If you follow the links here to info and news regarding African elephants, you won't find much cause for optimism, I'm sad to say. Their future in the wild remains precarious, and there are very few places where they can be said to thrive in captivity. Enormous and enormously inquisitive, elephants obviously need more than a bounded acre with a few plaster trees to keep them happily occupied. Many zoos have wisely decided to close their exhibits and send their remaining elephants to sanctuaries where they have literal and figurative room to roam.
I've come to expect only bad news, so it was wonderful last week to return with my husband to my "home" zoo in San Diego and hear an inspiring story of success. I first wondered whether San Diego had given up on housing African elephants: we found only one, Tembo, still in residence there, sharing fancy new digs with many of her cousins from Asia. But we learned that the herd at the Wild Animal Park, twenty miles north, is expanding almost by the day. Seven elephants arrived there in 2003 from Swaziland (where they were rescued from a cull): one bull and six females. Now the herd is seventeen strong, with four births in the last year alone, one last week. It has lost only one baby (in 2008, to a staph infection), thanks to the nurturance of well-trained mommas and aunties. You can see the herd in action here on a live elephant cam.
The boisterous good health of San Diego's herd seems irrefutable evidence in support of the idea that, beyond space and stimulation, elephants need family, in the broadest (or weightiest) sense. Captive breeding programs (such as the one in Oakland that inspired David's thread of this story) have gone in many cases tragically awry for the lack of interfamilial continuity and cultural coherence that elephants depend on for their communal and individual health. Anyone who doubts that animals have culture-- that is to say that they sustain and enrich their lives by sharing knowledge vertically down generations and laterally within them-- should compare the failures of Oakland's breeding program with the recent successes of San Diego's.