Environmentalists, City officials can't agree on lonely Joburg Zoo elephant's fate

Environmental experts and the Johannesburg Zoo are at loggerheads over the residency of the zoo's last remaining elephant, Lammie.

While environmentalists and animal-rights groups have been against keeping elephants in zoo enclosures for decades, Lammie's situation as a solitary animal in confinement became more pronounced upon the death of her companion, Kinkel, who died last year, leaving the 39-year-old alone and reportedly in distress.

In September last year, News24 covered a protest at the zoo grounds where members of Boycott Divestment Sanction South Africa (BDS), were attempting to convince the zoo to relocate its last remaining elephant, Lammie, to a wildlife sanctuary.

BDS director Mohammed Desai told News24 outside the zoo entrance: "She's been here for 39 years and was born in captivity. There are expert conservationists that are calling for her release. We support the call for Lammie to be taken to a sanctuary where she can spend the rest of her days."

Lammie was born at the zoo nearly four decades ago. Her parents, Jumbo and Dolly, were taken from the wild in the 1970s. They died within a year of each other. Kinkel was her only companion.

Animal-rights organisation PETA has published a list of zoos worldwide that no longer keep elephants. PETA writes that "zoos cannot adequately provide for the complex needs of elephants" and that "several zoos have closed their elephant exhibits, setting a positive precedent worldwide".

Pressure mounting

Pressure on the zoo and Johannesburg Parks Department has been mounting over the last few months with animal-rights activists and concerned parties demanding that she be relocated to an elephant sanctuary.

In November, AFP reported that elephants were known for their intelligence and social nature. Animal rights activists have called for her to be moved to a sanctuary where she can roam free with other elephants.

"Lammie being kept in isolation in captivity is an immediate threat to her health and physiological, social and mental well-being," said Audrey Delsink, director at Humane Society International (HSI) Africa.

On Tuesday, Delsink sent News24 a number of documents, including two letters addressed to the executive mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, as well as two senior officials from the Johannesburg Parks and Zoo, Bryne Maduka and Piet Malepa, dated January 29.

In these letters, signed by Brett Mitchell, chairperson of the Elephant Reintegration Trust; Michele Pickover, director at the EMS Foundation; and Delsink, the writers urgently request a meeting with City officials to discuss Lammie's future.

Specifically, the writers would like to would like to "set the record straight".

"There have been various media reports stating that Lammie cannot be released into a free roaming situation as she has been at the zoo for all her life. There have been further statements by zoo personnel and spokespersons, and most recently a press release, stating that Lammie 'has good welfare, has strong bonds with her keepers, serves a strong educational role, and is an ambassador for conservation'."

'No specialists consulted'

The experts dispute this, saying: "The zoo states they have consulted with 'specialists' regarding Lammie, but none of the undersigned local and world-leading elephant specialists have been consulted. Here we aim to correct some of the misinformation that has been circulated."

The concerned experts' letter is accompanied by two lengthy reports compiled by Dr Marion Garaï and Cornelia van der Berg, who observed Lammie's behaviour for 735 minutes in October last year and again on January 5.

Among the findings were that Lammie was overweight, indicating that she has far too little exercise; the enclosure has no features inducive to making her walk around; there is no place for her to retreat from the screaming crowds; there is no environmental enrichment or stimulation provided; no staff members were ever seen monitoring visitor behaviour and enforcing zoo rules or good conduct; and, visitors were bored by seeing an elephant doing nothing and therefore her presence in the zoo has no educational value at all.

Last year, Smaragda Louw, co-director of animal-rights group Ban Animal Trading South Africa, told News24 elephants were like humans in many ways. "They can't live on their own, they need the company of their own kind.

'Elephants don't belong in zoos'

"It's just not fair to have Lammie here. We would like the City of Johannesburg to give Lammie to organisations that know how to integrate her into the wild so that she can live the last days of her life in freedom."

Louw said elephants should not be kept in zoos.

"Elephants require huge amounts of space. If a zoo is about education and conservation, they should know that keeping an elephant here for the purpose of entertainment doesn't contribute to either.

