Cape Town — The overwhelming message from a global conference on elephants in captivity, hosted in Hermanus on September 6, was that elephants belong in the wild. Given what we know about who elephants are and the conditions under which they thrive, we have no reason to keep them in captivity. Hermanus was chosen as the venue as the Western Cape houses by far the majority of elephants in captivity in South Africa, and Mr Craig Saunders has applied for permission to build a captive elephant facility nearby. Saunders has been accused of extreme cruelty against elephants that he bought from the wild and holds captive in other facilities across the country.
Elephant incarceration is akin to slavery and finding entertainment gratification in watching people in asylums. Slavery and the ivory trade are, of course, historically intertwined evils.
Elephants have been hunted for their ivory since biblical times, and African slaves carried off ivory on their backs to the East long before the Atlantic Slave Trade even began. Elephants are still being killed for their ivory and enslaved in facilities all over the world that often resemble little more than prisons. Enslaving elephants destroys our own humanity as we reduce majestic beings to mere objects, which may explain some of the violence so prevalent in the human condition.
Hosted by the EMS Foundation, this conference comes hot on the heels of an historic 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) meeting in Geneva. Every three years, members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meet to decide on how best to ensure global wildlife conservation goals. One of the most important decisions to emanate from CoP18 was a majority vote against any continuation in the trade of wild-caught African elephants to captive facilities like zoos. As elephant field biologist, Audrey Delsink, who also spoke at the Hermanus event put it: 'I am jubilant that we have secured this victory for all the elephants who will now be spared the ordeal of being ripped away from their families… Public sentiment is shifting, and people are increasingly outraged at the senseless and cruel practice of snatching baby elephants from the wild to live a life as a zoo exhibit.'
It was perhaps more than coincidental that Robert Mugabe, former dictator of Zimbabwe – which has come under the spotlight for looting the country's baby elephants for export – died on the day of the Hermanus event. His successor, Mnangagwa the 'crocodile', will find it near-impossible to continue this inhumane practice. This is also in no small part due to the bravery of a handful of people in Zimbabwe who have worked tirelessly to expose the trauma suffered by baby elephants in being separated from their families.
According to Marion Garai, a member of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, there are presently 1,770 elephants in captivity across the globe (that we know about). Eighty-four percent of them are in zoos. The US, which voted against the CITES decision mentioned earlier, hosts the majority. Nearly 100 of these elephants are in solitary confinement, like Lammie in the Johannesburg Zoo.
Beyond the fact that there is never a reason to enslave an elephant, the conference speakers articulated the importance of elephants to our ecological systems and our own humanity. Dr Joyce Poole made it clear that elephants are extraordinarily intelligent and social beings. They are self-aware, mourn loss and communicate in a myriad of complex ways, displaying over 300 known signals involving sound or body language. As Dr Gay Bradshaw shared, they are a lot more like us than we often recognize. This is evidenced by neuroscience; it is not anthropomorphic.
For instance, elephants suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like us and have just about every attribute that we – scientifically, legally and ethically speaking – would typically attribute to non-human personhood. Essentially, we are destroying our own humanity by continuing to tolerate that so many elephants are held in zoos, which are animal prisons.
But can captive elephants be reintegrated into the wild? According to Brett Mitchell of the Elephant Reintegration Trust, the answer is a resounding yes. In all cases of staged reintegration (giving elephants time and choice in the process), not a single elephant has ever returned to its captive boma. Their expressed preference is patently clear.
The bottom line is that elephants need space, social interaction with other elephants and environmental enrichment. They need to be free to exercise choice. These are the ingredients for true welfare. An important point raised by Dr Yolanda Pretorius was that some wild spaces can be welfare-inhibiting if there is sufficient space but insufficient social interaction and environmental enrichment. In other words, small wild reserves that are badly managed are not the solution. This raised the question, proposed by Kahindi Lekalhaile from the Kenya-based African Network for Animal Welfare, of whether we have any truly wild spaces left into which to reintegrate elephants. Chiming with Dr Keith Lindsay's point, we need to join up currently fragmented wild spaces in order to recreate intact ecosystem functionality.
Doctoral researcher Antoinette van der Water made the related point that elephants need to be more universally valued instead of being reduced to possessing a merely monetary value.
Reductionist thinking leads to the objectification of elephants that Lynne James of the Zimbabwe SPCA highlighted.
Along with other brave Zimbabweans, she has shown extraordinary bravery to raise the public alarm over the plight of baby elephants. Similarly, Lenin Chisaira, an environmental lawyer in the country, has litigated against that country's highly authoritarian regime that is trying to loot the last of the country's resources for personal enrichment.
Legally, according to Professor David Bilchitz, it is clear that an integrative approach (that integrates respect for individual animals and the value of the whole species) should be employed to properly interpret ecological sustainability and the use of natural 'resources'.
This recognizes the inherent value of individual animals and does away with the crude utilitarianism that typically advocates the suffering of the few for the sake of preserving species, as if species are some inanimate object. The crudely utilitarian view commodifies and objectifies animals, reducing them to possessing only monetary value. Recognising the importance of individuals is the key to rewriting legislation, litigating and engaging with policymakers. As Jim Karani, a lawyer for Wildlife Direct in Kenya, quipped, elephants can no longer be treated as property under the law but should rather be granted rights as non-human persons. If we can do it for corporations, we can surely do it for elephants.
Ultimately, all elephants have extraordinary and immeasurable value. Recognising this has to be built into our psyches, especially among our young people. We can litigate and do all sorts of useful things, but we really have to understand that without elephants (free from captivity and roaming their wild spaces) we are literally eroding our own humanity. As Dr Bradshaw so profoundly pointed out at the close of the conference, the foundational trauma that has to be healed is our own disconnection from nature. We objectify elephants and enslave them at our own peril.
The policy conclusion is clear and simple. No new elephants should be placed in captivity, and elephants currently in captivity need to be reintegrated into the wild.
Ross Harvey grew up across southern Africa and developed a dual interest in mining and wildlife governance. He studied a B.Com in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he also completed an M.Phil in Public Policy. At the end of 2018, he submitted his PhD in Economics, also at UCT. He started his wildlife research career at the South African Institute of International Affairs, where he worked as a senior researcher from 2013 to 2019. His initial work oversaw a project that examined every element of the ivory trade, from park to port to end consumer. He has published in one of the world’s top journals, Ecological Economics, and a wide array of other outlets. Ross is currently a freelance independent economist who works with The Conservation Action Trust.