Elephants have been held in captivity for various purposes for thousands of years. They are seen by many as a natural resource to be exploited to meet human needs. Elephants are put to work in forestry enterprises, religious institutions, tourism, circuses and zoos, and serve as subjects for captive propagation programs.

Although elephants are highly adaptable to a broad range of conditions in the wild, they are ill-adapted to captivity. There is now extensive evidence that in captivity elephants suffer from chronic physical and mental ill health often leading to premature death. Research into wild elephant biology has revealed the true range of elephant capabilities and the normal physical and social conditions in which elephants thrive. These conditions are rarely, if ever, met in traditional forms of captivity. While animal welfare is increasingly configured in terms of 5 Freedoms*, for captive elephants two of them - freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress are particularly problematic.

The failure to meet the physical, social and cognitive interests of elephants in captivity, is manifest. This situation raises challenges:


ElephantVoices seeks to promote the protection and kinder treatment of elephants, wherever they may be. A primary goal of ElephantVoices' welfare work is to provide a touchstone for anyone needing to address the interests of elephants.

Link to ElephantVoices document Sanctuary for Elephants - Overall Principles ElephantVoices is frequently engaged with people and organisations wanting to provide rescue and sanctuary for elephants, as it relates to our mission and to the principles of The Elephant Charter, of which we are authors and signatories.

Two institutions in the United States, The Elephant Sanctuary (TES) in Tennesse, and Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California, have pioneered the concept of sanctuary for captive elephants. They have sought to create conditions in which individual elephants may recover a more naturalistic life in captivity, to the extent that they are capable of doing so given their history. In Brazil ElephantVoices is co-founder of Elephant Sanctuary Brazil - a benchmark sanctuary initiative established in 2016 with partner Global Sanctuary for Elephants as a key resource. Furthermore, there are a few institutions in elephant range states that provide refuge for elephants suffering the effects of long captivity. Others raise elephant orphans with the objective of restoring them to a life in the wild. Generally, however, the concept of sanctuary for captive elephants is only beginning to be explored in contexts truly free of traditional and cultural imperatives.

The word "sanctuary" is used in a variety of contexts for a variety of purposes; it may refer to roadside animal shelters, zoos, animal parks or centers, and relatively undisturbed habitat or wildlife refuges. The purpose of this document is to provide the ElephantVoices' view of what sanctuary for captive elephants should mean. In doing so we have sought the comments of many who are engaged in, or are seeking, sanctuary for elephants. We aim to reach anyone interested in ideas about providing sanctuary for captive elephants, but particularly those who seek to directly initiate or assist the development of captive elephant sanctuaries. Accordingly, we focus on the overall principles that we feel are appropriate for any facility or entity hosting elephants under the term "sanctuary".

This document is NOT an endorsement of captivity for elephants and NEITHER is it intended as a general guide to the management of elephants in captivity. We have deliberately avoided making detailed prescriptions for how sanctuary facilities should be designed and managed. Rather, we have set out what we feel are appropriate principles for anyone engaged in such work.

Aligning with the scientific framework of The Elephant Charter, we therefore present here a definition of sanctuary for elephants that:

Critical justification for the standpoints in this document regarding the interests and needs of all elephants can be found in The Elephant Charter.


ElephantVoices holds that the concept of providing sanctuary for elephants involves, first and foremost, a deep understanding and acceptance of the capabilities and the physical, behavioral and psychological needs of elephants. The key to providing sanctuary is always to seek to identify and meet the needs of elephants as individuals. This is as much about a principled approach to engaging with individual elephants, as it is about the design and location of facilities.

ElephantVoices' vision of an elephant sanctuary is, a facility of security and comfort in which a captive elephant can express his or her natural physical, social and cognitive behaviour to the fullest extent possible.

We believe that the mission of any elephant sanctuary should be, to promote and assist the rehabilitation of captive elephants through provision of secure and naturalistic surroundings, social life and individually tailored care programs. The core focus is the physical and psychological wellbeing of individual elephants, both short- and long-term.

ElephantVoices therefore has identified the objectives that we believe any sanctuary should meet, in terms of welfare outcomes for any elephant in care, appreciating that the needs of elephants vary through time and according to their individual histories. These objectives enable us to derive Program Principles for the operation of elephant sanctuaries and, in turn, permit us to draw conclusions about the Physical Aspects - the environment and facilities - that sanctuaries should provide.


ElephantVoices holds that the main objectives of any elephant sanctuary are to provide:


ElephantVoices holds that elephant sanctuaries shall:


ElephantVoices holds that an elephant sanctuary:

*These five freedoms were first formulated by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, a body set up by the UK government, in response to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1968: