Europe’s last male circus elephant dies in mysterious circumstances

Nov 4, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise

On the 18th August this year, three African circus elephants at Szadar Safari Park near Budapest were found unconscious in a trailer used to transport them. Only one survived. The other two, a female and 37-year male both died, possibly from suffocation, although the circumstances remain unclear. Their deaths were not reported to the authorities at the time and the elephants were buried at the Safari Park with their tusks allegedly removed. News of the deaths only came to light last week when a German tabloid exposed the cover-up.

“These elephants suffered a miserable death after a miserable life in the circus,” says Daniela Freyer, Co-Founder of Pro Wildlife, a German organisation committed to the protection of animals. “It is time all governments ban elephants and other wildlife from circus performances.”

Cruel training methods

The elephants, part of a group of five, were owned by German circus René Caselly. The elephants had been captured in the wild as babies in Africa and exported to Europe where they were purchased by the Casselly family to spend decades in circus performing that covered the continent from Germany to Monaco. For the past three years they had been performing for the Hungarian National Circus.

The Casselly Family has long been criticised for their housing and treatment of their elephants. Cruel training methods and cramped housing have caused a variety of behavioural disorders with the elephants. The current show uses the elephants as part of an acrobatic performance for René Casselly Jr., elephant trainer, acrobat and television personality with the elephants being used as launching and landing platforms.

According to Keith Lindsay, a conservation biologist and environmental consultant with over 40 years of experience in Africa and Asia, the life of elephants in circuses is extremely damaging to their physical and mental well-being. “To perform unnatural ‘tricks’ in close contact with acrobats and audiences, they are utterly dominated by their handlers, and live under constant fear of punishment,” says Lindsay.

 Isolated from any normal social environment, elephants are forced to stand – often in chains – for hours or days on end during transport between venues and in confinement at destinations. “As a consequence,” explains Lindsay, “circus elephants develop severe problems with their feet, joints and muscle condition, as well as extreme psychological dysfunction – stereotypical swaying to cope with their boredom and lack of autonomy, listlessness and, often, aggression.”

Why the cover up?

Questions remain as to why the deaths were covered up. The Casselly family said they were in too much agony about the elephants’ deaths, who had been like family members. But they did not report the case to authorities in Hungary, as would have been required. Neither was an autopsy made, to ascertain the reason for the deaths. The Hungarian authorities have meanwhile filed legal charges relating to animal cruelty and illegal disposal of the bodies against Casselly.

“With the elephants’ deaths being covered up for two months by the circus,” says Freyer, “we now hope for a thorough investigation and that those responsible will be held accountable.”

Adam Cruise Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist with a PhD in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South Africa