It was during the long nights with Thandora that my mindwould drift and search for the answers that plagued the captive elephant tourism industry of today. The attraction of being able to stand right beside these huge magnificent beasts, feed and interact with them, makes one oblivious to any doubt of them being unhappy. Having witnessed tens of thousands of tourists visiting captive elephants I learned that these visitors invariably believed what they were told. Some of what they are told is the truth and then there is a lot that is not true.
And what are the tourists told?
What they are told is at this point not the issue! We have to ask ourselves how this industry came about? How is it that elephants arrived into captive places that now exhibit these elephants to the public?
Asian elephants have been a part of a culture that extends back 1000’s of years, whilst African elephants do not share the domestic culture of their Asian cousins. Hannibal did tame down African elephant to ride them into war, and other than sporadic specimens taken for exotic collections of kings and other eccentric nobles, there has been no ‘domestication’ of this species on the scale of their Asian cousins.
Prior to 1994, the Kruger National Park would cull elephant herds to manage the rapidly growing population. Culling is the term given to any form of population management process that involves reducing the numbers of a species in a protected area or private protected area. This is usually because in managed spaces, the balance through natural predation cannot be achieved and so man has to intervene to manage all biodiversity. To understand this concept one must recognise the key objective of conservation is to manage biodiversity (all species equally) as a whole, not one species having a right above many other species. Elephants being a keystone species can actually enhance or promote the environment for other species, or they can destroy (or demote) the environment and in so doing wipe out eco-systems that support many other species.
During this period it was deemed acceptable for young elephant to not be culled, but rather captured and sold to animal traders or Zoo’s around the world (https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/20/science/orphaned-elephants-fate-is-debated-us-zoos-or-africa.html). Just before the end of the culling era in 1994, some of these young elephants were being ‘ordered’ by places in South Africa. So yes, some of these elephants are orphaned but not in terms of the definition of a genuine orphaned elephant. There is a clear definition of a genuine orphaned elephant and there are less than a handful of these cases in South Africa (Extracted from the elephant norms and standards: “genuine orphan calf” means an elephant calf that- (a) is less than 2 years old; (b) its mother has clearly died of natural causes or poaching; (c) has been rejected by the elephant population of which it forms part; and (d) is likely to die if it is not taken into captivity).
So the ethical debate here revolves around the question of whether a group of elephants (or young elephants) is better off transferred to a zoo, or wildlife tourism interactive facility, rather than be culled?
Thandora (See previous blogs) is a good example of a Zoo order from the culling era. During that period, the standard of welfare was not what it is today and there were few people with the skills to train the elephants from these culls.
So the question is where do the elephants that are in current elephant interaction places from?
Each elephant and each place has its story.
In 1994 there was only one commercial zoo in South Africa that also operated a circus. This business had both Africa and Asian elephants. The Zimbabwean protected areas however also had a similar dynamic to that of the Kruger National Park, and culling was conducted by their national parks authorities. There were however two human families that lived on private game reserves that had instances of young calves literally arriving on their doorsteps – in other words, genuinely orphaned calves. These farmers successfully reared these calves and learned the process of how to work with them. They (the farmers) had extensive equine experience and were experienced dog trainers, so they had a very good grasp of the animal behaviour concepts. The South African story however is a lot more commercial, with evidence of people wanting to get into the business for commercial reasons, the caveat being their lack of experience of working with animals. The South Africans imported this knowledge (in the form of groom’s or senior elephant trainers) from Zimbabwe and ‘mahouts’ from Asia – not ideal good under the circumstances. Stated simply, there was, and still is, no formal training modules or recognised industry standards for elephant handers or trainers.
As in all industries, there are those operators who are exceptional in what they do and those who have ulterior motives. Conservation Guardians has chosen not to focus on the human element, but rather the case of elephants in captivity.