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Elephant Abuse Update: Interview with Greg Vogt

26 May 2014, 07:41

Greg Vogt was the manager of the Knysna Elephant Park (KEP) for 7 years.

As the elephant abuse story has 2 sides, so does Greg. On one hand, he admits that there were things happening at Knysna Elephant Park that he wasn’t happy with yet doesn’t accept any blame despite having been a well paid manager (his wife was also employed by KEP and the family stayed on the property).

On the other, he’s been actively involved in elephant studies of obvious benefit to conservation and, especially, elephants. This has happened on local, provincial and national levels. His stance is against self-regulation by the industry because it doesn’t benefit the elephants.

Knysna is a tourist based economy and the elephants are the second biggest attraction. Consequently, determining his role (if any) in the scandal is made more important as he has effectively been running Knysna Tourism for a year and a half, in his role as Chairman of the Board, whilst there has been no CEO.

In the elephant abuse story, he was initially referred to as a “disgruntled employee” by Knysna Elephant Park and, thereafter, linked, by name, by Lisette Withers, the owner of KEP (and previously owner of Elephants of Eden). Last year, with regards the controversial, and allegedly illegal transfer of 4 orphaned elephant calves (from Sandhurst Safaris to Elephants of Eden) there were rumours that he was involved.

What is the truth? Will Vogt offer us insight into the activities of KEP whilst he was manager there?

As stated in ‘The Madness of the Elephant Abuse Story’ blog, this isn’t a confrontational interview. I have had many phone calls with him but this was via email. Some points certainly need to be pressed deeper but this also helps us understand that the elephant industry, as a whole, is complicated and in need of better plan.

Maybe, most sensationally, is that Vogt basically states that the NSPCA got it right regards the Knysna Elephant Park.

Firstly, what, if any, is your involvement with the NSPCA in these two instances? Is it true that you are the state’s witness?

I have interacted with the NSPCA since I was consulting to Knysna Elephant Park. My stance with the NSPCA was always, and still is:

That whilst the various welfare bodies debate whether elephants should be in captivity or not, the fundamental fact is that they are in captivity and there is no body regulating them properly.

It is for that reason that I am driving for a high level scientific assessment of welfare. This is being executed at the highest research level our country has to offer and involves an international collaboration between a leading South African research institute, an international university and the government department.

The NSPCA will comment where they choose to and be involved at a level of their choice.

With regard to the two cases. I did not break the story to the NSPCA. They approached me pretty much knowing a lot more that I knew in the one case and verified certain facts in the other. In both instances, the facts the NSPCA brought to me, and asked me to comment on, were well informed and accurate. So there was no major input from my side.

Does being state’s witness mean that you are given immunity from prosecution?

No, not at all. It simply means that I have submitted a subpoena to the state offering them my version of the instance.

Do you justify or disagree with the transfer of the elephant calves in 2013?

Disagree.

You claim not to have been involved and that it was the final reason why you quit KEP. Why did you not report the incident?

At the time, I had no real evidence that the calves were being transferred for a fact. I, however, realised that at that time I could no longer make a difference to the lives of elephants in captivity from within KEP, so left.

Is there any merit to Lisette Wither’s (and others) claim that this saved the lives of these elephants?

No, not at all.

Surely KEP must have legal standing considering that Cape Nature issued the permits. Or is Cape Nature guilty too?

The law is very clear. If the letter of the law had been followed, and its intention implemented by all persons involved in the process, those elephants would be walking freely with their mothers in a wild property today.

Who, at Cape Nature, issued the permits? Did they have to provide a reason?

The permitting department issues permits and there is a process of due diligence that they should follow. If they followed this accurately and with input from experts, the final outcome of their decisions should be in the interests of the elephants involved.

What was your relationship with Sias van Rooyen, the trainer of the elephants that were abused by his and KEP’s staff? What is your opinion of him?

Sias van Rooyen was employed by his brother Gerhard van Rooyen who worked for Indalu, owned by Gerhard. He is a likeable lad who still has a lot to learn.

Who discovered the abuse of the elephants and why did it take weeks to find out?

This is sub judice.

As management at KEP, you had to be aware of what had happened. After all, some of the abused elephants were then transferred to KEP for rehabilitation. How did you handle the matter?

Sub judice.

Did you document the abuse and report such to the NSPCA or any other relevant organisations?

I did not report it to the NSPCA.

Why not?

At the time, I was introducing new training protocol to the entire industry and KEP was my pilot. I debate every day of my life what I should have done. I thought I could make a difference through creating new protocol, giving all elephant handlers a vocation they could be proud of.

Are the photos circulating the net actually of this incident? Is the staff uniform and scenery Elephants of Eden related?

Sub judice.

Who do you believe took the photos?

I am not 100% sure, I was not there and have no means of linking the pictures to a person.

What validity is there to the video footage that the NSPCA claims to have as evidence of elephant abuse?

I have as yet not been shown the footage they have. I can however share with you the definition of cruelty: Any action that causes the unnecessary suffering of an animal. International welfare standards no longer refer to the five freedoms, but rather reference the terms – I life worth living.

The NSPCA has laid charges of animal cruelty against Elephants of Eden, the Knysna Elephant Park, their directors and management. As manager at the time, does this include you?

I was manager if Knysna Elephant Park at the time – 250 km’s from EOE and I am state witness.

Withers claims that 2 of her staff were involved in the abuse and were fired. Is this true? And were criminal charges laid. If not, why not?

Again sub judice and I was never a part of that disciplinary procedure.

Withers also stated that 6 of Indalu Game Reserve’s staff were involved in the abuse of the elephants but went unpunished. If true, why did you not take further action?

Again, I was KEP maanger and was not included in these meetings or the disciplinary procedure.

What has been your relationship with Indalu Game Reserve and owner, Gareth van Rooyen, and which part of this happened after the abuse?

I worked closely with him to the point that the relationship was sealed by contract. Thereafter I had very little contact with him and then none. I only began speaking to him again to get permission for the national research discovery phase for elephant welfare scientific assessment. The Indalu elephants were the control group of this study. I cannot say we get and neither can I say we do not.

As you are the Chairman of the Knysna Tourism Board, and Knysna Tourism has been without a CEO for over a year, you are effectively the boss. Why has Knysna Tourism not addressed the public regards this issue? After all, Knysna is a tourist based economy and, as you have proudly said in the past, the Knysna Elephant Park is the second biggest attraction. How do you separate yourself from Tourism for this issue?

Your question is relevant and hits the heart of a precedent moving forward regarding compliance, responsible tourism and what is good for the town and region. The Naturally Knysna brand defines the core values of the brand making it clear what the brand stands for. The entire membership process is currently addressing the role KT plays in compliance.Lets keep KEP out of this for a moment and assume membership application of a property or restaurant that is non compliant in terms of the law. Promotion of this property should not be instituted until full compliance is presented.

An outside source told me that KEP is taking you to court. What for?

I am not aware of this.

What pertinent facts haven’t been mentioned that you wish the public to know?

I learned a lot about society, the press and a process I refer to as a cognitive illusion when the story of the babies broke.

Keeping animals in captivity involves a technical maize of legislation that is both very up to date and outdated. There are a number of acts and regulations failing the animals.

The NSPCA is attacked openly but applauded when they break a dog fighting ring. Their voice has been consistent since I began working for elephants and so has mine. They have stated that the process of training an elephant from a naïve state to trained involves cruelty. My voice has been that we need to have high level research feeding back to protocol that is developed.

Today, the elephant training protocol that I initiated with the Agri-Seta has not continued. This would effectively document how an elephant can be trained or should be trained if it is necessary to train it. Then you need to be able to regulate the industry. The industry has never been regulated.

Many industry facilities claim through their marketing material that there elephants are orphaned. Many claim that they play a pertinent role in conservation and education. The question to be asked, based on SA’s history of keeping elephants is: What has the cost of all of this been to the elephants? Is it necessary?

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