Confined Giants – European zoos urged to phase-out giraffe in captivity following new report

On 9th February 2014, a healthy, two-year-old giraffe called Marius was culled and, subsequently, dissected in front of the public at Copenhagen Zoo. The zoo justified this action, claiming his genes were already represented in the captive giraffe population in Europe, and there was limited space available for young, male giraffe in zoos that were members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). Parts of his body were then fed to the zoo’s carnivores. On the 7th anniversary of that appalling act, Born Free is calling for European zoos to phase-out the keeping of giraffe in captivity and instead focus their conservation resources on the protection of giraffe populations in the wild.

Dr Stephanie Jayson, Wild Animal Welfare Consultant for Born Free, commented: “A zoo is no place for giraffe, where these complex, social, wide-ranging, browsing animals are subjected to a life of social deprivation, environmental restrictions and inadequate nutrition. As a result, giraffe in zoos frequently suffer compromised health and stereotypic behaviours. The ex situ management of giraffe in European zoos significantly impacts the welfare of the individual animals involved, and has no clear role in the overall conservation of the species.”

With an estimated captive population of more than 800 giraffe in zoos across Europe, including over 150 in the UK, Born Free’s call stems from a new report compiled by the international wildlife charity which highlights the detrimental physical and mental impact of captivity on giraffe. Key summary points include:

  • Social deprivation: Wild giraffe live in complex societies. Females are incredibly sociable, forming long-term relationships with other females, as well as creating nursery groups for their offspring. In contrast, many giraffe in captivity do not have the opportunity to form complex societies due to the limited capacity of zoos to house large communities of giraffe in a diverse landscape. Several zoos hold only one or two giraffe, including Knowsley Safari Park, Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, Twycross Zoo and ZSL London Zoo in the UK. Opportunities for female giraffe to form relationships with other females are limited. Several European zoos, including Dudley Zoological Gardens and ZSL London Zoo in the UK, hold just two female giraffe, while some hold only a single female. 
  • Environmental restrictions: Wild giraffe spend approximately a third of their day walking, and their average home range size varies between five and 514 km2. In comparison, outdoor enclosures in European zoos average around 2600 m2 (just over one quarter of a hectare or almost two thirds of an acre) – merely 0.0005-0.05% of the average home range size of wild giraffe. Restricted space negatively impacts giraffe welfare and has been associated with problems such as overgrown hooves and stereotypic pacing. Add this to the temperate European climate, forcing giraffe to have their outdoor access restricted when outdoor temperatures fall too low, and a widespread lack of environmental complexity. Typically simplistic and bare, zoo enclosures for giraffe are incomparable to the African savanna and woodland habitats of wild giraffe.
  • Inadequate nutrition: Wild giraffe spend most of their day feeding on browse, predominantly the leaves and stems of trees and shrubs, as well as smaller amounts of climbers, herbs, flowers, fruits, and bark. In European zoos, this is not possible. It is not feasible to provide a large amount and variety of browse so substitute food items must be offered, which can result in compromised health and welfare. Many nutritional diseases have been reported in giraffe in European zoos and various aspects of the captive diet, and its presentation, have been associated with oral stereotypic behaviours. Inappropriate food items such as cereal grain products, fruit and vegetables are still being fed to giraffe in many European zoos.
  • Compromised health: Giraffe in European zoos suffer from numerous captivity-associated health problems, including nutritional disease and lameness, and their longevity is reduced, with many failing to reach more than 15 years of age. One survey showed that 54% of giraffe groups in EAZA-member zoos reported at least one case of overgrown hooves, laminitis, joint problems, or a combination of all three. Insufficient exercise, nutritional imbalances, inappropriate enclosure substrates and trauma are thought to contribute to overgrown hooves, and suboptimal diet is likely a factor in the development of laminitis. Giraffe in zoos also commonly suffer from trauma, including entrapment, entanglement, slips and falls, and all too often this can be fatal.
  • Stereotypic behaviours: These repetitive behaviours observed in captive animals are induced by frustration, repeated attempts to cope, and/or central nervous system dysfunction, and have been linked with poor animal welfare. Giraffe are prone to stereotypic behaviours in captivity, particularly oral stereotypic behaviours involving the tongue, and pacing. It is thought that giraffe have developed behavioural disturbances in almost every zoo and that giraffe and okapi together are the species with the largest number of animals affected by stereotypic behaviours in the global zoo animal population.

Dr Jayson continued: “A strategic and humane phase-out of giraffe in European zoos would require careful planning. An end to breeding would be a first step, as not adding to the captive population would mean that, over time, as animals die ‘naturally’, the captive population would start to shrink. To improve the welfare of giraffe remaining in captivity, social grouping, environment, nutrition, health and stereotypic behaviours of giraffe should be assessed at each zoo and changes made to improve the lives of individual animals. Where appropriate, this may involve consolidating animal collections to provide more appropriate social grouping and to house remaining giraffe within the largest, most complex environments possible.”

Born Free is urging zoos to direct funding towards protecting giraffe in the wild, instead of spending money on the continued breeding and expansion of captive giraffe collections in Europe. Edinburgh Zoo has reportedly spent £2.7million on a new giraffe enclosure.

Dr Nikki Tagg, Head of Conservation at Born Free, added: “Such financial resources could be better applied to support wild giraffe conservation, securing and restoring vast landscapes and reversing habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss. This level of investment could potentially bring significant benefits to wild giraffe, connecting and protecting natural habitat in north Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania, as well as increasing community awareness and engagement, conflict mitigation and anti-poaching efforts.”

Photo: Riga Zoo, Lativa, 2016 © J McArthur

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