An open letter to Minister Barbara Creecy requesting the release of the elephant Charlie at the National Zoological gardens, into the care of Animal protection organisations
27th December


The Pro Elephant Network (PREN) consists of a global community of diverse individuals and organization, comprising expertise from both western academies (including the fields of science, conservation, animal welfare, economics, community leadership, social justice and the law) and the indigenous paradigm. 

Zoos are places where wild animals are kept in captivity and are put on public display. Across the world wild animals are sold to and incarcerated in zoos for the controversial purpose of human entertainment and so-called education.  

Recently, the members of the Wildlife Animal Protection Forum of South Africa wrote an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa questioning the relevance of zoos in a democratic South Africa of the twenty-first century. 

The history of elephants in zoos in South Africa is one of extreme exploitation, violence and death, which saw baby elephants, mainly between the ages of two and seven, violently removed from their mothers and families, who were often killed in front of them, through the highly contested and contentious practice of culling―a methodology introduced by the Apartheid state at the height of the ivory trade.  

PREN is of the view that the elephant care standards adopted in South Africa zoos are woefully inadequate, unethical and untenable. Elephants live highly complex social and emotional lives and are defined by space and movement. Elephant cannot survive in near or complete isolation. Zoos rob elephants of their most basic needs and for this reason there is a high mortality rate. 


The National Zoological Garden of South Africa, the Pretoria zoo, is the largest zoo in the country and eighth largest in the world and was founded in 1899. The zoo covers 85 hectares of land in central Pretoria. The South African National Biodiversity Institute known as SANBI was established on the 1st September 2004 through the signing into force of the National environmental Management Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 by President Thabo Mbeki.  SANBI manages the National Botanical and Zoological Gardens.  SANBI’s mandate is to reveal and celebrate biodiversity for the benefit, enjoyment and education of all South Africans. 

The welfare of elephants in zoos is directly dependent upon the quality of life they experience, which in turn is driven by the understanding the zoo keeper has of the specific needs of elephants. 

This understanding may or may not be informed by scientific knowledge.   Sub-optimal conditions and husbandry practices can result in injury, disease and poor mental health.  It is critical that environmental conditions, management and husbandry techniques are employed that promote positive physical and psychological health for all elephants in human care. Currently a well-publicized, worldwide debate between zoos and animal protection and welfare groups about elephants in captivity is taking place.  At issue is whether zoos can provide enough space to properly care for elephants.  This This dispute has led several zoos to eliminate or phase out their elephant programs.  

We are concerned about the high number of deaths of elephants at the Pretoria zoo we would like to highlight some of the details surrounding the history of some of the elephants.


According to a report, see ANNEXURE, published by The Zoological Society of London in 1999, from 1967 to 1984 the South Africa’s National Parks Board initiated a programme of elephant culling as a means of curtailing the anticipated destruction of the vegetation in the Kruger National Park. In 1986 the management of the Kruger National Park confirmed a non-scientific based decision to keep the elephant population at 7000. 

This decision resulted in 17219 elephants being culled or removed from the Kruger National Park between the years of 1967 and 1996.  Increasing public pressure and the lack of proof of the damaging effects of high elephant densities resulted in the culling program being temporarily discontinued. 

Landa, quite possibly a casualty of this culling program, arrived at the Pretoria zoo from the Kruger National Park on the 28th April 1986 when, according to official records, see ANNEXURE, she was two years of age. 

On Sunday 25th of October 2020 Landa died at the Pretoria zoo aged thirty-six, elephants in their natural surroundings in the wild can live to double that age.  The reason for her death according to the post mortem report, see ANNEXURE was severe colic, a condition for which she was receiving treatment, her death was described as acute. 

Furthermore, a significant lesion in the colon was discovered where there was a massive sand impaction with a total blockage of the distal colon lumen and the accumulation of large amounts of fluid anterior to the blockage were confirmed in the report. 

When any animal does not receive the natural diet for which it was intended, it inevitably leads to disease. What these elephants are being fed does not come close to their natural diet in the wild. This is indeed an additional form of abuse. Eating sand could be an attempt to satisfy the mineral imbalances, as well as a management issue. Colic does not normally occur in elephants in the wild. We usually see colic in horses that are stabled and kept under unnatural conditions. It is extremely rare in free roaming horses on natural grazing pastures. 

On Wednesday 21st October 2020, according to medical records, it was reported that Landa had not eaten and that she had not finished her food since the previous Sunday.  

It was noted that she was slightly depressed and that a bulge at the right paralumbar area could be seen. It was suspected that she had a bout of colic.  She was fed banana leaves and fresh grass.  She had been immobilized on Friday 23rd October for a rectal enema.

In December 2019 it was recorded that the faeces in the enclosure 62, where Landa and Charlie lived at the Pretoria zoo, were filled with sand it was suggested that this was due to stress eating or due to the fact that their food was being placed on loose sand.

These elephants that have died in captivity were actually killed by a combination of the factors mentioned. We question why more attention was not paid to how the elephants were being fed, we have numerous images of Landa and Charlie eating in the enclosure weeks before her death.


