IALA: Ulara, could you please tell us about your organization? Your organization is specifically focused on captive elephants, what was the major drive for you to found this organization and work on the issues associated with elephants?
Ulara: At inception, we were actually called “Elephants in Japan: In Memory of Hanako.” This is because our organization was originally created in honor of Hanako, the solitary elephant who was forced to spend over 60 years of her life alone, in underserved solitary confinement, in a tiny, barren, concrete enclosure at a Tokyo zoo.
Hanako made headlines around the world after I wrote a blog post about her plight in 2016, and a resulting online petition for her quickly garnered nearly half a million signatures from concerned people all over the world. Thanks to the global attention and support, in those first months of the campaign we were able to make some tangible progress for Hanako. I was able to team up with Elephant Aid International Founder, President, and CEO, Carol Buckley (who is also the founder of the Elephant Refuge North America elephant sanctuary) and we went to visit Hanako at the zoo in March of that year. During this visit, Carol wrote a welfare assessment report for the zoo staff, and we were thrilled when they agreed to her recommendations to improve Hanako’s life and began putting them into place after our visit (including things as simple as increasing the daily quality time Hanako had with her caretakers or closing the shutters of her indoor enclosure because she was noticeably cold and shivering from the wind). Sadly, however, only two months after Carol and I visited Hanako, she collapsed and died of heart disease. I decided to start Elephants in Japan in her honor, to do what we could to make sure other “Hanakos,” or solitary captive elephants in Japan and elsewhere would not have to live the long, deprived life she had to. Since then, we’ve shortened our name down to the easier-to-remember version of Elephants in Japan (EIJ).
More of the full story of Hanako and the start of EIJ is here.
IALA: Elephants in Japan provides a report of 14 elephants kept in zoos in Japan. Would you like to share with us some unrevealed information about the report? Besides, what other important achievements would you like to describe to our audience?
Ulara: Our report on Japan’s solitary elephants is authored by Dr. Keith Lindsay, one of the best-known elephant experts in the world. Dr. Lindsay’s work began in 1977 in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, the top place in Africa to get close to free-ranging elephants. Since then his professional work with elephants expanded to other parts of Africa, Asia, and North America, and his growing expertise in the field has led to more work consulting on elephant conservation and management projects globally including working in relation to CITES to help to stop the ivory trade.
In 2017, Dr. Lindsay actually traveled to Japan for EIJ to visit firsthand each of the 14 elephants. His son, who is a photographer, went with him also and shot all of the images featured in our report and on our website. At 115 pages, the report really doesn’t leave much out. It is an extensive overview of the situation of solitary captive elephants in Japan, including detailed observations, assessments, and recommendations for each of the 14 elephants visited, and also valuable information about elephant behavior, biology, and more.
People have told us they have learned a great deal about elephant welfare and their needs in general from its contents. In fact, the report has been circulated internally at the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which subsequently issued a formal statement in 2018 that they would work to end the practice of keeping elephants solitary in Japan by bringing them together “where possible.” Heads of Japanese zoos have also received the report, and some have responded by improving the living conditions of their solitary captive elephants by adding enrichment, improving care, or proclaiming they will go “elephant free,” and not look to replace their elephants when they die. In fact, just recently, another retired zoo director of the Itsu No Mori Park, Japan, was featured in NHK news (one of Japan’s biggest media outlets) speaking out about how it is ok to have a zoo without elephants, as they need to live in large herds, not in small groups or alone confined in zoos.
More information on these types of movements and updates that have happened for Japan’s captive elephants over recent years can be found on our website, via our most recent update.
IALA: Elephants are kept in captivity and are used in entertainment across the globe, and it has been exposed that many of them are oftentimes cruelly treated. What are the most challenging difficulties have you ever faced during your animal protection work?
Ulara: Despite the progress we have made, much work remains to be done to create a better future for elephants in Japan. Many elephants continue to live alone. Many more remain in small, barren, substandard enclosures. In January 2020, Japan’s oldest elephant, Nana (Asian, F), died aged 59 at the Obihiro Zoo. Having lived alone for the past 24 years, she had been unable to stand for weeks prior to her passing. In a worrying trend, many Japanese zoos show little recognition of the ongoing problems and are maintaining plans for shipping elephants from Asia.
Notwithstanding international legislation and concerns limiting wild elephant imports, Japanese zoos are finding loopholes that allow them to bring new elephants into captivity. In 2018, the Sapporo Maruyama Zoo imported four elephants from Myanmar, opening a new elephant house the following spring. Zoocheck participated in an effort to stop this transfer. However, a signed agreement was already finalized by the time they became involved. This deal had some precedent in the Kyoto City Zoo’s acquisition of four new elephants from Laos several years earlier. Since then, the Fukuoka Zoo, once home to the now-deceased Hana, has announced plans to import four elephants from Myanmar. The Tennoji Zoo, once home to Hiroko, has also expressed interest in acquiring new elephants.
EIJ’s petition to prevent this can be found here.
Elephants in Japan will continue to support efforts to prevent further such transfers. Fundamentally, the lack of understanding between international elephant experts and the zoo community in Japan must be bridged. Elephants in Japan will work to close this divide and to inform and empower Japanese citizens so they can better advocate for positive changes to elephant keeping.
IALA: Do you have anything to share about the plans of Elephants in Japan that it intends to accomplish during 2023-2024?
Ulara: We have recently attained official government non-profit status in the United States, or 501(c)3 status, which will allow us to take EIJ to the next level via new fundraising activities and adding staff.
We continue working on awareness and impact campaigns to continue helping captive elephants in Japan, such as our most recent one bringing to light a horrific situation of neglect that led to the unnecessary suffering and death of the solitary elephant Hiroko in 2018. You can read more and sign our petition HERE urging her zoo not to replace Hiroko with any more captive elephants.