Jumbos in 3D could be coming to a zoo near you — an innovative model to keep elephants in the wild

Jan 20, 2023 | Commentary

By By Tamar Ron – Daily Maverick

Can we find a way to support human-elephant conflict mitigation and coexistence at the local level, enable people around the world to enjoy viewing elephants, and at the same time enable the elephants to continue their natural lives undisrupted? An innovative win-win solution is proposed here, based on selling the rights for zoo visitors to view elephants via webcams.

At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of the Parties (COP) 19 in November 2022, it was decided — with the support of a great majority of the parties — to place a temporary moratorium on live elephant exports from Africa, and to enter a dialogue to try to find common ground on the issue.

This temporary moratorium gives us a unique opportunity to develop an innovative model for a sustainable, non-consumptive use of wildlife as a win-win solution that can benefit all involved, support both conservation and local communities, and defuse this contentious and divisive debate.

Elephants and us

Elephants are an integral part of the lives and culture of people almost everywhere: those living in elephant range states, and those living far away from them. 

They obviously play a significant role in the lives of people sharing their natural habitats, but they are also part of the upbringing of people all over the world. They are present in children’s books, films, toys and images.

Those of us who have had the privilege to meet elephants in their natural habitats in the wild, and felt that overwhelming sense of awe at the sight — and even those who were only exposed to books, articles or films describing elephants’ complex social behaviour and incredible intelligence — cannot avoid feeling sad or at least uncomfortable to see an elephant locked in a zoo enclosure, far from the wide open spaces of savannahs or forests in Africa or Asia, in the company of family members, where these magnificent species belong.

Those who cohabit with elephants and suffer from devastating damages to their crops and a danger to their lives, on the other hand, have their own views on them, deeply embedded not only in their daily life experiences, but also in their cultural heritage.

Can we all jointly find a way to support human-elephant conflict mitigation and coexistence at the local level, enable people around the world to enjoy viewing elephants, and at the same time enable the elephants to continue their natural lives undisrupted?

Zoos and wildlife captive care

Although horrible zoos which keep miserable captive animals in tiny cells where they are maltreated, badly fed and go mad from boredom, loneliness and depression — and even cruel wildlife “performances”, roadside zoos and circuses — sadly still exist in many countries, the “zoo world” and global standards for keeping wildlife in captivity have progressed a great deal.

Global, regional and national zoo organisations have set ethics codes and guidelines of acceptable standards for keeping wildlife in captive care (eg, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, WAZA Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare; the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, EAZA Code of Ethics; and EAZA Standards for the Accommodation and Care of Animals in Zoos and Aquaria.

Such best-practice standards are increasingly being embedded in national legislation in various countries, aided by the general improved public awareness of the behavioural complexity of these wildlife species in their natural habitats.

3D elephants zoo
An elephant enclosure at the Johannesburg Zoo. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

Acceptable standards of captive-care conditions provide the physical, environmental, behavioural, social, mental and emotional needs of each species, as well as address the special needs of specific individuals, and allow the animals in captive care to express their array of natural behaviours.

These standards include, among other considerations, enabling a physical space that is appropriate to the species, sufficient furniture and environment enrichment, and social composition that is adequate to the species and individual needs.

Clearly, zoos cannot provide adequate conditions to secure the welfare of every species and enable them to perform all or even most of their natural behaviours. Elephants are one of the most prominent examples of a species that does not adapt well to life in captivity (read, for example, here).

Elephants are highly intelligent, sentient and social animals. 

In nature, an African elephant roams over a very extensive home range, moves a daily distance that can reach many kilometres, and maintains close and lifelong relations with herd members comprising mostly extended family groups of females, infants and juveniles, and small groups of adolescent and adult “bachelor” males, as well as keeps long-distance communication with adjacent herds.

Recognising the overwhelming discrepancy between elephants’ natural lives and needs and the inevitably compromised life that any zoo can offer them, the keeping of elephants in UK zoos is about to be banned, hopefully to be followed by other countries’ domestic legislation.

Traumatised elephants, traumatised people

One of the main arguments of the proponents of live elephant exports from Africa to zoos far away from their natural distribution is that this is part of human-elephant conflict mitigation and elephant population management programmes.

For human-elephant conflict mitigation and wildlife management programmes to be effective, they must be developed through a holistic approach.

They have to be based on integrated and overarching land-use planning and include considerations of enabling ecological connectivity and opening natural migration corridors and large distance movements, as well as informed zoning and knowledge-based selection of sites for human habitation and cultivation lands.

