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Death of world's 'saddest' elephant shines light on zoo animal welfare

Mali was the only captive elephant in the Philippines.
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Posted at 5:02 PM, Dec 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-02 17:02:32-05

LONDON — Mali, an elephant dubbed as the world's "saddest" has died at a Philippine Zoo, Manila's Mayor Honey Lacuna has announced.

Vishwa Ma'ali -- commonly known as Mali -- was the only captive elephant in the Philippines. She passed away aged 43.

"Just to set the record straight, Mali died yesterday at 3:45 pm here at Manila Zoo," Honey Lacuna announced during a news conference on Wednesday. "She is about 43 years old. She was given to city government of Manila in 1981 by the Sri Lankan government."

Tributes have poured in for Mali in the Philippines and on social media, many sharing their memories seeing the Asian elephant, considered one of Manila Zoo' "star attractions."

Often referred to as the "world's saddest elephant," Mali was a resident at the Manila Zoo for over 40 years. Manila zoo's chief veterinarian announced Mali died from pancreatic cancer, as well as a blockage in her aorta.

At the start of the week Manila Zoo's chief veterinarian Dr. Heinrich Pena-Domingo said the zoo spotted indicators that Mali was in pain and the elephant spotted repeatedly rubbing her trunk against a wall. She was administered with antihistamines and vitamins but died shortly after on Tuesday afternoon. "We were her family," said Pena-Domingo.

Through the years, Mali has been the focal point of a global relocation campaign and her captivity has drawn the attention of animal welfare activists and organizations around the world. In a statement sent to ABC News, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said Mali "suffered" for decades in confinement.

"World-renowned elephant experts, and [other] people from around the world all pleaded for her release to a sanctuary, where she could have enjoyed the company of other elephants," said PETA. "The Manila Zoo and the City of Manila sentenced Mali to decades of solitary confinement – torture for female elephants, who in nature spend their lives among their mothers and sisters, protecting one and other and raising each other's calves."

In 2013, the Beatles' Paul McCartney penned a letter to then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, calling on Mali's release to a sanctuary on health grounds following news on her ailing plight.

"I have great regard for governments that intervene in behalf of animals, just as yours did with the May 2012 directive ordering that Mali be evaluated and considered for transfer," McCartney said at the time. "With the stroke of a pen, you can bring an end to her suffering, and I urge you, with all my heart, to please direct that Mali be given that joy now."

According to researchers, the median life expectancy for a female Asian elephant is around 47 years old.

Animal welfare organization Four Paws tells ABC News that common behavior in captive elephants include pacing, rocking their bodies back and forth, repeatedly weaving or bobbing their head or swinging their trunks.

"Many suffer from injuries or diseases associated with captive conditions, such as foot infections and musculoskeletal disorders," the organization said. "For an elephant to spend their life alone is akin to a person living their life in isolated confinement."

"She might seem alone, but she had us beside her," Lacuna said. "She was the face that greeted everyone who visited Manila Zoo. She is a part of our lives."