Vishwa Ma’ali, or just Mali for short, was estimated to be 43 when she died, although her exact age remains unknown.
She died at 3.45pm on Tuesday, announced Manila mayor Honey Lacuna in an emotional press conference.
Crowds had regularly thronged to the Manila Zoo to see the elephant, who lived alone there for the majority of her existence.
Her death marks the end of many global campaigns that were launched with the aim of relocating her amid concerns about her lonely life and treatment by the zoo authorities.
Among prominent voices echoing concern for Mali was Sir Paul McCartney, who had written to the president of the Philippines in 2012 to advocate for her release and transfer to another country, something authorities had warned against.
“Mali was our prized possession and was the star attraction here at the Manila Zoo,” Ms Lacuna told reporters. “It saddens me because she was part of our lives,” she said.
Mali was noticed rubbing her trunk against a wall constantly, suggesting she was in pain, said the zoo’s chief vet Dr Heinrich Patrick Peña-Domingo.
On Tuesday, Mali’s condition worsened and she lay on her side, breathing heavily. Zoo vets gave her antihistamines and vitamins, but she died in the afternoon.
An autopsy revealed the elephant had pancreatic cancer, said the chief vet.
Mali was sent to the Philippines as a gift by Sri Lanka in 1988, for then Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos. She was 11 months old when she was taken to Manila.
She spent her early days with another elephant, Shiva, who had been living in the zoo since 1977 and who died in 1990.
Mali had lived alone since then as Manila Zoo had struggled with funding and could not afford to get another elephant to keep Mali company.
Animal rights activists had called for the transfer of Mali to another country and criticised Manila Zoo authorities for allegedly mistreating her.
I was a child when i went to Manila Zoo and Ive never seen it again until earlier this year. I was like 8yrs Old when I saw Mali for the first time, 20 yrs later Mali's still there. Im Grateful na naabutan ko pa sya. Sobrang nakakalungkot. RIP Mali! 🙏🏻❤️❤️😭 pic.twitter.com/cwlid1FSak
— Rusty (@rreyyyy14) November 28, 2023
Peta began its campaign to relocate Mali in 2005. It received support from high-profile personalities including Nobel laureate JM Coetzee, singer Morrissey, and animal welfare campaigner Jane Goodall.
Peta accused the zoo and the Philippines government of ignoring Mali’s “clearly painful foot problems” and for keeping her in decades of “solitary confinement”.
“Mali the elephant died the same way she had lived for nearly 50 years: alone in a concrete pen at the Manila Zoo,” Peta said on Tuesday.
— PETA (@peta) November 29, 2023
In 2012, McCartney had written a letter to the Philippines’ then president Benigno Aquino III.
“I am writing to add my voice to the many others who are supporting the transfer of Mali, the lonely elephant currently being held at the Manila Zoo, to a sanctuary in Thailand as soon as possible,” he said.
The Philippines government and zoo authorities had pushed back against the criticism and said it was the best for Mali to stay at the zoo as she would not have known how to survive in the wild.
Isa Garchitorena, an animal welfare advocate, had also penned an open letter, taking issue with giving Mali the label of being the “world’s saddest elephant”.
“Mali may not be housed with other elephants here but she is not without family,” she had said in the open letter published in 2017 on Facebook.
“Her family is her keepers, her vets, her beloved volunteers and the millions of Filipino children that have watched her grow into the Mali that she is today,” she said, and urged the Sri Lankan government to donate another elephant to keep Mali company.