Home ENVIRONMENT Born Free: the tragic story of Pole Pole the elephant who died in captivity in London 40 years ago today

Born Free: the tragic story of Pole Pole the elephant who died in captivity in London 40 years ago today

by EUToday Correspondents
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Born Free
Today, 17th October 2023, International wildlife charity Born Free is releasing a powerful and emotive animation highlighting the suffering caused by the keeping of elephants in zoos. Narrated by the organisation’s Founder Patron, actor and campaigner, Dame Joanna Lumley, voiced by Kenyan actor and influencer, Foi Wambui and created by award-winning animator Andrew D Morgan, the film, ‘Enough Is Enough’, tells of a young elephant whose tragic true story and untimely death, 40 years ago today, inspired the creation of the charity.

In 1969, Pole Pole the elephant starred in the film An Elephant Called Slowly with Dame Virginia McKenna and the late Bill Travers MBE. Subsequently gifted by the Kenyan government of the day to London Zoo, she was destroyed in the zoo’s elephant house, resulting in a huge public outcry.

‘Enough Is Enough’ retells Pole Pole’s story to highlight the continued unsuitability of captivity for elephants. The animation captures Pole Pole’s inner monologue, originally imagined by Born Free founder, Bill Travers, in the 1987 book Beyond the Bars, as she is torn from her mother, her herd and her Kenyan homeland, and forced to live, on display, in a tiny, artificial zoo environment. She was just 17 when she died. Had she continued living in the wild she would now be 57, likely roaming the wild plains of Kenya, the matriarch of her family, with calves of her own.

Pole Pole’s story is a tale from four decades ago. But, as ‘Enough Is Enough’ highlights, little has changed. Elephants in zoos are still dying young, are still physically and psychologically damaged, and are still being denied the opportunity to live their lives in the rich, complex societal groups they experience in their vast, wild habitats. Astonishingly, UK zoos are still net consumers of elephants because of high infant mortality rates, poor reproductive success, and the reduced longevity recorded when these magnificent animals are kept in unnatural, captive environments.

Born Free is asking the public to watch the film and join them to help bring this travesty to an end by signing the #ElephantFreeUK petition, which can be found here ELEPHANT-FREE UK (bornfree.org.uk).

This calls for the urgent, humane phasing-out of elephants in UK zoos. The charity is urging the government to begin by prohibiting any future attempts to breed elephants in captivity, and stopping the importation of additional elephants, from the wild or from captivity, into the UK.

Joanna Lumley – By Land Rover MENA CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97190461

As Born Free’s Founder Patron I am truly honoured to be part of this poignant and important animation, to lend my voice to it, and to the vital campaign to phase-out the keeping of elephants in zoos in the UK. 

 “I have been fortunate enough to have travelled the world, and on my journeys, I’ve had the privilege of observing these magnificent creatures in the wild – where they belong. This is what Born Free is striving for. ‘Enough Is Enough’ captures the essence of this incredible organisation – Pole Pole’s tragic story is at the very heart of Born Free and why we were founded nearly 40 years ago.

“She is our history and heritage, but she also guides our vision for the future, a future where, one day, no wild animal will be forced to live in captivity. So please, watch this beautiful animation, let the story touch your heart, but then ACT. Sign Born Free’s petition, use your voice to tell others, and tell those in power that elephants do not belong behind bars. We need an Elephant Free UK. Their future is in our hands,” – Dame Joanna Lumley.

Will Travers OBE © Mike Daines, via Born Free

Will Travers OBE, Born Free’s Co-Founder and Executive President said, “I remember seeing Pole Pole in London Zoo. She was on her own, her skin dry and cracked, her tusks broken, she paced relentlessly. She was a worn-out shadow of the young elephant she should have been.

“It was heartbreaking – all the more so for my parents, Virginia and Bill, who had come to know her as a friend during the making of the film ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ in the late 1960’s.

“Together, we resolved to do what we could, but even though we found a reserve in Southern Africa that was willing to take her, the zoo refused. And so started a chain of events that lead to her tragic death in 1983. Her demise was the beginning of my life’s work. Together with my Born Free colleagues, and supported by millions of people around the world, today we are the voice for the voiceless, delivering better lives for individual animals, compassionate conservation for species under threat, and opportunities forcommunities co-exist with wildlife in the wild, where it belongs.” 

Chris Lewis, via Linkedin

Chris Lewis, Born Free’s Captivity Research Officer added, “It’s forty years since the untimely death of Pole Pole at London Zoo. Sadly, we seem to have learned little or nothing since then. Wild elephants live in large herds, range over hundreds, sometimes thousands of square kilometres of natural habitat for which they have evolved over millennia. Wild individuals can live into their seventies.

“By contrast, captive individuals continue to suffer reduced lifespans, high infant mortality, poor health, inadequate social opportunities, and enclosures thousands of times smaller than their wild range.

“Yet elephants continue to languish in zoos across the UK, Europe and the wider world. In 2010, concerns for the plight of elephants in UK zoos prompted the Government to set up the Elephant Working Group, which provided its 10-year report to Government months ago, yet the report and its findings remain hidden from public view.

We don’t need more studies, reports, and recommendations for incremental improvements to elephant enclosures. We need an end to the keeping of elephants in zoos. The UK government can set a strong international precedent by announcing plans to phase-out captive elephants. Enough is enough.” 

View and download the full animation here: 



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