AN elephant has died and four others are recovering from injuries after a circus truck tipped over on a major road in Spain.

The incident provoked an outcry among animal rights activists.

The truck overturned on Monday on the road linking Albacete with Murcia after overtaking another long vehicle, said Albacete’s Civil Guard spokesman Jose Amado.

He said the movement of the five female elephants could have destabilised the truck.

The driver was not injured, the spokesman said, but one of the elephants died at the scene. The four surviving elephants – three of them with minor cuts and one with injured legs – are being treated by vets at a public facility before being moved to a clinic in the coming days.

“With five unpredictable animals, each one of them weighing three to four tons, accidents can happen no matter how much care has been taken,” Amado said.

Photos and videos shared by local police and authorities showed the elephants standing on the road and being lifted on to trucks by huge industrial cranes. A section of the road near Pozo Canada, south of Albacete, remained closed for nearly three hours until the dead elephant was also removed, local authorities said.

Animal rights groups said the accident is the latest example of how the nature of the circus business is a danger to the needs of wild animals.

"These incredible animals are being carted around the country, confined and forced to perform," said Animal Defenders International president Jan Creamer in a statement, adding that animals are often "confined in small spaces, deprived of physical and social needs, spending excessive amounts of time shut in transporters".

The Association of United Circuses said the overturned truck had been cleared by authorities for the transportation of animals and the journey had been approved by vets.

"Animal rights activists have turned this accident into a scandal," said the association's spokesman, Ignacio Pedrera.

"They have used it to make politics and attack this industry when road accidents, whether involving animals or not, happen all the time."

Pedrera said 13 out of the 22 active circuses touring Spain use animals in performances.

The industry employs more than 2500 families, he added.