The Daily Mail can reveal today that captive breeding of elephants in zoos or safari parks will be banned.
The law would prohibit importing any new animals, and existing populations would be allowed to die naturally.
Environment minister Zac Goldsmith’s move is likely to please Carrie, Boris Johnson’s wife, a champion of elephant welfare.
Campaigners have long warned that brilliant animals suffer from mental illness in zoos.
According to the RSPCA, they also struggle in captivity because of illness, including crippling arthritis, and live an average of just 17 years. This compares with more than 50 years in the wild. This act will end more than seven centuries of elephants being kept in captivity in Britain.
The first arrived in 1255, a gift to Henry III from Louis IX of France. It was described as ‘a strangest and most wonderful monster to the British. The rarest or never of any kind ever seen in England before that time.
The government will soon receive the results of a report on the welfare of elephants in captivity. It is understood that it argues against keeping them in zoos. A senior source said: ‘Once the current elephant population dies out, we’ll say you can’t replace them.
‘Can’t keep them in a happy condition, the space is too small.
‘In the UK, the most extensive elephant enclosures are too minute. They destroy the environment so quickly – they have a huge role to play in it, but they destroy everything if they are in such a small area.
‘We would most likely say that you cannot make elephants happy in zoos; instead, we should be focusing on elephant conservation in areas where elephants are present.’
The policy is part of broader zoo reforms, which are expected to be announced as part of the Kept Animals Bill later this year.
Government officials said that the use of animals solely for entertainment would be phased out.
Mark Jones of the charity Born Free said: ‘There are so many species that don’t belong in zoos, elephants being one of them. It should be phased out gradually. The needs of these highly complex, very wide-roaming social animals cannot be met in captivity. ‘
MPs have been campaigning on the issue for some time, particularly through the influential Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.
Lorraine Platt, president of CAWF, said it was cruel to keep elephants in zoos, adding: ‘It is not appropriate to keep elephants in zoos. They need ample space to roam, and they also have tight-knit family groups. ‘
Public outrage flared in 2011 when welfare campaigners revealed footage of Anne, Britain’s last circus elephant, chained to a barn in Northamptonshire with shackles around her legs. Daily Mail readers have raised £410,000 in donations to help pay for her retirement in a state-of-the-art property in Longleat, where she still lives.
There are 51 elephants in 11 zoos across the UK, including in Woburn, Whipsnade, Colchester, and Chester. Circus holding elephants is illegal as of January 2020.
In the wild, they live in large herds and are migratory animals with complex social lives. Some travel hundreds of miles each year.
The Prime Minister’s wife is the head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation, which runs two conservation zoos.