WATCH: 'Free Lammie!' – protesters want 'sad, lonely' Joburg Zoo elephant to be relocated

About 10 people – one dressed in an elephant suit – protested outside the Johannesburg Zoo at noon on Thursday.

The protesters, mostly 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.

Lammie's companion, Kinkel, recently died, leaving the 39-year-old alone and in distress.

"We all feel very passionate [about] this," BDS director Mohammed Desai told News24 outside the zoo entrance.

Sporting a hat in the shape of an elephant's head, complete with a trunk, Desai said: "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."

Protesters chanted: "Free, free Lammie," as passing motorists hooted.

One motorist asked Desai to at least allow him to bring his daughter so see Lammie before removing her.

In a statement, BDS said: "As sentient beings reliant on family bonds, elephants in captivity display behavioural abnormalities, suffer from diseases, disabilities and have notably shorter life spans.

"The EMS Foundation has offered to find a suitable sanctuary for Lammie and to cover all the costs of her relocation.

"The National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) says it is opposed to keeping elephants in captivity citing their 2015 report which stated that nearly all captive elephants suffer welfare deficiencies." 

In that report, the NSPCA states: "The keeping of elephants in conditions conducive to their welfare in captivity is not possible because they are not domesticated and they are large, intelligent, socially complex and demanding animals." 

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

"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.

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.

According to the Incidental Tourist, the zoo planned to acquire an elephant cow to keep Lammie company, but wildlife experts agree that the best course of action would be for Lammie to be introduced into a herd.

Louw told News24 that zoos around the world were doing away with elephant enclosures.

Animal rights organisation Peta confirms this on its website, where it 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".

"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.

Louw had a meeting with zoo management which she says was "unproductive".

"They basically feel they don't have to answer to anybody. We say they have to answer to the people of Johannesburg because this is our zoo."

Louw also had a meeting with Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo managing director Bryne Maduka, who told her he "only carried out instructions from the city council".

Louw's organisation has since made a presentation to Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba and is awaiting feedback.    

Referring to the protesters, Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo spokesperson Jenny Moodley told News24 it was "heartwarming" to see people display such affection for Lammie. 

"Lammie recently lost her partner Kinkel and is in mourning. This is very similar to what humans experience.

"The Joburg Zoo is handling the matter very sensitively and is in the process of finalising its assessment plan with regards to the wellbeing 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.

"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 wellbeing.

"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. 

News24's reporter and video journalist were refused entry to the zoo by security officials and could not take pictures or video footage of Lammie.

Moodley apologised for this and said it was not zoo policy to refuse access to the media.

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