to support African elephants, who roam long distances in the wild every day, scavenging hundreds of pounds of vegetation.
An updated and expanded multi-species zoo opened in the zoo African adventures exhibition in 2015 to better house the elephants, lions and gazelles, giving them more room to roam. It also works with other zoos across the country to breed more endangered animals in the wild in the United States.
Mabu came to the zoo from Arizona last year after Wus’Musi, another male elephant, showed little interest in breeding. Mabu has sired offspring at other zoos, and the hope is that he can do so again to increase the Fresno Zoo’s population.
“Lions, tigers and bears. People come to see charismatic megafauna is the term we use,” said John Forrest Dolin, executive director of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, comparing the elephant to an unlikely figure like pop star Justin Bieber. He said visitors who see animals in real life — not in a photo or on a screen — are more likely to support conservation efforts. “We’re telling big stories, so it’s important for conservation as a whole,” he said.
In recent years, some large zoos such as Toronto Zoo and San Francisco Zoo have gradually scaled back their elephant programs, sending their aging animals to sanctuaries in the United States, which have much more space. The Los Angeles Zoo is also discussing the possibility of sending its Asian elephant, Billy, to a sanctuary.
In some cases, animal rights activists have launched legal efforts to remove elephants from zoos.
In New York, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed court papers to try to free the Asian elephant Happy from the Bronx Zoo, but lost in court. The group then filed similar documents to try to free three African elephants from Fresno — a mother-daughter pair and Wus’Musi — but a judge ruled against the group.
The group took the case to the appeals court this month and traded for Mabu. Jake Davis, a lawyer for the Nonhuman Rights Project, said the case is far from over — especially since the zoo sent Wus’Musi to the San Diego Zoo so he could recruit Mabu in an attempt to boost reproduction.
“He’s really their golden ticket,” Davis said. “Hopefully we can pull him out.”
Some elephant experts say that the more people learn about elephant intelligence and social media, the more compelling the case for freeing them — or at least stopping them in zoos — becomes. They also note that elephant poaching and habitat destruction in Africa continues despite zoos’ conservation efforts, and question what they are doing by hosting visitors who are mostly looking for recreation.
“It’s wrong to force more elephants to live 60 years or however long in captivity,” said Joyce Poole, co-founder of the advocacy group Elephant Voices, adding that in the wild, elephants make their own decisions about where to live, find food and water, and meet their relatives. something they just can’t do in zoos. “It’s like seeing a person in prison.”
Elephants have been brought to U.S. zoos for decades, but transports of African elephants have become rare in recent years amid growing international concern about the many threats they face in the wild — which also prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to change the species in 2021 from vulnerable status to endangered. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is also drafting new elephant import rules aimed at protecting African elephants, whose numbers have declined from 26 million in the 18th century to 415,000.
At a meeting last year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora suspended the trade in African elephants to agree terms for the transfer.
As a result, the future of elephants in zoos, which have relatively few offspring and a 22-month gestation period, largely depends on reproduction. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has a program aimed at maintaining zoo populations, said there are currently about 160 African elephants living in U.S. zoos.
Breeding plans are carried out in various zoos through associations species survival plan so that elephants have a sustainable future, said David Hagan, the plan’s coordinator and chief zoological officer at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
“From a population model perspective, I think there is hope,” he said.
In Fresno, a 12,000-pound Mabu delights visitors as he retrieves food from puzzle-like contraptions wedged inside a boulder to maintain intellectual stimulation. Jo Foster, a 42-year-old nurse, leans against the fence outside the exhibition, captivated by his movements, during a date.
“My heart grew three sizes just sitting there watching him eat today,” he said.
Meanwhile, the zoo’s female elephants — 28-year-old Nolvazi and her 13-year-old daughter Amahle — greet each other by crossing their trunks and tapping their mouths before undergoing training and health checks in the cave building. A zookeeper standing behind a barrier gives directions to Amahla, and she follows, turning sideways and allowing her ears and feet to be inspected in exchange for pieces of apple and zucchini.
Some zoos have sent aging elephants to wildlife sanctuaries, including a sprawling habitat about 130 miles (209 kilometers) north of Fresno in San Andreas, California. Started by advocates frustrated by the treatment of elephants in the entertainment industry, Implementation of the Society for the Protection of Animals has 80 acres (32 hectares) of grassy slopes where elephants can roam, more than 20 times the roaming space of the Fresno exhibit.
Ed Stewart, co-founder of the society, is happy to be able to give the elephants more space than the city zoo, but said it is still not enough and ideally the sanctuary would not exist.
“At some point we’re going to look back and think that we used to keep wild animals in cages — big cages, small cages, enclosures, habitats, you name it,” he said. “I think a light bulb will go on for the public and they’ll say, ‘What are we doing this for?’