In light of the post mortem and medical reports, we are extremely concerned about whether the Pretoria zoo can adequately care for the elephant bull named Charlie, the last remaining pachyderm at the Pretoria zoo.   

We have carried out some research and we have discovered that Charlie has witnessed the deaths of a number of elephants in his enclosure. A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that nonhuman animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for their dead.

Charlie was born in 1982 in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, he was captured for training and use in the Boswell Circus and he arrived at the Pretoria zoo in 2001. 

Sharing Charlie’s enclosure at the zoo was a female elephant called Pumbi.  Pumbi was also born in the Kruger National Park in 1985 and arrived at the zoo on the 12th March 1987.  

Charlie and Pumbi mated and she gave birth to calf called Deneo on the 21 March 2011, his life was very short lived, Deneo died on the 11th April 2011.  

A year later, on the 3rd April 2012 Pumbi died.  According to medical reports the zoo’s veterinarians started treating Pumbi for a suspected infection of the uterus and she was placed on antibiotics. 

A later scan of the uterus repudiated this diagnosis, but at this stage Pumbi had started to display signs of respiratory distress. Her medication was continued but her failing health complicated her treatment. 

“As Pumbi’s food intake was sporadic it made administering the drugs very difficult,” said chief veterinarian Dr Ian Espie.

We want to mention that antibiotics can be fatal. There is so much research now on the importance of the microbiome. A single course of antibiotics can permanently destroy part of the microbiome. Because the microbiome has not been fully described in science due to our inability to culture and identify all the beneficial bacteria, most of the time we don’t even know what has been lost due to antibiotic treatment. The different components of the microbiome all work in myriad complex ways to provide immunity. The health of the microbiome depends directly on the biodiversity of plant material consumed as every different plant species directly supports and replenishes different populations of the microbiome. It is also affected by the environment and by stress.

From the medical reports available and from statements made by various spokespeople, it seems that Pumbi, Landa and Charlie have all suffered with colic and impaction issues which have led to more severe medical problems.

Malnutrition, through inadequate diet, can lead to deficiencies in vitamin E calcium iron and other nutrients and thus health problems such as enteritis, colic and impaction of the colon are believed to be more common in captive animals compared to wild elephants.  This is largely attributed to inadequate diet and dental problems. 

In 2013 Dr Ian Espie, the chief veterinarian stated that the elephants were fed lucerne, teff (a species of grass) and vegetables on a daily basis and on some days apples, bread loaves and strelitzia leaves.  

This statement was made after complaints had been made about the quality of the food the animals were fed at the Pretoria zoo. 

Espie said Charlie, the elephant bull, periodically suffers from colic which causes him discomfort. “He is then given banana leaves and antispasmodic drugs to ease the colic. One of our cows also experiences discomfort when she eats too many apples,” Espie said, adding the elephants’ curator knows his animals very well and acts immediately when something is wrong. 

South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) spokeswoman Angeline Schwan, spoke to the media after concerns had been raised about the appearance of the elephants at the Pretoria zoo, she said that the complaints of an elephant being in distress were false. 

“Charlie’s head-swaying behaviour was a learned behaviour from the circus life.” She said the head-swaying would never be completely unlearned; however, the zoo has tried dealing with it during the 15 years that Charlie has been with the Pretoria zoo. Schwan said the man who had taken pictures and posted them on social media was also in unauthorised areas. “It is not safe for people to enter such areas, as it is dangerous.”

In argument to the statement made by Angeline Schwan, Kaavan the elephant that has been released from the zoo in Islamabad and transferred to a sanctuary in Cambodia stopped swaying his head completely when he arrived at the sanctuary.  

Charlie witnessed the death of another elephant called Thandi. A female elephant originally from Hwange Game Reserve in Zimbabwe, was captured and sent to work in the Boswell Wilke Circus.  Apparently she arrived at the Pretoria zoo in 2001.  In 2017 or 2018 she was euthanised because she had human TB, see ANNEXURE. 


Elephants in the wild walk up to 50 kilometres a day, when elephants don’t move they have physical problems.  

Besides the inadequate size the elephant enclosure at the Pretoria zoo does not have a single blade of grass.  It has been noted that Charlie and Landa has suffered with sand impaction, is the state of the desert-like enclosure of no concern to the zoo keepers or the veterinarians?

Negative behaviour in elephants is not manifested in the animal standing still, but rather in swaying from side to side. Charlie is showing stereotypical behaviour of a highly stressed elephant.

Zoos are freeing their elephants because finally it is being acknowledged that it is not acceptable to remove animals from their natural habitats and break up social units for the amusement of zoo visitors or in the name of research. 

We contest the horrific welfare conditions in which these elephants are kept. The housing is simply atrocious. The fact that Charlie is now alone is making the situation even worse and this is not acceptable. Keeping him incarcerated in the zoo is the very antithesis of celebrating South Africa’s biodiversity. It is not conservation in any shape or form. Instead, we should provide all South Africans with the opportunity of a truly enriching experience in conservation. 

PREN Member, The EMS Foundation can offer Charlie the opportunity of a better life. We hereby formally request that the Minister relinquish him so that he can live out his life in freedom. 

Yours Sincerely, 

Megan Carr

Original report: