Free Mali: Inside the Sad, Caged Life of the World's Loneliest Elephant

Many people choose to live alone—choose being the operative word. Mali, an elephant who is the star attraction at the Manila Zoo, was never given that option. She’s thought to be the only elephant in the Philippines and has been living in captivity since she was donated to the zoo by the Sri Lankan government when she three years old.

Mali is now 35 and a number of individuals and groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, think she deserves a better life. Ashley Fruno, Senior Campaigner for PETA Asia, told TakePart that the organization has been campaigning for several years to have Mali moved to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand.

“At the Manila Zoo, Mali is at risk of developing many health problems, and it’s already been demonstrated that the veterinarians there lack the necessary experience in caring for elephants,” said Fruno. “All elephants at reputable zoos around the world have blood work performed at least once a year and receive regular foot care. Besides the inspection by the world-renowned elephant expert Dr. Henry Melvyn Richardson, who was brought in by PETA to evaluate her, Mali has yet to have her health issues addressed by anyone.”

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However, Dr. Donald Manalastas, who oversees animal care at the zoo, told The New York Times that, “Mali is well taken care of” and that the zoo objects to her transfer, citing her age among other factors.

Fruno dismissed those concerns and said, “Elephants are successfully transported from zoo to zoo around the world every year and from zoos to sanctuaries by truck, plane, and train. It’s a common practice and if it’s done carefully, it can be done without causing significant stress to the animal. Mali’s transfer will involve weeks of preparation and a dedicated team in order to ensure her well-being in transit.”

She added that, “Moving an elephant from the Philippines to Thailand will require a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) export permit from Philippine authorities as well as a CITES import permit from Thai authorities. A crate will need to be designed and constructed in accordance with CITES and International Air Transport Association regulations, and Mali must be trained to enter it. We will ensure that Mali is allowed time to adjust to her specialized transport crate before the move and that the least stressful transport possible is arranged for her. A representative from the sanctuary would spend several weeks in Manila getting to know Mali and would provide her with consistency during travel. A qualified veterinarian would also be on hand during the entire transport process, including on the flight.”

Dr. Richardson was traveling and unavailable for comment, but Fruno supplied TakePart with the report he submitted to them after visiting Mali. His findings stated that, “The irregular shape of Mali’s enclosures makes approximation of the size difficult, but I estimate her total useable space to be no more than 0.001 square kilometers [slightly less than 10,000 square fee]. This small size and flat concrete substrate do not allow Mali to carry out normal elephant behaviors, such as walking up and down hills, digging in the dirt, wallowing in the mud, and swimming.”

While he noted that her overall body condition was good, “I did see areas of chronic pressure sores from lying down and sleeping on concrete. Both hips and both sides of her face had chronic pressure sores. These areas can become infected and become chronic abscesses. The pressure sore on her left temporal area is ulcerated and open to contamination.”

His biggest concern, however, was that Mali lives alone. “Female elephants in their natural habitat never leave the herd. They are in constant communication with the other members of their family,” Richardson said in his report.

Fruno agreed, noting that, “For elephants, the herd is everything. Females stay with their families for their entire lives, and males stay until their pre- or early teens. Housing an elephant alone is unanimously condemned by experts worldwide, and in fact, no zoo association approves of keeping a female elephant alone. Sanctuaries routinely introduce elephants—many of whom have spent decades alone—to their herds with great success.”

Indeed, Mali’s potential new life does sound a lot more glamorous and socially engaging than her current one. “At a sanctuary, Mali will be able to choose how she spends her days and whom she spends them with,” said Fruno. “She will start out with a 5-acre pen with hills, a pond, and elephants around her separated by a fence, whom she can interact with if she chooses. After she gains confidence and learns from the other elephants, she will have 500 acres to play in and interaction with animals of her own kind.”

So while Mali’s fate is still being decided, many people are hopeful that she’ll eventually be able to make the trip to Thailand. I wish you safe travels, Mali—and be sure to book a one-way ticket.

Do you think Mali should be transported to an elephant sanctuary or left in the care of the Manila Zoo?

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |