Elephant captivity under the spotlight at upcoming Cape conference

Until about the 1400s, millions of elephants roamed most of Africa except its arid deserts. Today, most of the few who remain are in designated refuges, owing mostly to the ivory trade.

Many others are in captivity, in zoos and other small, often private enclosures.

READ | Ban on sending wild elephants to zoos a step closer

In Hermanus on September 6, elephant specialists from around Africa will take part in a conference, Taking Elephants out of the Room, to begin the process of dealing with issues of their captivity, welfare and the ethics of their confinement.

A respected veteran Ambroseli elephant researcher, Dr Joyce Poole, will discuss who elephants are and why they are not suited for captivity.

The conference follows the Geneva meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which ended on August 28 where the trade in live elephants and ivory sparked off furious debate.

Historic victory

READ | Zimbabwe earns foreign currency boost from sale of nearly 100 elephants to China

In an historic victory for elephants, a two-thirds majority of member parties voted elephants may not be removed from their wild habitats except under exceptional circumstances.

Extracting elephants from the wild for human pleasure in zoos was now internationally unacceptable, according to the agreement.

Elephants are in crisis with at least 20 000 being illegally killed each year for their ivory. On average around 55 elephants are poached every day in Africa - that is roughly one every 26 minutes.

The Cites Congress was petitioned by renowned conservationist Jane Goodall as well as celebrities such as Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Brigette Bardot, Pamela Anderson, Joanna Lumley and Bryan Adams to uphold the ban on the capture of wild baby African elephants for export to zoos and circuses.

A "hidden" statistic is the number of elephants being kept in small enclosures or used for elephant-back rides, a practice that requires using leg chains and sharp bull-hooks.

Topics under discussion at the Hermanus conference will be the importance of neuroscience in elephant conservation; the capture and sale of young elephants in Zimbabwe; the way in which elephants are financially exploited; the state of zoos; the myth of "acceptable destinations" for translocated elephants; problems with sustainable use; welfare and stress in captivity and elephants' importance in nature.

The conference will be opened by Khoisan leader Chief Stephen Fritz and delegates will include Dr Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices, Dr Marion Garai and Dr Yolanda Pretorius of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, Lenin Chisaira of the Zimbabwe People and Earth Solidarity Law Network, Professor David Bilchitz of Animal Law Reform, Dr Gay Bradshaw of the Kerulos Centre for Nonviolence in the US, advocate Jim Karani from the High Court of Kenya, conservation biologist Keith Lindsay, elephant reintegration specialist Brett Mitchell and Kenyan animal welfare specialist Kahindi Lekalhaile.

The aim will be to create a framework within which to assess the "imprisonment" of captive elephants and to set standards for their ethical treatment.

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