By Lizabeth Paulat
Disturbing videos have emerged from the Elephants of Eden wildlife park in South Africa. It shows elephants being stretched, tethered, beaten and shocked in order to “break their spirits.” In addition, photos of massive wounds and blood spattered cages have enraged wildlife conservationists.
The NSPCA (National Council for SPCAs) in South Africa has charged the park with abuse and further levied charges that they took in elephants that were unnaturally orphaned (meaning orphaned by human intervention) who were living in a naturally formed family group.
These incredibly serious abuses took place in 2008. However, according the Knysna Elephant Park, who owns Elephants of Eden, there is much more to the story, and alleges facts have been severely manipulated.
According to Knysna Elephant Park, this situation began when they sold six elephants to Mr. Gerhard Van Rooyen who ran the Indalu Game Reserve. After failing to pay for the elephants, Van Rooyen and Elephants of Eden agreed to house half of the elephants at Elephants of Eden until he paid his debt. EoE also agreed to train Van Rooyen’s brother, Sias Van Rooyen, and the Indalu staff, on how to handle these elephants.
It was around this time that a senior EoE handler was killed by an elephant after climbing a barrier, which went against company policy. Van Rooyen’s staff, along with some EoE employees, then decided to “teach the elephants a lesson” to avenge the handler’s life. This is when the abuse purportedly took place.
Knysna states that when Sias Van Rooyen came back from leave, he saw these abuses, perpetrated by both his and the EoE’s staff. He documented this abuse, and those are the pictures we are seeing today. All involved EoE staff were dismissed over the incident; however, Knysna claims that not one of their own employees made an appearance in the photographs. They also claim that those responsible from Van Rooyen’s staff are still currently employed by Indalu Park Reserve. When contacted, the NSPCA stated, “It appears that the staff in the footage are comprised of a mixture of KEP/EOE senior staff and junior staff members that were there on contract to be trained by the elephant managers.”
The traumatized and abused elephants were quickly shipped from EoE to Knysna Elephant Park, where they are said to have received around the clock veterinary services and trauma recovery.
So why now? Why would Gerhard Van Rooyen turn over pictures to the NCSPA from 2008 alleged abuse?
Apparently Indalu is currently undergoing liquidation and an application was filed by Knysna for six elephants (including the three still unpaid for) to be relocated from Indalu Elephant Reserve to Knysna Elephant Park. In essence, taking these photos to the NCSPA now is a form of revenge for trying to “steal” Gerhard’s elephants.
However, the NSPCA presents a very different story, calling how they got the footage “irrelevant.” Since the footage took place on the premises of Elephants of Eden, the chief inspector, Wendy Wilson, has implied that the park was implicit in enforcing these abusive training methods.
On March 18th 2013, the NSPCA was granted a warrant to enter the Elephant of Eden Parks. They were stopped at the gate by the owners and refused entry. When authorities were called in to enforce the warrant, NSPCA did not find any illegal activities. That said, they do note that their entry was delayed by nearly two hours. In that time frame they do speculate as to whether EoE staff was covering up evidence of elephants being chained, tethered or being denied food and water. They also question what reason EoE and Knysna Parks would have to deny the entry of the NCSPA.
However, despite its altruistic leanings, one striking area that raises questions is the NSPCA’s statement that: “The NSPCA subscribes to the credo that ‘wild animals belong in the wild’ and is opposed to the removal of elephants from the wild for domestication purposes. We believe that elephants should not be trained, kept in captivity and/or used for entertainment.”
However, Indalu, where the lead investigator has suggested the six elephants remain is, in fact, an elephant safari company. It is a place designed for tourists who climb onto the backs of these creatures before being shuttled around the African bush. This seems to go directly against the credo espoused by the NSPCA.
On the subject of the unnaturally orphaned elephants, the park responds:
“Knysna Elephant Park (KEP) would like to set the record straight that it did not abduct any elephants from the wild with the intent of placing them in captivity for its own benefit.
KEP received news that a number of orphaned elephants would have to be shot if we did not agree to take them in. As KEP does, it tried to make the best of a bad situation by offering to home these orphans. In no way was KEP ever involved in any decision to cull the mothers and leave the orphans behind.
These decisions were made by Sandhurst, which was previously a hunting farm in the North West Province. Sandhurst was in the process of closing its facility with the intention of relocating the remaining herd of five cows and their babies to a game reserve. This request was denied by the relevant authorities and it was stated that the herd had to be culled. Sandhurst refused to cull the babies and it was agreed between them and the authorities that they should find a home for the youngsters.”
It’s hard to say who is at blame here, and it’s important to remember that there are two sides to what has happened. While there’s no doubt that a horrible instance of abuse went on at EoE in 2008, the question is: was this an isolated situation that was dealt with efficiently and appropriately? And if so, is shutting down the entire reserve necessary?
If we are to uncover the truth, it will take persistent and critical insight into both regulatory practices in South Africa, and the elephant parks that are charged with protecting these regal creatures.