"Lammie serves no purpose here," Louw said.

"There are two possible sanctuaries that she can be relocated to. It's a long process to integrate an elephant into a herd, maybe three to six months, but after that she will be fully included in a herd of elephants," said Louw.

News24 spoke to Maleka on Tuesday, who said that he was aware of the letters but would not comment, instead referring all queries to Maduka.

Spokesperson for Johannesburg Parks and Zoo Jenny Moodley could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. 

However, Moodley last year told News24: "The Joburg Zoo is handling the matter very sensitively and is in the process of finalising its assessment plan with regards to the well-being of Lammie. This will be informed by a detailed report that will assess her current demeanour, health and coping abilities on the loss of Kinkel.

"The monitoring of her behaviour has been assigned to her curator and the dedicated enrichment officer who are striving to keep her active and occupied."

'Zoo is following correct protocols'

"Lammie was born in the zoo and her caregivers will need to ensure that her capacity to cope outside this environment, so close to losing Kinkel, will not compound her loss and have an impact on her well-being," Moodley added.

"The Joburg Zoo is therefore following the required protocols to ensure that the health and welfare of Lammie is given the highest priority and is sincerely appealing to our public to afford both Lammie and the conservation team the necessary latitude to conduct the assessment and to put in place the best plan for the future of Lammie," Moodley said.

On January 20, the City of Joburg issued a statement on its website stating that the Johannesburg Zoo had been closely monitoring Lammie.

"Lammie has been found to have adjusted well and remains non-aggressive, enjoys a normal diet, is receptive to scenting and greeting her caregivers and visitors and her physical disposition is not stereotypical of being depressed", said Candice Ward, the enrichment officer at the zoo.

"She appears to be enjoying the mud-bathing area, in between exploring her 1 500m2 enclosure; is clearly displaying a more interactive disposition and is receptive to the tailored, behaviour-enrichment regime which provides mental and physical stimulation and encourages natural behaviours," added Ward.

Finding a companion

"In the interim, the zoo is engaging with relevant authorities to obtain in-principle support to acquire a companion for Lammie.

"This will be subject to the zoo finalising its elephant management plan, which will see an increase in the size of the existing elephant enclosure," said Ward.

However, environmentalists do not agree that finding a companion for Lammie is a sustainable solution.

On January 24, The National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) quit the Johannesburg Zoo's Animal Ethics Committee after being excluded from decisions regarding Lammie.

"We were not included in either decisions or discussions on this critical, controversial issue that has both welfare and ethical implications. We are being used as window dressing," said Karen Trendler, NSPCA trade and trafficking manager.

"The Lammie issue was never brought to the ethics committee and yet, publicly, the zoo is stating that it was and that we're on their ethics committee every time they're questioned."

The NSPCA also addressed a letter of demand to the zoo management and Mashaba, saying that, if they moved forward with obtaining another elephant, "the NSPCA would launch an application in the High Court to interdict such action".

Moodley reportedly said the zoo would not entertain discussions over the "unfounded" claims by the NSPCA, and that "No decision had been made over whether another elephant would be brought in or not."

However, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), of which Johannesburg Zoo is a member, contradicts Moodley's claims. According to WAZA CEO Doug Cress, the zoo is, in fact, actively "looking to find a second elephant to join Lammie".

In the open letter to the zoo by Mitchell, Pickover and Delsing, they write: "The current Norms and Standards (2008) prohibit the capture of wild elephants for captivity. Thus, the zoo can only acquire an elephant, as it proposes, from other captive facilities that house African elephants free of diseases such as herpes and tuberculosis. This acquisition will likely necessitate the breaking up of a bonded group at the source facility; a highly unethical practice."

The writers request a meeting, "at a date and time to be decided by yourselves, within the period [February 13 to 20]".

"We would also appreciate meeting with the elephant experts that you have referenced that have been consulted with. A sharing of knowledge and consideration of all options within Lammie's best interests is critical," the letter states.

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