By Dr. Louise de Waal – Conservation Action Trust
No new elephants should be placed in captivity and elephants currently in captivity should be rewilded, was the overwhelming conclusion of the Captive Elephant Indaba held in Hermanus last Friday.
This conclusion follows the historic resolution to stop the trade in wild caught elephants, taken at CITES CoP18 in Geneva the previous week. The Captive Elephant Indaba was held to consider the plight of captive elephants and provide policy recommendations for the future.
“Although we have seen a distinct improvement in the number of captive elephants in South Africa, we still have 95 elephants in 22 captive facilities,” says Brett Mitchell of Elephant Reintegration Trust. “The number of facilities offering elephant back riding decreased by 80% over the last five years, largely as a result of public pressure.”
Dr Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices expressed her views.
“Elephants are highly intelligent and social creatures with large brains capable of cognitive processing, self-awareness and mourning loss, and display a complex and extensive repertoire of communication. They are large and long-lived mammals reaching ages similar to us humans.”
These are traits unsuitable to captive conditions, where elephants are often confined to “small and barren camps, offering little to no opportunity for exercise, mobility behavioural challenges, or choices over where to go or with whom to spend time,” adds Dr Keith Lindsay of Amboseli Elephant Research Project.
One of the aims of the Indaba was to bring awareness to the plight of captive elephants and the cruel methods of training used to break these animals into submission to facilitate interaction. To achieve perpetual submissiveness, they are often also put on the Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone, which reduces their testosterone levels but has severe side including causing genital deformities.
Hence, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is regularly identified in elephants, especially those kept in captivity, stated Dr Gay Bradshaw from the Kerulos Center for Nonviolence.
“When subjected to genocide, imprisonment, cultural destruction, enslavement, loss of homeland, torture, and war, or in the language of elephant managers and conservationists, culls, translocation, captivity training, human-elephant conflict, and crop protection, both humans and elephants experience psychological and social breakdown. Elephant trauma survivors can only begin to heal when elephant ways of life are reinstated.”
During the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) CoP18 meeting in Geneva in August this year, a majority vote restricted the live elephant trade. CITES now only allows the live trade of wild elephants within their natural and historic range in Africa, except in exceptional or emergency circumstances.
“This means that wild baby elephants can no longer be ripped away from their families and sold to zoos and captive facilities, which is a great start,” states Audrey Delsink of HSI Africa.
“However, the only truly ‘appropriate and acceptable’ conditions for this iconic and keystone species are in their natural habitat,” says Lindsay.
“Hearing first-hand from Drs Poole and Bradshaw about the severe trauma that captive elephants endure, and having seen the extreme stress of Lammie and the two newcomers in Joburg Zoo, it is critical to get these elephants into a sanctuary,” says Delsink.
“I hope that City Parks and Johannesburg City Council watch the proceedings – they can no longer deny that zoos are no place for elephants and have the opportunity to do the right thing here.”
The event organiser, Michele Pickover of the EMS Foundation, expressed her disappointment that government representatives from South Africa’s national and provincial government declined their invitation to participate.
“This is disappointing, but not unexpected given the dismissive position our environmental agencies take towards ethical and welfare concerns for the wild animals they have oversight and responsibility for.”