National Zoo Elephant’s Passing Underscores Longevity of Captive Elephants

by John M. Simpson.

On March 28, 2020, the National Zoo announced the passing of one of the oldest Asian elephants maintained in a zoological environment. The elephant Ambika, who had resided at the National Zoo for 59 years was estimated to be 72 years old at the time of death.
The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is listed as an endangered species under U.S. law. Worldwide estimates are imprecise, but it is believed that there are approximately 30,000 to 50,000 individuals left. It is also difficult to know how Ambika’s lifespan compared to free-ranging Asian elephants. As the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute website observes:

“Longevity of elephants is not well understood, and most of the available information comes from African elephants. Recent data suggests that African elephants rarely live to the age of 50. Evidence suggests that Asian elephants typically live into their mid-50s, but there is not enough consistent data available on wild Asian elephants to accurately estimate their lifespan. Median life expectancy for female Asian elephants is 47 years old.”

According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ most recent life expectancy table, the median life expectancy of a female Asian elephant is 46.9 years.

Ambika is a poignant example of an Asian elephant in human care who outlived the projections and is further evidence that the insinuation by some animal rights groups that elephants in zoos, circuses or other forms of human care die prematurely is inaccurate.  Another example is the elephant Beulah, who (we previously reported) was the subject of a habeas corpus petition by the Nonhuman Rights Project in its failed effort to declare her a “person.”  Beulah died at age 54.

The well-known Endangered Species Act litigation involving the Asian elephants owned by Feld Entertainment, Inc. (owner and operator of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) – ASPCA, et al. v. Feld Entertainment, Inc., No. 03-2006-EGS (D.D.C.) – is a further example. The case involved seven Asian elephants, six of whom were more than 40 years old at the time the case went to trial in 2009:  Mysore (63 years); Nicole (29 years); Zina (48 years); Karen (40 years); Susan (58 years); Lutzi (59 years); and Jewell (58 years). Four of those animals are believed to be still living today:  Nicole (40 years); Zina (59 years); Karen (51 years), as well as Mysore who is now 74 years old. Feld Entertainment prevailed in that litigation against the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Animals, the Fund for Animals (an affiliate of The Humane Society of the United States), the Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA and the individual plaintiff – Tom Rider – the former circus barn man whose alleged “emotional attachment” to the elephants was the basis for the plaintiffs’ standing to sue.  Rider’s claim was shown at trial to be a sham. The court declared the litigation to be frivolous and vexatious from its inception and ruled that Feld Entertainment was entitled to recover its legal fees.  The same court also declared, in a parallel case, that the manner in which the ESA case was pursued stated a cause of action under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.  These decisions ultimately led to Feld Entertainment’s recovery of more than $25 million from the adverse parties and their counsel.

Ironically, several of the Ringling  elephants outlived Tom Rider, who died in 2013.