Elephants Taken Out of the Room


The overwhelming conclusion of a captive elephant conference held in the South African town of Hermanus earlier this month was that no new elephants should be placed in captivity and elephants currently in captivity should be rewilded.

This conclusion followed the historic resolution to stop the trade in wild caught elephants, taken at the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Conference of the Parties (CoP) 18 in Geneva the previous week. The captive elephant conference, titled “Taking Elephants Out of the Room,” was held to consider the plight of captive elephants and provide policy recommendations for the future.

“Although we have seen a distinct improvement in the number of captive elephants in South Africa, we still have 95 elephants in 22 captive facilities,” says Brett Mitchell of Elephant Reintegration Trust. “The number of facilities offering elephant back riding decreased by 80% over the last five years, largely as a result of public pressure.”

Elephant back riding on the Garden Route, South Africa. Image via Conservation Action Trust.

Dr. Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices expressed her views: “Elephants are highly intelligent and social creatures with large brains capable of cognitive processing, self-awareness and mourning loss, and they display a complex and extensive repertoire of communication. They are large and long-lived mammals reaching ages similar to us humans.”

These are traits unsuitable to captive conditions, where elephants are often confined to “small and barren camps, offering little to no opportunity for exercise or choices over where to go or with whom to spend time,” added Dr. Keith Lindsay of Amboseli Elephant Research Project.

One of the aims of the conference was to bring awareness to the plight of captive elephants and the cruel methods of training used to break these animals into submission and facilitate interactions with humans. To achieve perpetual submissiveness, they are often also put on Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone, which reduces their testosterone levels but has severe side effects, including genital deformities.

A baby elephant captured from the wild in Zimbabwe and held captive in Jinan Zoo in China. Photo credit Ban Animal Trading South Africa.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is regularly identified in elephants, especially those kept in captivity, stated Dr. Gay Bradshaw from the Kerulos Center for Nonviolence: “When subjected to genocide, imprisonment, cultural destruction, enslavement, loss of homeland, torture, and war, or in the language of elephant managers and conservationists, culls, translocation, captivity training, human-elephant conflict, and crop protection, both humans and elephants experience psychological and social breakdown. Elephant trauma survivors can only begin to heal when elephant ways of life are reinstated.”

During the CITES CoP18 meeting in Geneva in August this year, a majority vote restricted the live elephant trade. CITES now only allows the live trade of wild elephants within their natural and historic range in Africa, except in exceptional or emergency circumstances.

“This means that wild baby elephants can no longer be ripped away from their families and sold to zoos and captive facilities, which is a great start,” stated Audrey Delsink of Humane Society International (HSI) Africa. “However, the only truly ‘appropriate and acceptable’ conditions for this iconic and keystone species are in their natural habitat.”

“Having heard first-hand from Dr. Poole and Dr. Bradshaw about the severe trauma that captive elephants endure, and having seen the extreme stress of Lammie and the two elephant newcomers in Johannesburg Zoo, it is critical to get these elephants into a sanctuary,” says Delsink. “I hope that City Parks and Johannesburg City Council watch the conference proceedings. They can no longer deny that zoos are no place for elephants, and they have the opportunity to do the right thing here.”

Lammie standing forlorn in her enclosure in Johannesburg Zoo with the two new elephants in the background. Photo Credit Audrey Delsink, HSI Africa.

The event organiser, Michele Pickover of the Elizabeth Margaret Steyn (EMS) Foundation, expressed her disappointment that government representatives from South Africa’s national and provincial government declined their invitation to participate. “This is disappointing, but not unexpected given the dismissive position our environmental agencies take towards ethical and welfare concerns for the wild animals they have oversight and responsibility for.”

Featured image: an elephant in a zoo in Denmark. Image credit Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation.

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