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Zoo Elephants Are So Obese They Might Go Extinct

Zoo Elephants Are So Obese They Might Go Extinct

A cursory glance over Kari Morfield’s office desk would likely raise some questions, and perhaps a few eyebrows. As part an ongoing research about the health and well-being of zoo animals, the wildlife researcher has collected hundreds of photographs of elephants — specifically, close-ups of their rear-ends.

Apparently, you can learn a lot by studying the junk in their trunk. Not that trunk, the other one.

According to Morfield, who works as an animal endocrinologist at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Research Center, many captive elephants in the U.S. aren’t just naturally big, they’re in fact suffering from obesity. And like the threats associated with being dangerously overweight in humans, zoo elephants too suffer from cardiac disease, arthritis, and infertility because of it.

But an epidemic of portly pachyderms is a bigger problem than most people had ever stopped to realize.

“In the next 50 years, the captive population will not be viable and will be extinct. In 50 years, there will be no more elephants in zoos,” the researcher tells the Lincoln Journal Star. “The last thing they want to do in zoos is take animals from the wild to stock zoos. We have to take care of the ones we have. We want the population to be self-sustaining.”

As you might imagine, determining the body fat of an elephant is no easy task. But Morfield says she’s found a way that doesn’t require an extra-long waist tape measure. As it turns out, fatter elephants wear excess weight mostly in their hindquarters. So, after scouring over hundreds of photos of elephant butts, both in the wild and in captivity, Morfield created a scale (from 1 to 5) to describe the normalcy of their body mass.

In the wild, elephants average 2 on the scale; in the U.S. forty percent are 5′s.

Morfield notes that obesity is threatening captive elephant reproduction, as the extra weight is leading to infertility. Even among elephants classified as 4′s, only half are capable of reproducing. And while 3′s are unaffected, there are only two 2′s in the entire country.

There are several factors believed to be contributing to elephant obesity. For starters, zoo elephants are far more sedentary than their wild counterparts that regularly walk miles in search of grazing grounds. Also, elephants in captivity are fed a comparably lavish diet of fruits and high-quality (read caloric) hay.

Morfield suggests that zoos make changes to counteract this girthing trend — such forcing elephants to ‘hunt’ for food in their enclosures, and by mixing in lower-quality straw and hay into their diets.

“There are no treadmills large enough for elephants,” says the researcher.

While it has yet to be proven that animals currently rendered infertile from obesity could become reproductive with weight loss, dietary changes have restored fertility in humans. And as the currently population of elephants in the U.S. continue to die off from other weight-related causes, captive births will help ensure no more elephants need to be plucked from the wild.

“Humans have a choice about their lifestyle. We give elephants a lifestyle. It is only fair to give them a healthy lifestyle,” Morfield says. “So far, we are failing them.”

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Read more: Nature, Nature & Wildlife, , , , ,

By Stephen Messenger

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Kara, selected from TreeHugger

Planet Green is the multi-platform media destination devoted to the environment and dedicated to helping people understand how humans impact the planet and how to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle. Its two robust websites, and, offer original, inspiring, and entertaining content related to how we can evolve to live a better, brighter future. Planet Green is a division of Discovery Communications.


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7:12PM PDT on Aug 16, 2013

would suggest walking the elephant, but would have to walk forever...poor things, thank you for the article

2:38PM PDT on Aug 5, 2013

Oh, I thought some poeple would just get worked up about them not being wild. Have you ever seen graphic footage of what poachers do to elephants? Do you realise they mourn their dead?

On the whole zoo keepers are not knowingly cruel. They just have to find a solution and I bet they can do it!!!!

5:14AM PDT on Jul 21, 2013

sad,thank you for sharing

2:46PM PDT on Jul 7, 2013

thanks for sharing

6:00PM PDT on Jun 10, 2013

That is one reason why wild animals belong in the wild!

8:52PM PDT on Jun 9, 2013

That's terrible ! :(

2:51PM PDT on Jun 8, 2013

sadly noted......

5:03AM PDT on Jun 7, 2013


5:34PM PDT on Jun 6, 2013

So not only are the American people obese, but their animals are too...anyone noticing a trend here?? Granted you can't stick an elephant on a treadmill or advise it to exercise, but perhaps healthier diets and maybe finding fun ways for them to become more active would be a good idea - before they die out!!!

7:40AM PDT on Jun 6, 2013

Once again the mirror show we are so much like our friends and prisoners. Obesity plays a role in human infertility, why are we surprised that it does so with elephants or other species?

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