Girlfriend died: Germany's oldest elephant now alone

Augsburg Zoo
Girlfriend died: Germany’s oldest elephant now alone

Cow elephant Targa

Targa was born in India in 1955. Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa

© dpa-infocom GmbH

Targa is the oldest elephant in Germany – and has been very alone for a year. Because at that time she lost her longtime companion Burma. She cannot live with the other elephants in the zoo.

She fans the wind with her ears and wags her tail to ward off flies. She leisurely crushes one banana after the other. The elephant cow Targa eats about 50 of them every day in the Augsburg Zoo. She also gets 40 kilograms of vegetables, but they have to be steamed.

At 67, Targa is the oldest elephant in Germany, according to the zoo. The animal is also one of the oldest elephants in human care worldwide. Converted into human lives, Targa would be about 100.

Eating is not that easy anymore. “Elephants get new teeth six times in their lives. Targa has had theirs for over 20 years,” says zoo keeper Marcus Linder. Apart from him and his colleagues, nobody is in the enclosure. Targa is alone. Because a year ago, on June 16, 2021, her companion Burma died at the age of 53.

34 years spent together

After the two elephants had spent 34 years together, the female elephant had to be put down. Targa was hit hard. Weeks later she was still looking for Burma, Linder says. She is very introspective and no longer makes many sounds.

She doesn’t want to have much to do with her neighbors Louise and Frosja. The two elephant cows have their own area in the barn. Actually, all three should live together after Burma’s death. But elephants have hierarchies and Louise doesn’t want to be subordinate. “The risk is too great that the other two attack Targa and injure her badly,” says Linder.

Elephant researcher Angela Stöger-Horwath from the University of Vienna explains the background: “Elephants live in family groups led by the mother cow. The cow with the most experience leads the herd.» Later, the daughter often follows in her footsteps.

Targa alone now, next to the other elephants

In the wild, the hierarchy is clear. However, if different elephants are put together in the zoo, a leader must first assert itself. Now Targa lives next to, not with the other two elephants.

As she walks past Louise, she sticks her trunk through the fence. It looks loving as their trunks touch. But that is deceptive, says Linder: “If Targa had come any closer, Louise would have missed her.”

Louise and Frosja are kept in so-called protected contact. There is always a fence between humans and animals. Targa is used to other things, even allows you to pet her. However, this has a brutal background. Targa was still tamed according to the “old school”. The keeper behaves like the head of the herd and, if in doubt, uses force to assert himself.

Born in India in 1955

In addition, the animals are temporarily chained. When Targa was born in India in 1955, it was still common practice to separate baby elephants from their families in the wild for the zoological gardens. How exactly it came into human hands is unclear. At the age of six, Targa landed in Germany – first in Hamburg, then in Osnabrück.

She has been in Augsburg since 1987. Bad treatment is now history for Targa. Elephants have not been chained in Augsburg since 2004. Nurse Marcus Linder does not believe that she is still concerned with her past: “An elephant does not have an active memory like humans. Targa only remembers the past when she is confronted with an object or a sound from that time». However, Stöger-Horwath considers this representation to be speculation. The scientist emphasizes that we don’t know exactly how an elephant’s brain works.

Keeping animals in zoos has long been controversial

Regardless, it has long been a matter of debate whether elephants even belong in zoos. The German Animal Welfare Association sees this “very critically” and doubts that the giant mammals can be kept in a species-appropriate manner. The animal protection organization Peta generally rejects the keeping of wild animals in zoos and speaks of “prisons for animals”.

Opponents of zoo keeping refer to life expectancy. According to an older study, this is for elephants in zoos under the age of 20. Critics of this study, on the other hand, note that the researchers have ignored the improvement in housing conditions. Exactly where life expectancy is is ultimately a matter of debate.

But one thing is clear: at 50, an elephant is very old. According to Linder, the fact that Targa was able to grow so much older is due to her genes, mental health and careful maintenance. But now the old lady is suffering from osteoarthritis and has abscesses on her legs. “If Targa can no longer walk because of the pain, we have to put her to sleep,” says her caregiver. But if and when that will happen is difficult to say.


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