Thursday, 12 September 2019

No 89 - Captive elephants: what next?

I recently attended an indaba on the state of captive elephants, run by the EMS Foundation at Hermanus, on 6 September: "Taking the elephant out of the room:... Africa's role". Here's what emerged for me.

The logo of the EMS Foundation is inspired – an elephant profile deftly doubled with a human figure, arms spread in flight or embrace. The Foundation was started up by Michelè Pickover, whose work to support vulnerable groups, both human and animal, exemplifies this union: I last encountered her in person when she was still archivist at Wits, and involved in a project to record the post-traumatic experiences of soldiers from all sides of the decades of conflict in Southern Africa. As has been conclusively demonstrated again and again, elephants and humans share all-important familial bonds, hefty pre-frontal cortexes housing deep memory and communicative complexity – and therefore suffer similarly from orphanhood, isolation and enslavement. In a crucial sense, elephant welfare – all animal welfare – is human welfare; environmental justice is social justice.

Yet for the vast numbers of people who have not grown up with animals, let alone wilderness, and see no particular reason why they should, let alone feel extraordinary compassion, it’s still a hard sell. In many such minds, animal, environmental and human concerns exist in largely sealed-off silos. Michelè, author of the go-to text Animal Rights in South Africa, elected to hold this indaba, “Taking elephants out of the room”, in Hermanus, partly because a local entrepreneur named Craig Saunders has been flighting a controversial proposal to import elephants to an ecologically sensitive area near the resort town. This deeply unwise scheme was raised by Michelè in her opening remarks, but thereafter disappeared from the programme. It was meant to be a touchstone for the indaba, which was aimed at promoting a coherent refurbishment of government’s Norms and Standards for elephant management, especially those in captivity. But neither the relevant government agencies, nor Cape Nature, which would presumably have jurisdiction over Saunders’ idea, saw fit to accept invitations to attend. When the ministries of power will not even join the conversation, let alone do anything proactive, one’s optimism for the future wavers.

As all who attended the conference knew, elephants are in dire straits across Africa: some 70% have been killed by poachers since the ivory trade exploded in 2008. Paradoxically, of course, here in the South, we have arguably the opposite problem: too many elephants crammed into inadequate spaces, and therefore threatened periodically with culling, or the non-lethal but still traumatic experiences of forced contraception or translocation.  Indeed, it can be argued that all elephants in South Africa are captive in varying degrees, from the reportedly appalling treatment and condition of Lammie, a sorry elephant imprisoned in Johannesburg Zoo, to even my favourites, the calmly meandering, but still fenced-in herds of Addo. Even the vast space of Kruger has its limits: elephants everywhere are subject to forced removals, breeding regimens, harassment by noisy tourists, isolation from herd life, and being hunted; and at worst brutal taming, reduction to paranoid behaviours in confined and impoverished spaces, and subjection to the humiliation of performance on command and being ridden by jabbering humans. Don’t get me wrong: I understand that there are genuine orphans who could never rehabilitate to the wild, that there are sanctuaries whose methods are as humane as can be achieved, and that snuggling up close to an elephant, being intimately considered by that ruby eye, can be a life-changing experience. But the substrate on which the indaba was premised is an achingly sad one.

The pathetic – or dangerously ignorant – non-response from government aside, the indaba was not as well attended as one might have hoped: the plush Overberg Auditorium was less than half full. I didn’t encounter any actual zoo, circus, elephant-park or sanctuary people, though the Western Cape holds the most captive elephants of all our provinces. Moreover, there was almost no representation from South Africa’s majority populations. Though plenty of useful information and heartfelt intervention emanated from the dozen or so formal presenters, it was largely preaching to the converted. I hope the live streaming of the event was, and will continue, to reach a wider audience. As Marion Garai, head of the Elephant Specialist Action Group (ESAG) stressed on her skype appearance, this needs to be the start of something much greater. What was said here – though there was not much that is radically new, and we surely now possess all the research data necessary to do the right thing – needs to have real impact on the various authorities. (The opinion of several scientists and experts, backed by 300,000 signatures on a petition, failed to persuade Johannesburg Zoo to release Lammie.)

All that said, the indaba was interesting, rich, and replete with expertise. Two premier researchers and activists from the US, Joyce Poole (author of Coming of Age with Elephants) and Gay Bradshaw (author of Elephants on the Edge), joined by skype to lay in the ground-strokes for the gathering, outlining who (not what) elephants are in terms of their capacities, sensitivities, and fundamental needs (those routinely denied them in captivity). The Chief  of the South Peninsula Khoi Council, shoulder draped in springbok hide, delivered a vigorous, even angry paean to the historic linkage between Khoi people and the totemic elephant: “If you kill the elephant, you kill my people!” Simplistic, perhaps; I found his promise to “fight to have the elephants freed” over-aggressive, and his mantra that elephants “rightfully belong to the Khoi nation” over-narrow. But chair Don Pinnock opined that this is exactly the kind of voice that needed to be heard across the world. Indeed, perhaps ears have become dulled to the litany of science, emotion and legalism that indeed characterised the presentations that followed, excellent though they were.

