The life of Jumbo and what the BBC forgot to mention

Did you catch Attenborough and the Giant Elephant recently? In the BBC documentary, David Attenborough looked back on the life of Jumbo the elephant through zoo records, public press releases, photography, artwork, his skeleton and the journal of his keeper Matthew Scott. And all of the evidence pointed to a pretty troubled existence.

Jumbo had many adoring fans

I won’t go over the full story now, but if you didn’t catch the program, check out this video for a summary.

Now, whilst I thought the documentary was interesting, I was quite disappointed with the overall message. The feel I got from the program was: “Look at the terrible life this poor elephant lived, but don’t worry, it’s all in the past now”… The only problem here is that I don’t believe we have left the suffering of captive elephants in the past. In fact, I think very little (or at least, not enough) has changed in the treatment of captive elephants in the 130 years since Jumbo’s death. Let me explain…

The documentary began by explaining that Jumbo was ‘acquired’ from somewhere, likely in East Africa, in the 1860s. Attenborough clarified that Jumbo’s acquisition probably followed the same protocol as the acquisition of other wild elephants around that time: shoot the mother, catch the calf. Jumbo would likely have seen his mother gunned-down, only to then be forcibly removed from his grief by the same men that had killed his mother. Considering we now know that elephants have a clear understanding of death and even mourn fallen friends, it is likely that Jumbo was deeply disturbed by this experience. We could argue that back in the 1800s, we didn’t attribute such emotions to animals and so we were ignorant of the distress that we were causing. And yet today we are not so ignorant. Science has proven time and again that animals think and feel. But this process of ‘acquiring’ wild elephants continues. In the past few years, several ‘installments’ of elephant calves have been ‘acquired’ from the wilds of Swaziland and Zimbabwe, and shipped off to US, Middle-eastern and Chinese zoos. Whether their mothers were killed or just separated from their calves is beside the point. These mothers (if still alive) and calves will be emotionally scarred by this process. And we know better!!

Another aspect of the documentary examined Jumbo’s skeleton for clues into his life. The scientists involved identified severe abnormalities for an elephant of his age and attributed these in part due to his diet and in part due to the extra weight Jumbo had to carry when giving rides to his adoring fans. Now whilst the diets of captive elephants have vastly improved since Jumbo’s penny-bun eating days, the provision of rides by elephants has not.

The recent story of Nosey the elephant could and I think should have been highlighted by the BBC documentary to show that elephants are still suffering


Elephant rides still draw in thousands of tourists each year. Not only do these activities potentially put extra strain on the elephants’ bodies, but the process by which elephants are ‘tamed’ to be ridden is suitably named ‘the crush’ – elephants have their legs tied so they cannot move, fires are lit around them to spark fear, and they are repeatedly beaten until they no longer fight back, when their soul is broken.

Attenborough closed the documentary with a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. This facility provide a place where unwanted elephants, retired from working life in the zoos and circuses of North America can live out their remaining days in tranquillity. They have access to huge expanses of land and can chose whether or not to socialise with other elephants or their carers. It is a truly wonderful place, but I hope that one day it will be forced to close its doors. Not because the sanctuary does anything wrong, nor because working elephants don’t deserve a retirement, but because I hope that one day, there will be no working elephants to retire, that the use of elephants in zoos, circuses and as working animals will cease. Soon I hope.

Nosey now
Nosey now enjoying her retirement at the Elephant Sanctuary, Tennessee

So whilst it was good to learn about the life of Jumbo, I was disappointed that a documentary of this nature, with a potential audience of millions and a narrator we all love and trust, didn’t go further into highlighting the ongoing issues surrounding captive elephants. I believe they had a responsibility to do so, to draw the link between poor Jumbo and the treatment of modern day working elephants so that we may make informed decision and force change.

One thought on “The life of Jumbo and what the BBC forgot to mention

  1. agreed…no mention of how bad and why riding elephants does so much damage and misleading reassurances at the end that circuses across USA and Europe are retiring their elephants to sanctuaries….many are not!…and elsewhere in the world elephants being taken into captivity and stories of their miserable existence are growing. British Bullshit Corp get some balls, get serious with the info


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s