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‘World's saddest elephant’ dies in Manila Zoo after over 40 years in solitary confinement

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Mali, the captive female elephant in the Philippines dubbed by advocates as the “world's saddest elephant," has died at the Manila Zoo after spending more than 40 years in solitary confinement.

Mali’s death: Vishwa Ma'ali, nicknamed Mali, died of congestive heart failure at 3:45 p.m. local time on Tuesday, Manila Mayor Honey Lacuna announced at a news conference on Wednesday. Although her exact age remains unknown, Mali was estimated to be 43 years old at the time of her passing.

“Mali was our prized possession and was the star attraction here at the Manila Zoo. It saddens me because she was part of our lives,” Lacuna told reporters.

Mali reportedly exhibited signs of distress last Friday when she constantly rubbed her trunk against a wall, indicating pain, according to the zoo's chief veterinarian, Dr. Heinrich Patrick Peña-Domingo. By early Tuesday, the elephant was already seen lying on her side and breathing heavily. Despite administration of antihistamines and vitamins, she passed away that afternoon. An autopsy revealed cancer in some of her organs and a blockage in her aorta.

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About Mali: Mali was gifted to former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos by the Sri Lankan government in 1981 at the age of 11 months. At the time, Manila Zoo had another elephant named Shiva, who arrived in 1977 and passed away in 1990. Since then, Mali had been the sole elephant at the zoo.

“Free Mali”: Mali’s solitary confinement had long drawn criticism from animal rights activists who expressed concerns about the poor conditions at the zoo and the zookeepers' inadequate ability to provide proper medical care for the elephant.

Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had long advocated for her transfer to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand due to concerns about Mali's loneliness and health issues. Celebrities, including Paul McCartney, Pamela Anderson and Jane Goodall, had supported the effort to “free Mali,” pleading with authorities to transfer her to a sanctuary when she was still alive.

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The zoo’s defense: However, zoo authorities previously defended Mali's captivity, stating that the animal received proper care and was best kept in that environment because she had not experienced life in the wild.

During the press conference on Wednesday, Lacuna expressed plans to request another elephant donation from the Sri Lankan government, highlighting the emotional bond between Mali and her caretakers. Despite appearing alone, the mayor stated that Mali had the support of her caretakers and had become an integral part of Manila Zoo.

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Calls for accountability: Manila Zoo's handling of Mali's health issues has sparked calls for accountability from animal rights organizations. Activists also urged against sending another animal to the zoo.

“We’re so sorry, Mali. You deserved better,” PETA wrote in an Instagram post. “Despite PETA’s repeated warnings, Manila Zoo and city officials ignored Mali’s clearly painful foot problems, the leading cause of death in captive elephants. Every person who denied her veterinary care and blocked her transfer to a sanctuary should be held accountable.”

 

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The controversy highlights the broader ethical concerns surrounding captive elephants. Asian elephants reportedly have an average lifespan of about 70 years in the wild, while captivity extends it to around 80 years.

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