The recent death of Tara the elephant at the Toronto Zoo leaves three remaining females — a number the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums describes as the minimum needed for the wellbeing of these herd-oriented, social animals.

That leaves the zoo facing a decision soon: Import one or more from somewhere like South Africa where the government has lifted a ban on culling. Borrow a breeding elephant from another facility, such as the San Diego Zoo. Or get out of the elephant business altogether, a route for which some wildlife activists are arguing.

Tara died of natural causes at 41, leaving behind Thika, 29, Toka and Iringa, both about 40 — all past their ideal breeding age.

They may not have many more years, if they follow the trend among zoo elephants. In the past 31/2 years, the Toronto Zoo has lost four between the ages of 38 and 41, including Tara, and seven in total under age 41 since 1984.

“The zoo can’t keep them alive into middle age. That should be a red flag,” argues Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoocheck, a wildlife protection charity. He wants to see Toronto follow the lead of a handful of U.S. zoos and ship the surviving elephants to a massive sanctuary in Tennessee or California.

“There they can live more normally, foraging, ripping down trees, roaming, doing what they’re supposed to do,” says Laidlaw, who adds Canada’s climate isn’t suitable for tropics-loving pachyderms.

Acting CEO Peter Evans says zoo staff will soon have a comprehensive report on the subject.
“We’ve done a lot of research … we are looking at all of our options,” says Eric Cole, animal care supervisor for the zoo’s African Savannah exhibit.

So far, however, the zoo board seems keen to keep them.

Coun. Raymond Cho, who chairs the board, expects the issue to come up at its meeting Friday.

“I don’t want to see one day all of a sudden only one elephant left at the zoo,” Cho added.

“The elephants we have at the zoo would have been poached, culled or otherwise killed if they’d been left in the wild,” said Coun. Glenn DeBaeremaeker, another board member, who added the animals are getting a “gold standard” level of care.