No shade, no company, no exercise – that’s no life for sad elephant Charlie
Don Pinnock
6th February 2021

Specialists from around the world have petitioned Environment Minister Barbara Creecy to release into a sanctuary a Pretoria Zoo elephant bereaved by the loss of partners and offspring and showing signs of stress. 

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Charlie leans against a rock, listless, bored and unstimulated. There’s no space for him to exercise (wild elephants travel huge distances) and no enrichment equipment. He suffers from colic, unknown in free elephants.

In his sandy, desert-like enclosure at the Pretoria Zoo, he has witnessed the death of his female companions and his young son, Deneo. Alone, he has the form of an elephant, but without the touch and communication of a herd he’s hardly an elephant at all.

In an open letter to Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, eminent elephant specialists, including vets, lawyers, conservationists, traditional leaders, animal welfare specialists, scientists and heads of environmental organisations in SA, Pakistan, India, the United States, Botswana, Kenya, Canada and Zimbabwe have appealed for his release into the care and community of a sanctuary. The EMS Foundation has offered to fund his move to a sanctuary and his upkeep.

According to Smaragda Louw, director of Ban Animal Trading (BAT), keeping Charlie in solitary confinement in a barren enclosure with almost no shade and dirty water and with no enrichment is “nothing more than animal abuse for the sake of human entertainment”.

“At least, while his partner Landa was still alive, Charlie had company. There is absolutely nothing educational about this ‘display’ of an African elephant. How this is supposed to contribute to the conservation of African elephants is a mystery.”

“I had the feeling he’s just given up,” said Unita Hanekom of BAT, who took the photographs. “There’s very little shade and only a few boulders. It’s a bleak place.”

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has acknowledged the open letter and says it “will give it consideration following appropriate scientific advice”. Yet, in an answer to a parliamentary question, Creecy stated: “The South African National Biodiversity Institute’s National Zoological Garden is currently considering options as to whether to find a companion for our one remaining elephant.”

Charlie was captured in Hwange, Zimbabwe, 40 years ago and was trained in the Boswell Wilkie Circus. When it closed down he was transferred to the Natal Lion Park then, in 2001, to the Pretoria Zoo. There he mated with Pumbi but her calf, Deneo, died shortly after birth, followed by Pumbi a year later.

She was replaced by Landa, who died in October 2020 aged only 36 – young for an elephant, which can live to 60 or 70 in the wild. A postmortem found her colon was blocked from eating sand.

Colic from sand ingestion also caused the death in 2017 of Kinkel, an elephant held at the Johannesburg Zoo. After he died, his companion, Lammie, displayed severe stress behaviour and a campaign to free her into a sanctuary was launched. A petition to free Lammie obtained 270,000 signatures. Instead the zoo acquired two new wild-caught elephants.

According to the petition to Creecy, co-ordinated by the Pro-Elephant Network (PREN), “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. It is a management issue.”

Keeping elephants in zoos is being challenged around the world. It is increasingly acknowledged that it is unacceptable and cruel to remove animals from their natural habitats and break up social units for the amusement of zoo visitors or in the name of research. Zoos deprive elephants of their most basic needs, resulting in a high mortality rate. It’s recognised that they cannot survive in near or complete isolation.

“The history of elephants in zoos in South Africa,” says the petition, “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 during culling.”

PREN says elephant-care standards in South African zoos “are woefully inadequate, unethical and untenable. We are extremely concerned about whether the zoo can adequately care for Charlie.

“He has witnessed the deaths of a number of elephants in his enclosure. A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that non-human animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for their dead.”

There are about 1,500 formal and many more informal zoos in the world holding three to four million wild animals. Some do well in good zoos, but elephants are not among them. For every calf born in a zoo, on average another two die. This is almost three times the mortality rate in the wild. In US zoos, 76 elephants have died since 2ooo, half of them before age 40. Nearly half of that country’s captive elephants display atypical behaviour such as swaying, rocking and placing vegetation or food on their heads.

If an institution’s yardstick is to do no harm to these animals – and it should be – elephants are beyond a zoo’s capability. They are highly social, live in close family groups and move large distances in search of a great range of foods that cannot be replicated when in captivity. This is increasingly being acknowledged by zoo management.

Since 2000, 37 zoos in Europe have closed their elephant exhibits, including London’s Regent’s Park, because they could not provide “appropriate facilities for such large, far-roaming, intelligent animals”.

In the Pretoria Zoo, Charlie is showing the typical behaviour of a stressed elephant. According to PREN, keeping him incarcerated “is the very antithesis of celebrating South Africa’s biodiversity. It is not conservation in any shape or form. His housing is simply atrocious. The fact that Charlie is now alone is making the situation even worse and this is not acceptable.”

The report of a parliamentary committee oversight visit to the National Zoological Gardens in 2018 has not been released.

The coalition has asked Creecy to intervene and support Charlie’s removal to a sanctuary.

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