29th October 2021


The Pro Elephant Network (PREN) consists of an international community of diverse individuals and organizations, comprising specific expertise, on wild and captive African and Asian elephants, including the fields of science, health, conservation, welfare, economics, community leadership, social justice and the law.[1]

We appreciate the recent public statements from the management of the National Zoological Park. These include the focus towards empathy and care for the animals as well as the interest in involving academia to assist with understanding  animal behaviour better, in order to improve their welfare and wellbeing at the Zoo.[2]

We have unfortunately received disturbing reports about the condition and behaviour of the young adult male African elephant Shankar, kept at the Delhi Zoo. Members of PREN have studied the footage of Shankar engaging in stereotypic behaviour during September 2021.[3]  The reports indicate that Shankar is being kept chained up and that he is standing on hard surfaces for approximately 17 hours a day.  His distress is causing him to self-harm during musth while trying to free himself from his unpadded, metal chains.  

Collectively we all care deeply about elephants and we hereby formally offer the opportunity of collaboration in order for us to discuss possible solutions for improving Shankar’s living conditions for the betterment of his welfare and his future health and well-being. 

According to the Elephant Encyclopaedia and Database[4], Shankar was caught in the wild in Zimbabwe, aged two years old, and gifted to India in 1998. Shankar arrived at the Delhi zoo on the 2nd of October 1998. Shankar has been a solitary elephant since 2005, when his companion Bombai died. 

Recent research has invalidated the previously-held notion that elephant bulls are naturally solitary animals.[5]

Members of PREN have contributed to extensive research into elephant behaviour, cognition[6] and the neurological impacts of captivity[7].  There is growing evidence that elephants are one of the animals who suffer the most in captivity,[8] particularly in solitary confinement.[9]

Generally, elephants are not suited to captivity and Asian elephants are “prone to problems that include poor health, repetitive stereotypic behaviour and breeding difficulties”.[10] 

Maintaining a healthy elephant in a zoo requires a substantial financial commitment, this includes competent and constant management of the elephant’s diet[11], health care provision[12] as well as nurturing their mental wellbeing[13]. In addition, research has shown that despite efforts to provide enrichment at zoos, the needs of elephants are still compromised in captive environments.[14] Not only are captive elephants likely to acquire physical ailments that invariably shorten their lifespan,[15] they are also prone to developing psychological issues that can result in depression[16] and aggressive behaviour, particularly in the case of solitary bulls[17].

Elephants in the wild naturally cover long distances (typically 10-50-km) every day, while feeding on a rich variety of vegetation across different ecosystems. Their home ranges cover hundreds of square kilometres.[18] When elephants are restricted in a captive environment, they frequently develop musculoskeletal and cardiovascular conditions, which can prove fatal.[19] Elephants also requiremental stimulation[20]−their natural behaviours include mud wallowing, bathing, interacting with their companions[21] through touch, vocalisation and olfaction, mourning their dead[22] and countless other social behaviours[23].  Given their complex cognitive abilities, intelligence,[24] empathy[25] and sentience[26], elephants have a suite of emotional responses and physical behaviours.  When elephants are held in captivity, in undersized enclosure often in indoor confinement with inappropriate hard substrates and a lack of enrichment, this results in physical and psychological trauma, abnormal behaviour, and premature death.[27]

Stereotypy−the repetitive swaying and head-bobbing−is commonly seen in captive elephants. It is well known that these behaviours are caused by being held in unnatural, restrictive environments, and from exposure to psychological stress that has direct physiological consequences.[28]

The Ministerial Circular of 7th November 2009 (File 7-5/2007-CZA; Vol III), banned the keeping of elephants in Zoo collections in India.[29] PREN would therefore like to offer our collaborative expertise. Members of the Pro Elephant Network have participated in the successful relocation and reintegration of elephants, particularly solitary ones, into more natural environments[30] in Africa and Asia.

We are sure that you are aware of the recent relocation of Kaavan, formerly resident at the Islamabad Zoo, to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia.  This event made global news[31] and the international publicity positively highlighted the decisions taken by the administrators of Islamabad Zoo. 

Therefore, in summation, we respectfully urge you to explore possible remedies and engage with members of PREN to discuss solutions for the Zoo and for Shankar, so that his biological, psychological and social needs can be better met.

PREN welcomes further engagement on this subject matter and we look forward to hearing from you in this regard.