A well-developed, varied and monitored toolkit with a tailored combination of mitigation and deterrence measures for the protection of the selected habitation and cultivation lands from elephant damages, is essential to complement such a holistic programme. 

In some cases, the removal of one or two identified “problem individuals” from a specific site may be considered as a part of such a programme.

The capture of elephants for live export to zoos does not help human-wildlife conflict mitigation and does not form part of effective wildlife and ecosystems conservation and management plans. 

Live elephants captured in nature to be sold to zoos or other captive care facilities are selected in accordance with the zoo’s needs, and comprise mainly juveniles and young adult females. Even infants are caught.

These are not “problem individuals” identified as causing exceptional human-elephant conflict problems. (See also here).

Many elephants die during the capture or shortly after. The survivors that reach the captive facility destinations are subject to multiple captivity-related illnesses and injuries, mental disorders and depression, a high rate of stillbirths and reproductive disorders, and tend to die at a much younger age than their co-species in the wild.

3D elephants kruger park
A herd of elephants at the Numbi Gate of the Kruger National Park. (Photo: Gallo Images / Daily Maverick / Felix Dlangamandla)

The capture of herd members, and in particular females, young juveniles and infants, causes significant behavioural and psychological disturbance to their family groups and leaves both the captured individuals and their surviving families considerably traumatised.

The affected family groups may be subject to a number of factors of reduced resilience and survival rates. They also tend to become more aggressive and thereby inclined to be a more prominent cause of concern for the local communities. Conflict is thus heightened between traumatised elephants and traumatised people.

Benefits for conservation and local communities

The main justification cited by proponents of permitting live African elephant exports from several countries in southern Africa, including trade for primarily commercial purposes, is the need to use the revenues to cover the costs of in-situ conservation efforts and support local communities that are subject to human-elephant conflict.

The solution proposed here would enable deriving much higher revenues and other benefits for these purposes and over a much longer term, without sentencing young elephants to life in captivity.

Elephant ‘selfies’ as a win-win solution

The underlying concept of the proposed solution is that rather than capturing elephants in nature, removing them cruelly from their families and selling them to zoos, what would be sold is the rights of viewing elephants via webcams in the wild in unprecedented outstanding and exclusive conditions without disrupting their lives.

This would be a win-win solution, benefiting the conservation authorities and local communities in elephant range states. 

It would support holistic and sustainable in-situ conservation of elephants and human-elephant conflict mitigation programmes, while sparing individual elephants from lifelong suffering and sparing their herds from severe trauma.

3d elephants kruger park
A drugged elephant bull during research in the Kruger National Park on 29 June 2022 in Mbombela, South Africa. The research came after a dead elephant tested positive for human tuberculosis in 2016. Several other tests were also done on the elephant. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

This solution would also provide an innovative outstanding educational experience for zoo visitors, and well-deserved public relations benefits for the participating zoos.

One of EAZA’s standards is “provision of a high standard of public viewing experience, that demonstrates fully the animals and their behaviours, and which is consistent with the educational messages and strategies relevant to the species”.

The proposed solution would provide this experience to zoo visitors better than any enclosure of elephants in captivity can ever provide. Moreover, it would make the visitors active participants in the elephants’ in-situ conservation.

Real life, real size, real-time elephant ‘selfie’ filming in nature, for zoos — how will it work?

Effective implementation of this concept would require several preconditions to overcome potential barriers and challenges. 

It would require close collaboration between governments of elephant range states, elephant research programmes and their implementers, local communities in these sites, and zoos that have wildlife conservation and welfare considerations as their primary priority.

Thematic experts would be needed at both ends to lead the implementation of the technical, technological, financial, social and ecological aspects.

The elephant “selfie” filming in nature will have to be based on collaboration with ongoing research programmes, with baseline data availability on elephant movements, collected through deploying elephant tracking devices such as GPS collaring and camera traps.

A good number of high-quality online webcam video camera traps would be installed in sites known to be most frequented by the elephants in each selected project area, for example, near waterholes or river banks.

Other technological solutions may well be considered and evolve with time, as the technology in this field is rapidly developing.

The online filming will also help the implementation of the collaborating research, conservation, wildlife crime enforcement, and human-elephant conflict study and mitigation programmes.

As the required technological solutions cannot be adapted to any relevant project area, a collaboration agreement between all African elephant range states would be an essential component for a successful implementation of the proposed programme. 

