Video Shows Traumatized Elephants at Johannesburg Zoo


Written by Louzel Lombard Steyn

Lammie the elephant’s 40th birthday celebrations and World Elephant Day at Johannesburg Zoo were marred by scenes of highly stressed elephants.

In a viral video shared online, Lammie is seen running out of  her dark quarters, clearly confused and traumatized. The two other elephants behind bars also react in alarm, much to the misguided delight of the screaming onlookers.

The  Zoo’s two new elephants, a 22-year-old male named Ramadiba and a 19-year-old female named Mopani, are still kept separate from Lammie. Zoo spokesperson Jenny Moodley confirmed that Lammie has been kept separate from the newcomers and only been allowed to interact with them  through fences for small periods at a time.

On World Elephant Day, Mopani was made to do tricks to entertain the crowds of visitors bussed in for the occasion.

Photos show her having to lie down, then roll over in front of the media. She was also made to stand on her knees several times. The two newcomers were initially caught in the wild by Elephants for Africa Forever (EFAF) as calves and trained to perform stunts for the elephant tourism industry.

Brett Mitchell, elephant behavioral expert and chairperson of the Elephant Reintegration Trust (ERT) says the zoo’s cruel experiment is typical of a facility that’s only keeping elephants for the sake of entertainment and economic gain.

“The elephants’ behaviour indicates they were under immense stress,” Mitchell said. “Heavy temporal streaming, running with head and tail up and foot-swinging are typical signs of distress and separation anxiety in elephants. Lammie is seen spinning, dribbling urine and kicking the ground as soon as she is released back into the enclosure on her own. From the other two elephants, there is loud bellowing while they buckle their hind legs – a typical sign of stress.”

“If the zoo had any respect for elephants, especially on World Elephant Day, they would not have created an entertainment program for people that negatively affects the very animals they claim to look after,” Mitchell stated. “The zoo once again shows their complete lack of morality and has no concern for their elephants’ welfare.”

Furthermore, he said, the children visiting the zoo “did not learn anything besides that it’s okay to lock up elephants, stress them out and provoke them for the sake of human entertainment.”

Forcing elephants to perform is inhumane and exploitative, whether it happens in a circus or zoo. Image credit Tom Driggers, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Shadow Minister of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) spokesperson James Lorimer says it is “extremely distasteful and wrong.”

“How do you get to a situation where you have zoo animals doing tricks, and for whom? Zoos are supposed to be about education, and teaching people about the importance of wildlife, and this does not aid that understanding,” he said.

According to Zoo spokesperson Jenny Moodley, the elephants  enjoyed the interaction: “The two new elephants that came from a sanctuary were trained to respond to groups of people at the sanctuary that they were based at,” she says. “Yesterday was no different, with Mopani showing off her training.”

The two new elephants were held in a small fenced enclosure throughout the day where the circus tricks were performed.

Audrey Delsink, Humane Society International (HSI) Africa Wildlife Director and elephant biologist says the zoo’s actions are “shocking, but not surprising. Once again, this shows that entertainment trumps while the elephants’ welfare is pushed aside.”

“The increased noise and disturbance as well as the children’s misplaced shouts of delight clearly exacerbated the situation and elevated the elephant’s stress,” Delsink says. “We are extremely concerned about the elephants’ safety and well-being.”

This latest incident follows a public outcry against keeping Lammie in the zoo and the introduction of two new elephants.

African elephants in the wild, where they belong. Image credit Wolf Gordon Clifton / Animal People, Inc.

Update: Johannesburg Zoo sues animal rights organisations over World Elephant Day drama

The Johannesburg Zoo is suing Ban Animal Trading (BAT) and the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) for criticizing their World Elephant Day “celebrations” and for sharing footage of the zoo’s traumatized elephants online.

Joburg Zoo says the posts are defamatory. The lawyers’ letter to BAT demands that they be withdrawn and an apology be issued. The NSPCA confirms they’ve received similar legal documents. 

BAT shared the lawyers’ letter online, saying “Free the Johannesburg Zoo Elephants!” They say it’s concerning that the zoo would use taxpayers’ money to sue non-profit organizations working in the interest of animals.

The zoo was previously criticized for squandering public funds when they paid almost 1 million rand (about 65,000 US dollars) more than the market rate for its two new elephants.

Featured image: an elephant at Johannesbug Zoo being forced to perform for an audience on World Elephant Day. Image credit Smaragda Louw.

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