Molewa takes aim at wild elephants
Karen Trendler
18 September, 2014

International arrivals at South African airports are greeted with an image of happy tourists on the back of an elephant experiencing, according to the wording, “Wild and Free Africa”. Few make the connection that the elephant is both tamed and decidedly un-free. And it’s going to get worse, much worse, for elephants if proposals by the Department of Environmental Affairs become law.

In what may become yet another bizarre policy reversal under the Department of Environmental Affairs’ head, Edna Molewa (another being her campaign to allow the sale of rhino horn), the DEA is proposing to remove all welfare-based provisions relating to elephants. The reason is baffling. Because it is experiencing difficulties enforcing and implementing key clauses in the 2008 Norms and Standards on elephants, it simply wishes to drop them.

This would allow wild elephants to be captured in the wild as well as imported and exported. According to the National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), the move could overturn the founding principles of the 2008 norms, which prevent new elephants from undergoing cruelty associated with the capture industry as well as the protection of biodiversity in elephants rangelands.

Elephants need protection from a number of threats: poaching, wild capture and ‘taming’ for safaris. There has been widespread criticism of elephant-back safaris and claims that the creatures are cowed by brutal and cruel subjugation.

What exactly does it take to make a large, highly intelligent and sensitive creature kneel down so a tourist can climb on its back? In manuals and guidelines on the ‘art’ of elephant taming, techniques describe it as “dominance-based free contact” training. The only way free contact can be achieved is for the mahout to have total control over the elephant and demand absolute compliance. He does this through physical and psychological domination.

Dominance is achieved by negative reinforcement, punishment, force, pain, discipline and demanding that the elephant submit. Any momentary loss of control or focus by the mahout is potentially lethal.

Ropes and chains are used for prolonged restraint to instill compliance and  ‘break’ the elephant. It may also be tied to the side of the boma for prolonged periods until it submits or has ‘ learnt’. Chaining and restraining enables the handlers to enforce while the elephant is unable to move, reinforcing physical and psychological domination.

An elephant is taught to lie down on command by ropes tied to its legs, which are pulled, forcing it to lie down. This can be used as a punishment and, eventually, as a way for tourists to have their photos taken patting it.

They are frequently forced to remain in a ‘sitting’ or kneeling position for long periods as a form of training, domination and punishment. This can result in serious and potentially fatal injuries to both limbs and internal organs.  Young elephants and calves are especially at risk because, being social animals, their need for social and tactile comfort gets them to bond more easily with the mahout.

The handler carries what is innocuously referred to as an elephant ‘guide’. It is more correctly known as a goad or bull hook, a metre-long spike with a curved hook on the side. The sharp tip is used for jabbing and prodding the elephant in sensitive areas and the hook is inserted under folds of skin for pulling or applying pressure. It can be reversed for beating as punishment. Elephants often have scarring, open wounds and bruises from this instrument. It has been banned in a number of countries.

Another instrument of persuasion is a prodder, which delivers a high voltage electric shock. The more willful, stronger and more full of character the elephant is, the more it is subjected to domination and punishment. And if it snaps, it’s subjected to further and harsher punishment.

Many people will defend their elephant experiences with statements like: “I’ve ridden on elephants and they were happy elephants”, or  “I talked to the owner; he loves his elephants”. Nobody wants to believe they have paid towards an elephant being abused, beaten, restrained or dominated.

But these facts are not simply an attempt to sensationalise. They are the result of research into elephant-back tourism, testifying in cruelty cases, and fighting against cruelty as well as caring for, nursing and managing the rehabilitation of elephants which had been tamed, trained and broken.

The 2008 Norms and Standards for elephant management were drawn up to ensure the conservation and welfare of elephants.  A clause prohibiting the capture of elephants from the wild is part of these. The DEA’s new proposals would allow young elephants and calves to be ripped from their wild herds and then broken and dominated. It may make sense to a questionable industry in need of more elephants, but it makes absolutely no sense for elephant conservation – or elephants.

There’s also another concern. Is this proposal the first shot in a DEA-initiated campaign to break the international prohibition on ivory exports? If they can travel this road to CITES with rhino horn and succeed, ivory will certainly be next on the list.

Main Photo: (Don Pinnock)