Is There Any Hope For Hanako? (An animal welfare expert weighs in.)

Ulara Nakagawa
Jan 15, 2016 · 6 min read
Hanako has spent 61 years alone in her small concrete enclosure.


An Indiegogo campaign is running for Hanako. We have hit 12% of the goal, and only have have 27 days time to get 100% (or we don’t have enough to pay Carol and our expenses to meet with the zoo, and Indiegogo will take an extra 5% fee for not hitting the target)!!! Please support by contributing anything you can, and sharing this via social media and to your friends and family. Every dollar counts now. Please help Hanako now! Thank you!

Link to campaign:

On Oct 29, I published a post about Hanako, a 69-year-old elephant currently living in shameful conditions in a Tokyo zoo. Well, this led to someone starting an online petition, which now has 330,000+ signatures (wow!)

Meanwhile, the plight of Hanako has now captured the attention of the world and the Japanese public through a range of media articles. The Bangkok Post, The Daily Mail, and The Dodo are just some of the international publications that have covered the story.

And in December I spoke to a writer from one of Japan’s biggest wire news services, Jiji press, on a story she was working on about Hanako. The piece was published in early January and resulted in national TV news coverage as well as re-writes in many local newspapers. I commend the writer for bringing to light a rarely discussed topic in Japan: animal welfare. Unfortunately, however, the article did not include some key pieces of information I’d hoped it would:

  • That in December, the Boon Lott’s Sanctuary in Thailand agreed to accept Hanako and offer her a loving and spacious home. (This has not been confirmed by me but through a secondary source — Unfortunately, at this time, I have been unable to get in touch with the sanctuary myself for confirmation, despite repeated attempts to contact.)
  • Some basic information around the specifics of elephant needs/welfare — such as socialization and space to roam.
Happy Asian elephants at Boon Lott’s Sanctuary in Thailand.
Contrast this: Hanako in her tiny indoor enclosure.

Unfortunately, because of this lack of information in the Japanese media, it appears many people are actually sympathizing with the zoo. They seem to believe the zoo is indeed doing the best it can for Hanako given the resources they have.

It’s obvious to me and many other people — who have seen happy elephants — that Hanako’s basic welfare needs are not being met right now. To thrive, elephants need companionship, stimulation, warmth and space to roam. And sure, the zoo is publicly funded, but it is also located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country.

But I am no expert in elephant health and behavior. So I recently spoke to Chris Draper, who is the Programme Manager at Born Free Foundation. Prior to his current role, Chris was the senior scientific director at Born Free for over 10 years. As such, he has extensive experience in the scientific research and investigation of animal welfare and conservation issues, specifically involving wild animals in captivity. Here is what he had to say about Hanako:

In your opinion, is there a possibility that Hanako can be safely relocated to an overseas sanctuary at 69 years old? (There are success stories of similarly aged elephants who were relocated to Elephant Nature Park sanctuary, but Hanako is very elderly.)

Chris Draper of Born Free Foundation

Chris: So much will depend on her physical and psychological health. Based on her age and circumstances, I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of a transfer but I suspect it will be unlikely. I would not be at all surprised if, at the very least, she had foot, joint and/or limb problems. Such problems are very common in captive elephants as a result of inadequate exercise and substrates, and often lead to their demise at a much younger age than Hanako is now.

Even if she is otherwise healthy for her age, all those years in that zoo with, I assume, limited opportunities for physical exercise will mean that she is probably unfit and lacking in muscle. Transporting an adult elephant by road, sea and/or air involves significant stresses on joints, feet and limbs, and the elephant needs to maintain itself upright and in control throughout all the bumps and turns. If the elephant collapses during transport, then there would be limited opportunities to get her on her feet and she would face a high risk of death.

In your experience, how does the process typically work with determining if an elephant is fit healthwise to travel and then if she is?

Chris: Independent expert opinion is key to the assessment. It should not be left solely to the zoo authorities to determine whether she stays or goes, nor should the understandable public reaction to her situation force a decision to move her if she is not fit to travel. In my opinion, a panel of international independent experts, including veterinary experts, should be convened to undertake a full and thorough assessment of Hanako’s physical and psychological health, and to look at the various options for her future.

Even if she is deemed fit to travel, and the zoo agrees to allow her to be relocated, it is not likely to be a quick process. Moving an adult elephant is not a simple process and there are considerable physical challenges, to say nothing of logistics and obtaining the relevant permits and health checks. She would need time and training to get used to loading and unloading, and to the crate in which she is likely to travel. Hanako does not appear to have been transported very frequently during her long life, and so she may find transport more challenging and stressful than, say, a circus elephant who has undergone frequent transport.

Mentally, is an elderly elephant like Hanako able to handle such a big change? Could the emotional shock take too much of a toll on her?

Chris: There is a risk that such a significant change may be very stressful for Hanako. Rightly or wrongly, she has a long experience in her current situation and a radical change such as moving her, even if she is physically capable of the move, needs to be considered carefully.

Could it possibly be better she simply stay in her current conditions for the remainder of her life — as some people are suggesting — because she is so old?

Chris: I don’t believe simply maintaining the status quo is acceptable. If she must stay at the zoo, there should be considerable efforts to improve conditions for her — to develop a full nutritional and environmental enrichment programme, and to offer her the very best in terms of space, soft substrates, sand piles to lie on, a heated pool and so on.

*Author’s Note — There are no ‘better’ Japanese zoos for Hanako to be transferred to from my knowledge and research. There are definitely no sanctuaries in Japan for elephants.

Hanako only has one tooth left. What does this mean for her? Will she starve to death once she loses that tooth?

Chris: In the wild, elephants eat massive quantities of fibrous material, and the general consensus is that once their last set of teeth fail, they are unable to process food adequately and die. I don’t know what the options are for feeding elephants in captivity once they lose all their teeth, or indeed if it is possible long-term. I suggest seeking input from Thai sanctuaries on this point.

Is there hope for Hanako? Will the zoo allow a medical examination? Improve her conditions?


Hanako outdoor enclosure: /

Hanako in indoor enclosure:

Ulara Nakagawa

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Founder @ Ex-editor @diplomat_apac+ comms @hootsuite. Works to inform, inspire and ignite others to better the lives of animals.

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