This is not a trick question, or a riddle. The answer is simple: an elephant in a zoo – whether sourced from the wild or born in captivity – has been deprived of everything that makes it an elephant. It may be housed and fed and kept safe, but like a human prisoner in solitary confinement, it is no longer able to interact with family members or its environment, make choices for itself, or engage in any of the enriching activities that constitute the everyday life of an elephant in the wild.

Elephants, like people, are social animals, with strong emotional, cognitive and spiritual awareness and in the sterile environment of a zoo, not only are they denied space, but they are starved of any opportunity to express their ‘elephantness’. The cruel irony is that, unlike human prisoners, they have done nothing to deserve this punishment.

Last week, a significant international indaba entitled Taking the Elephant out of the Room took place at the Municipal Auditorium in Hermanus, organised by the EMS Foundation. Featuring 13 top African elephant specialists from six countries, it was chaired by Don Pinnock, investigative journalist, photographer, criminologist and compiler of The Last Elephants. The event followed the recent Geneva meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), at which a landmark decision was taken.

In the words of Don Pinnock, “In an historic victory for elephants, a two-thirds majority of member countries voted that elephants may not be removed from their wild habitats except under exceptional circumstances. In particular, extracting elephants from the wild for human pleasure in zoos is now internationally unacceptable.”

The scene was set at the indaba by the legendary Dr Joyce Poole, who began a lifelong love affair and study of elephants in Amboseli Wildlife Reserve in Kenya in 1975, and who eloquently sketched a picture of who elephants are and why they are not suited to captivity.

Firstly, of course, they are huge (up to 70 000 kg for a male elephant) and in the wild they have an average lifespan of 70 years. You may say they are landscape inhabitants, with home ranges of sometimes 11 000 km2, which may consist of swamps, flood plains, deserts, forests or savannah. They are also able to communicate over long distances and have a wide repertoire not only of sounds but body language as well.

The very core of an elephant’s existence is feeding itself; it spends three quarters of its life eating, accessing a wide selection of food types; elephants are, in fact, masters of a variety of techniques for purposeful food gathering. Their extended and complex social lives, as well as their strong familial ties, radiating from a mother to her offspring and beyond, have been well-documented, as have examples of their phenomenal memories.

Elephants are large-brained and intelligent – in fact they have the largest brain in any living or extinct land mammal. Not only that, but they are contemplative; they have the capacity to make choices and decisions and to act autonomously, and they have been shown to exhibit a range of emotions and over 300 behavioural forms. They are indeed much more like humans, or what we would aspire to be, than we would care to admit.

Space is the foundation of an elephant’s life. By depriving them of that, we take away their very essence, which results not only in aberrant behaviour, like infanticide, or repetitive actions like rocking from side to side or bobbing their heads up and down (like people in a mental institution, as someone commented), or falling into a deep, chronic depression. With that in mind, how can elephants in zoos possibly be said to serve an educational purpose? Children will learn more about them from documentary films or a book than face to face.

Late in the day as it is, CITES is to be commended for taking the decision to ban the removal of elephants (babies usually) from the wild to be incarcerated in zoos or circuses for the entertainment of humans for the rest of their lives, or even to be forced to carry people on their backs or walk with them through the bush. It would not be taking anthropomorphism too far to term this slave labour.

Elephants are as prone to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as humans are and the very act of wrenching babies from their mothers and the herd, then translocating them not only within the same country, but abroad, is cruelty of the worst kind, from which, it has been shown, they may never recover. Yet, the wholesale and clandestine export of baby elephants from Zimbabwe, mainly to zoos in China, is sanctioned by the government as a major source of income for the cash-strapped state.

Furthermore, the removal of elephants from their natural habitat, be it through slaughtering them for their ivory or translocating them, has been demonstrated to have a deleterious effect on the habitat itself. Contrary to popular belief, as a keystone species elephants have an essential role to play in the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem, for example by creating pathways through the bush for other animals to use, disseminating tree pods, or loosening the earth with their tusks. Should they disappear altogether, the entire system would be likely to collapse.

Many of the speakers at the indaba highlighted the iconic position held by elephants in religious belief systems and in cultural mythology across the world and pointed to their intrinsic value as sentient beings. Prof David Biltich of South Africa and advocate Jim Karani of Kenya are both animal rights lawyers who are pressing for the granting of special rights to elephants, promoting an integrative approach where the rights of the species do not supersede the rights of the individual.

Advocate Karani, in particular, is striving for the granting of legal personhood to elephants. And he adds another rider: “Surely, if the selling of ivory is illegal, then the selling of elephants must be, too.”

Although there has been a slight reduction in the number of elephants in zoos worldwide since 2002, there are still far too many, with the US and China at the top of the list. While banning the export of wild elephants to zoos is an important step forward, the question is, what happens to the elephants already there? Consensus was that the ideal would obviously be to have all elephants living in the wild, but as one panellist asked, “So where is this wild? Does it even still exist?”

In South Africa, for example, except for the Kruger Park, all elephants are kept in small pockets of fenced and heavily guarded land without connecting corridors. Their wild experience is very different from that of their forefathers. To some extent, all of them are habituated to human presence and their ancient migration patterns have been disrupted. No new reserves are being created anywhere in Africa and instead of expanding, existing reserves are being curtailed to make way for human settlement.

Ethics are a contested minefield. However, two strands of agreement seem to be emerging. First: the lives of elephants and humans are inextricably bound together. We need one another. Elephants are not only a keystone species, they are also an indicator species. If we allow them to disappear from the face of the earth, it is possible that we humans will follow soon after. At the rate at which we have dissociated from and are destroying our natural environment, this is not a far-fetched premise.

Second: If we cannot return captive elephants to the wild, they should at least be placed in as free and natural a sanctuary as possible where they are afforded individual care and respect, with as little human interference as possible. Don Pinnock’s words in closing the indaba seemed to sum up its overall mood: “Elephants don’t need to be conserved; they just need to be left alone. They know how to be elephants.”

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