It would have to include detailed joint decisions on conditions, standards and rules for setting any elephant ‘selfie’ filming project, for the selling of viewing rights and for fair benefit sharing.

Agreed standards would have to be set, for example, to prevent the use of disruptive methodologies and technologies, and to ensure that the revenues would be used with full transparency and accountability to support conservation efforts, local communities and human-elephant conflict mitigation.

The agreement would also have to deal with such issues as several countries hosting the same population of elephants that move between them, as in the case of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area member countries.

Long-term agreements of the elephant range states with the participating local communities on the one hand, and with the participating zoos on the other, would also be needed.

A financial model would have to be developed by relevant thematic experts to determine and standardise the selling of viewing rights, aiming to maximise and balance over time the revenues for each project and the number of participating projects in range states. 

It would define how, to how many institutions, and under what conditions, the rights for viewing each elephant herd under this programme can be sold. Principles of limited editions may be adequate.

This programme is expected to produce revenues that exceed by far those that would be gained from selling live elephants. After all, an elephant can be sold only once. 

Through well-crafted financial models and agreements, and with added components such as merchandise, this programme can permanently provide ongoing golden eggs for the benefit of conservation authorities and local communities in the range states.

The participating zoos will receive in return not only exceptional viewing rights, but also considerable public relations benefits.

The zoo visitors will have the benefit of a viewing experience of the natural behaviour of the elephants, as well as their natural habitats and other species sharing them, in outstanding conditions that are substantially different from viewing nature films or even online wildlife webcams on private devices. Moreover, this way they will have the privilege of taking part in these elephants’ in situ conservation.

For this effect, conditions need to be created in the participating zoos for best quality, real size, real time and preferably 3D viewing. The use of virtual reality or other technologies for improved viewer experience can also be considered.

Real-time switching of inputs between several different cameras in the partner site will be needed to maximise the time that the elephants are visible on screen. To complement the viewer experience, especially at times that the elephants are not captured by the webcams, a second screen can be installed to show the best elephant observation footage filmed during previous days.

In addition, the exhibit will need to provide educational information through displays, regular video screens, in-person guides and so on, informing the visitors about the programme, and that by watching the elephant filming they take part in saving these animals from a life in captivity.

Information about key events in the herd’s life and behaviour, as well as identification of individual herd members, can also be provided in various appealing formats. 

This way the participating zoos will also be able to create “fan clubs” of “frequent visitors” that follow the herd’s life, and possibly provide further support in various forms to the in situ conservation programmes and local communities.

Periodic brief video reports from the participating conservation authorities and communities in the range states would also be provided to demonstrate to the visitors how the viewing rights royalties are being used, including human-elephant conflict mitigation progress where relevant.

Elephants and beyond

Elephant consumptive use in general, and especially the export of live elephants from several range states to zoos overseas, has been a source of emotive and bitter controversy between African elephant range states, involving also other countries, organisations, communities and other stakeholders, locally and globally, for a very long time.

CITES’ COP19 called for a dialogue to try to find common ground “bringing all the parties concerned together and building consensus around a technical and evidence-based deliberation that is aligned with the fundamental principles of the Convention”.

Such a dialogue has a high potential of ending up with no common ground, but rather heightened conflict. The solution proposed here, if put on the table, can provide a good basis for a consensual agreement that can help make the moratorium on live elephant exports from Africa permanent, while truly benefitting all involved, in particular the local communities — including the elephants.

It also provides a model that can serve the “zoo world” in its efforts to become a prominent actor in in situ conservation, provide an outstanding educational and emotionally satisfying experience for zoo visitors, and enable phasing out the keeping of species for whose welfare needs zoos cannot sufficiently provide.

There is no justification to continue capturing wildlife in nature for their exhibition in captivity elsewhere, with very few exceptions where contribution to the species conservation or to the welfare of individuals can be proved, such as sanctuaries for orphaned infants or injured individuals.

If well developed and well implemented, perhaps this concept can even help us all rewrite our species’ relations with elephants, with other wildlife, and between our own communities, globally?

Dr Tamar Ron is an independent international biodiversity conservation and community engagement adviser. She has been a biodiversity consultant to the Angolan government for 20 years and developed the concept and acted as principal consultant for the establishment of the Mayombe Transfrontier Initiative between Angola, the Republic of Congo, DRC and Gabon. She is co-author, with Tamar Golan, of the book Angolan Rendezvous: Man and Nature in the Shadow of War (2010, 30 Degrees South).

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