Japan’s Oldest Elephant Dies After Decades Alone

Posted on by Nirali Shah

Her name meant “Flower Child.” Now, this flower child is finally free.

Hanako, who was the oldest elephant in Japan at age 69, died this week after having spent most of her life in solitary confinement.

She lived the majority of her years in barren conditions at Tokyo’s Inokashira Park Zoo. According to a visitor to the zoo, Hanako was “[t]otally alone in a small, barren, cement enclosure with absolutely NO comfort or stimulation provided, [and] she just stood there almost lifeless — like a figurine.”

She was found by a zookeeper lying on the floor of the enclosure that had confined her. She was unable to stand and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

Hanako had been treated like an object for her whole life. After World War II, she was sent to Japan as a gift from the Thai government when she was just 2 years old. For many years, her confinement helped line the pockets of those who held her captive.

Carol Buckley, an elephant-welfare consultant who observed Hanako’s condition, pointed out that she was denied even the basic companionship that elephants, as intelligent social animals, need:

“The single most important welfare component for captive-held female elephants is companionship. Having a trusted friend most certainly reduces fear and the stress of isolation, contributing to improved health and comfort. Companionship appears to be strong medicine for female elephants, especially as they age. Hanako is living alone with only her keepers to fulfill her social needs. She derives no pleasure from the visiting public, spending the majority of her time on exhibit psychologically detached.”

Buckley also wrote that Hanako shivered constantly during her visit, because the zoo’s climate was not appropriate for an animal adapted to live in subtropical temperatures. She noted that her skin was dehydrated and that her footpads were “thin and bruised (from standing on concrete).”

The elderly elephant was also obviously stressed. An official from Inokashira Park reportedly stated that Hanako had trampled two people to death in her enclosure. Perhaps this was out of frustration from a life spent in captivity. Video footage captured by a visitor showed that she repeatedly swayed and swung her right front foot, symptoms of “zoochosis,” a captivity-induced mental illness.

Now, Hanako will no longer feel the stress and deprivation of captivity. RIP Hanako.

What You Can Do

While Hanako’s story may have ended, there are still plenty of captive elephants who need our help. Click below to help Mali, an elephant who is stuck in isolation, just as Hanako was.