As befitted the policy aim of the indaba, several of these came from the legal fraternity. David Bilchitz, a professor of constitutional law as well as director of Animal Law Reform SA, argued lucidly for an ‘integrative’ rather than an ‘aggregative’ approach to elephant treatment, one that respected the individual, even within a ‘sustainable use’ model. He argues that a notion of ‘respect’ for animals is implicit in the Constitution itself, and that National Parks, for example, would be contradicting their own mandate if they did not include explicit animal welfare in their policies. Two legal minds from north of the border were also impressive: Lenin Chisaira is fighting what sounds like a lonely battle on behalf of animal legal rights in Zimbabwe, where the wholly disgusting and unacceptable (and ongoing) export of captured baby elephants to China and Vietnam was another abusive touchstone for the conference. (Chisaira was equally courageously backed up by Lynne James of the Mutare SPCA.)
The Kenyan delegates
Jim Karani of WildlifeDirect in Kenya, touted as Africa’s first ‘animal lawyer’, ‘staged’ his presentation as a kind of legal case, with audience as jury, and received huge applause for his critique of current ‘conservation education’ and promotion of an extension of notions of ‘person-hood’; if there can be such a thing as ‘corporate personhood’, why on earth not elephants? His compatriot Kahindi Lekalhaile, director of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare and recipient of conservation awards for his elephant work in Samburu, raised some of the most challenging questions: How are policy-makers to be included in the conversation? When ‘public participation’ is called for, who is that public, with what requisite diversity? Most importantly: where are the ‘wilds’ we would like to see elephants returned to? In almost all of them, people live too.

In conversation, I asked the tall, angular and voluble Lekalhaile if Kenyan conservation still experience echoes of old colonial structures, as we do in South Africa, what with the racially-skewed formation and maintenance of ‘fortress conservation’ areas – to which he replied, No, but the present government was worse! Indeed, my impression was that the Kenyans are operating on a different level to us southerners: certain hang-ups have been shed, new issues tackled with an eloquence, self-awareness and sharpness we have mostly yet to match. Such animal activists remain rare and embattled in Africa, their courage inspirational. Which is not to belittle any of the work being pursued by local organisations or the odds they’re up against, in a somewhat different register.

There was much more, including some bright spots. Brett Mitchell, who like Lekalhaile moved out of tourism into elephant affairs, founding the Elephant Reintegration Trust, which claims some success in the tricky task of reintegrating human-habituated elephants into the wild. Twitching his big shoulders in self-confessed discomfort with public speaking, Mitchell presented detailed figures from around the globe of captive elephants – where they are housed (1770 elephants in 468 facilities, 1228 of those wild-born, the US and China the biggest culprits); recent exports to zoos (South Africa and Zimbabwe by far the biggest suppliers); life expectancies (much lower in captivity); and so on. The good news: there has been a 23% reduction in captive elephants in South Africa from a few years ago, mostly due to closures of facilities. I wonder where the surviving elephants went, though? Another encouraging sign: several speakers had been at the most recent gathering of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which has barred further transportation of live elephants other than in ‘exceptional circumstances’. Almost all the delegates here seemed suspicious of CITES’ bona fides; it’s both toothless and, allegedly, too financially beholden to the very traffickers they are mandated to control. Be that as it may, this prohibition is a step in the right direction. 

What direction, though? Crucial issues remained, or were only tangentially raised. Is it time, as Bill Smuts of the Landmark Foundation advocated, for much more aggressive litigation? How best, asked a representative of Voices for African Wildlife, to reach the minds of the young, who will inherit the losses we have inflicted on the world? All but unspoken, there’s the insoluble tsunami of human population growth and associated habitat constriction. Nor is the grand problem merely about saving elephants; as Oxford-based ecologist Keith Lindsay noted, it’s about whole ecosystems, all of which, however one defines them, have become both polluted and fragmented. Elephants are just the biggest symptom of runaway anthropogenic damage.

As the whole hubbub closed, Don Pinnock asked from the chair for one-liners that would capture what should be the clarion message from the indaba. I don’t know what people wrote on the pieces of paper that went forward – for what it’s worth, I  wrote something utopian about the need to abandon an attitude of capitalistic profiteering for animal-based luxuries – but most of those that were broadcast echoed Joyce Poole: Return the elephants to the wild! I agree – but Kahindi Lekalhaile’s words keep resonating: Where are those wilds?

 For further detail and some presentations, go here and here.

Visit Dan Wylie's website for books and art, Netsoka.


  1. I don't know. Or worse, I do know, I've been to many of them, and they're too few and too small. And here I add to the questions, not the answers: My children's generation have seen better lion and leopard kills than I have in my forty years of going 'to the bush.' They have seen better elephant interactions, actions, scenes, close-ups and fascinating things eles do than I ever have. All this of course on the internet. On trips to the wild they have not infrequently come back disappointed, or at least underwhelmed, whereas youtube never disappoints. HOW on earth are we going to get them to decide not only to look after wild areas, but to increase them? The challenge is huge - perhaps even bigger than we think. This plagues me so often, yet so far I have no bright ideas.

    1. Important issues. Preserving wilderness means not everyone can visit it. So we are left with the problem of generating empathy with the wild 'remotely'; possible, but different. (One delegate suggested holograms. Hmm...) And appreciating actual wilderness demands a kind of patience and attentiveness largely foreign to our YouTube-reared youngsters. Is it an insoluble contradiction?