And so the slaughter of elephants begins. Six adult members of a herd were gunned down in Mpumalanga last weekend and their eight babies were kidnapped for sale to exhibition parks.
At a time when conservation authorities are under pressure to cull elephants, and when there is a growing demand for domesticated and trained youngsters, the incident has set off alarms at animal welfare organisations around the country.
Conservationists stopped separat-ing cull orphans from their herds more than a decade ago, after they perfected techniques of moving whole elephant families at a time. Capturing the orphans of these intelligent, sensitive animals was rejected as cruel and traumatic, and the youngsters usually ended up becoming problem adults.
Rozanne Savory, a founder of the Ethical Conservation Network, helped South African National Parks (SANParks) raise funds during the 1990s for the translocation of family groups as an alternative to culling. She says SANParks conceded in 1998 that the isolation and removal of juveniles was “inhumane and therefore undesirable”.
“Removing youngsters from their families, particularly in culls, is traumatising. The tiny babies scream the whole time, it has been known to turn grown men to tears,” she says.
The six adults shot in the Lowveld last weekend were themselves cull orphans bought from the Kruger National Park in 1991. They were bought by a hunting outfit called Lowhills, which says the elephants had turned into serial escapists and were a nuisance to nearby citrus and sugar cane farmers.
The National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) was asked last week to give an opinion on culling the herd. It advised that if this was the only solution, the babies should be tranquillised before the whole herd was shot.
But then came the news that, in a combined operation by the Mpumalanga Parks Board, Lowhills and wildlife capture contractors Catchco Africa, the adults had been shot and the babies — ranging from a couple of months old to six years — had been captured. There are three unweaned calves in the group.
“This is just perpetuating the problems in the long term,” said a frustrated Rick Allan, of the NSPCA’s wildlife unit. “We are not moving any closer to finding solutions [in elephant management].”
The eight calves were sold for R30 000 a head to two elephant exhibition parks that have relatively good reputations in the industry. Critics are alarmed at the precedent the transactions will set for a cut-throat commercial industry that is not regulated.
Wildlife brokers are falling over themselves to get wild-caught juvenile elephants, scenting profits in pressures to cull. They want the youngsters for zoos, elephant-back safaris and one broker is trying to source about 40 trained elephants for a movie.
The magistrate’s office in Tzaneen is in the process of considering a licence application for the training of 24 wild-caught elephants for rides. The applicants say they intend to capture youngsters aged eight to 14 years during culling operations.
“We are extremely concerned about renewed attempts to relocate juveniles as a management option,” says Jason Bell-Leask, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) in South Africa. “The practice of culling adults in a family group and relocating juveniles was deemed totally inappropriate many years ago.
“Ifaw questions whether management authorities such as SANParks shouldn’t be obliged to seriously consider these ethical issues as part of their decision-making mandate.”
SANParks and several provincial reserves claim they are under pressure to resume culling of large numbers of elephants because their populations are growing in confined spaces. The debate promises to become heated after the April elections, when a new minister of environmental affairs and tourism is appointed.
Douw Grobler, an elephant expert who used to head up SANParks’s capture team and is now a partner in Catchco Africa, executed the cull and capture operation. He defends the decision to keep the calves alive.
“If I could ask the elephants whether they would prefer to die or stay in a good sanctuary, they would surely choose the latter. At least they have a future. Nobody will go and wipe out a whole family group these days.”
Critics point out this was exactly the kind of argument the Kruger National Park used to use before it stopped capturing orphans and selling them to zoos.
The four youngest orphans from the weekend cull were quickly dispatched to the Knysna Elephant Park in the Western Cape, which offers tourists an opportunity to “get up-close-and-personal” with elephants by touching them and walking with them. Lizette Withers, owner of the park, was not available for comment this week.
The other four were being held at a quarantine facility near Pretoria this week and are due to go to an exhibition park called Elephant Sanctuary. Based near Brits, this outfit offers interactive educational experiences with elephants.
Owner Craig Saunders was implicated in the controversial Tuli elephant saga in the late 1990s, when he bought five of the 30 youngsters captured by wildlife dealer Riccardo Ghiazza and abused during a process that was meant to tame and train the elephants. He also recently bought a young bull elephant that Ghiazza was planning to export to Mexico.
Grobler insists these two destinations are a far cry from the operation Ghiazza set up: “We are not talking chains or beatings with sharp objects here. Their taming methods are based on rewards.”
Johann MÃ¶ller, owner of Lowhills, used to be chairperson of the Mpumalanga Professional Hunters Association and is a former provincial Businessman of the Year. He says killing his breeding herd of elephants and capturing the babies was an “awful operation” and “one of the worst days we have ever had”.
When the decision was made to cull the group after they broke out, he wanted to take the babies back into his own bomas and start again. This request was denied by Mpumalanga Parks Board, which, MÃ¶ller says, will receive most of the R240 000 raised by the sale to offset costs. Comment from the provincial parks board was not available when the Mail & Guardian went to press.