Are South Africa’s Wild Elephants Heading for Captivity?

by Glynis O’Hara

South Africa considers relaxing standards for trade in live elephants. Photo by Vinoth Chandar   via Wikimedia Commons.
South Africa considers relaxing standards for trade in live elephants. Photo by Vinoth Chandar via Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, say conservationists, if proposals to change South Africa’s Elephant Norms and Standards (ENS) law are accepted by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).

Conservation groups are up in arms over reports that wild elephants in South Africa could be legally captured for commercial trade, and all welfare protection for the animals removed.

Changes to the 2008 ENS were discussed at a recent (DEA) “stakeholder meeting”, which included SANParks, NSPCA, professional hunters, elephant working groups and elephant businesses.

The capture of elephants from the wild for commercial facilities such as elephant back safaris or circuses is currently prohibited. However, it appears that this protection may be removed as a result.

An alliance consisting of at least 12 organisations, including the NSPCA, Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation, Public Watch, IFAW and the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, is submitting their concerns and opposition to these ideas in a letter to Government.

“We are gravely, gravely concerned,” said Ainsley Hay, manager of the wildlife protection unit at the NSPCA.

“This type of mentality, tragically, is applied to all of our wild animals. They are mere commodities.”

One of the guiding principles of the current legislation is that elephants are intelligent, have strong family bonds, operate within highly socialized groups “and unnecessary disruption of these groups by human intervention should be minimised”.

That principle appears to be under threat and must be upheld, commented Dr Mandy Lombard of Pubic Watch. “Just last year the North West and Eastern Cape provinces issued permits (in contravention of the Norms and Standards) for the culling of mothers and the capture of their wild calves for the captive elephant industry.” Five female elephants were killed at Sandhurst Safaris in North West, and their calves transported to the Eastern Cape, to Elephants of Eden.

The DEA appeared to be intent on removing laws that were being broken,”instead of addressing their shortcomings in enforcement and implementation”, said the NSPCA in a press release. “No other concrete motivations have been provided,” it added.

Exporting and importing elephants would open up “an easy route to launder and trade” with the animals, it said. “There is extensive cruelty involved with the training methods used to dominate and break elephants for elephant back riding, and this cannot be allowed or supported.”

“We really do not want the Norms and Standards to be watered down,” said Dr Lombard. “We rather need to strengthen them.”

“In 2008 there were 120 captive elephants in the country and a minimum standards document for their protection was promised by the DEA within one year. It was never promulgated, but it was drawn up after extensive consultation,” said Dr Lombard.

“If the minimum standards document had been gazetted, we quite possibly would not have had the human deaths we have had [where elephant handlers were killed], nor would we have had the cruelty to elephants in captivity we’ve seen since 2008. It’s hard to understand what has delayed it.”


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