Captive elephants: A grey issue

The use of captive elephants in the tourism industry is often debated in black-and-white terms, but the realities are far from simple.

Everyone – from animal rights activists to elephant-back safari owners – seems to agree that the right place for an elephant is in the wild. But between 1999 and 2008, the number of captive animals in the South African elephant tourism industry grew from 25 to more than 120. During the last two years, at least 30 elephants have been removed from the wild and placed in commercial tourism operations.

Legislation introduced by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) in May 2008 aimed to put a stop to indiscriminate growth. Removing further elephants from the wild for commercial purposes is prohibited. Orphans may be rehabilitated and reintroduced into the wild or, as a last resort, into genuine sanctuaries. No import, export or breeding of captive animals is permitted, apart from natural births. Still the question persists: is elephant tourism okay?

‘We believe the industry should have been closed down and banned,’ says Michele Pickover, spokesperson for Animal Rights Africa. ‘There are all sorts of loopholes that allow it to grow. There are no checks and balances, and nobody to answer to.’

A norms and standards document regulating the care and protection of captive elephants is only due to be released in mid 2009, but the Elephant Trainers’ Association (ETA) has a draft code of conduct it’s already following, and inspections are carried out accordingly. All owners of captive elephants in South Africa are members of the ETA, including a zoo and circus.

The DEAT and Department of Agriculture (DA) will use the ETA’s code to help develop the new regulations. ‘This is a pro active approach that takes the practical experience of the ETA into consideration,’ says Keith Ramsay, who heads up the project at the DA, the department responsible for animal welfare legislation.

Ramsay points out that the focus on care and protection of captive elephants, as opposed to welfare, is a significant distinction. ‘All animal owners and keepers have a moral duty to see to their care and protection, but it would be better if it were made a legal responsibility,’ he says.

There are currently almost as many different methods of managing and training captive elephants as there are elephant owners. Use of ‘free contact’ training aimed at breaking the will of an elephant has been condemned by Environment and Tourism Minister Martinus van Schalkwyk, but the ETA sanctions the use of steel restraining enclosures and tethers in necessary circumstances, for example visits from a vet.

The Knysna Elephant Park has what they term a ‘free range controlled environment’ where the animals interact on their own terms. ‘The herd can range freely on the large property and guests can witness elephants just being elephants,’ says Lisette Withers, owner of the park.

Chris Kruger, co-owner of The Elephant Sanctuary in Plettenberg Bay, claims no force is necessary for the eight elephants in his care. ‘I use all the same principles and methods I use with my daughter. I don’t allow any violence or force whatsoever.’ Kruger doesn’t agree with tethering, but the ETA feels it’s responsible practice for elephants to be trained to take a tether. Tethering in excess is not tolerated.

‘Within our membership there are people who don’t necessarily agree with what other members are doing,’ says Greg Vogt, chairman of the ETA, ‘but our aim is to ensure that every elephant in a captive facility gets the best attention and care.’

Chris Kruger’s elephants were rescued from export to overseas zoos, hunts or culls. Some ETA members believe that if elephants are to be culled, a second chance of life in captivity is preferable, but others –  Kruger included – believe South Africa isn’t in a position to allow this. ‘The responsibility is totally underestimated,’ says Vogt. ‘The induction programs to develop the skills and experience aren’t in place.’

Nevertheless, Vogt maintains the industry has made huge progress. He cites a questionnaire given to tourists who had completed elephant experiences during July 2007. Out of more than 1,000 returned, there were five negative responses. ‘My invitation is to come and see for yourself,’ says Vogt.

Elephant tourism: A dangerous business?

According to a report released by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2007, four elephant handlers have been killed in South Africa since 2001 and two British tourists were seriously injured in April 2007 when they fell off the back of an elephant. ‘We believe it’s only a matter of time before a tourist gets stomped on,’ says Michele Pickover of Animal Rights Africa. Greg Vogt of the Elephant Trainers’ Association points out that tourists have already been trampled by elephants in South Africa – in the wild.

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