By Sheree Bega
Johannesburg - When it comes to elephant abuse, Karen Trendler has seen it all: animals being chained, beaten, stretched and rammed with electric prods to break their spirits.
So, when the call came in from the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) recently that it had footage of young elephants being severely abused at the Elephants of Eden sanctuary in the Eastern Cape for the elephant-back safari industry, it felt like a repeat of history for the veteran wildlife rehabilitator.
Even now, after more than 20 years saving injured and traumatised elephants, Trender remains shocked by the level of cruelty involved in “using elephants to entertain humans”.
“It was the Tuli elephant saga in 1999 that proved these training techniques are cruel,” says Trendler, who received an award for her work in the infamous Tuli case (see sidebar).
“There was a massive public outcry about the brutal methods used to train elephants.
“In spite of that, it goes on because of the demand for elephant safaris, the money involved is so great.”
Several years ago, ten elephants captured from the wild in Zimbabwe were put through a brutal training programme for the elephant-back safari industry.
“The elephants were severely abused. In the end, we rebuilt their confidence and natural instinct and released them into Hwange National Park. It was great to see them back in the wild.
“But the owner was standing there saying, ‘we train our elephants with positive rewards, we love them’, but then his trainers were chaining elephants, punishing them.”
Tourists keen to ride “tamed and trained” elephants are unaware of the trauma the animals have endured.
“That whole ‘happy elephant that is a sweet, gentle thing’ is what is put forward by the operator, but it is not so. So much happens behind closed doors to break their spirits.
“The captive elephant industry and the training of elephants is highly controversial … Just think of the size of the elephants and their nature.
“If you want to put someone on its back to ride it and be safe, that elephant has to be completely compliant and controlled. And they are not always going to do exactly what you want them to.
“People don’t want to believe the incredible interaction they are having with these highly intelligent animals is based on cruelty, on brutal or harsh techniques. It’s the same with the canned lion industry.
“You love petting a lion cub and don’t want to believe it was intentionally taken away from its mother so you can pet it, or that it will be hunted in a few months when it becomes unmanageable.”
There is not enough policing of the captive elephant industry, she warns, adding that scandals like the Tuli elephant case “pushed the industry deep underground”.
But their ordeal also changed legislation surrounding captive animals in South Africa, with norms and standards for their management crafted for their welfare.
Trendler was instrumental.
However, Trendler is concerned that the norms and standards are being “tossed around” by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Daff).
“The DEA says it only deals with wild elephants while the Animal Protection Act is under Daff… It doesn’t have an inspectorate. So, it all falls to the under-resourced NSPCA.
“...If they got these issues sorted out sooner, this incident (at Elephants of Eden) could have been prevented.”
The DEA says it has developed draft minimum standards for the management of captive elephants to “avoid stress” and safeguard the animals from neglect and abuse. But, this had been referred to Daff as it is a welfare issue.
An elephant-back safari operator, who refuses to be named, believes it is unfair to “paint the industry with the same brush”.
“Our elephants go through a teaching instead of a training process. Every animal is an individual.”
What happened to the Tuli elephants?
In 1998, the now deceased Riccardo Ghiazza of African Game Services bought 30 baby elephants from the Tuli block in Botswana, and took them to his training facility at Brits. He planned to sell them to zoos in China and Europe and used Indonesian mahouts to break their spirits – by force – until the brutality was exposed by the National Council of SPCAs in 1999.
After their ordeal, the elephants were controversially sent to two zoos in Germany, a zoo in Switzerland, Marakele National Park in Limpopo, Sandhurst Safaris – a hunting outfit – and an elephant sanctuary in Magaliesberg.