Outcry over Joburg zoo's 'imprisonment' of two new elephants

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Lammie the elephant.
Lammie the elephant.
Simon Sonnekus

While the Johannesburg Zoo on Thursday said it was ecstatic that it had acquired two mates to join the zoo's sociable but solitary elephant, Lammie, the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) has not shared in the excitement, calling the acquisition of the animals "imprisonment". 

Ramadiba, 22, a mature male, and Mopani, 19, a female, arrived at the zoo with the veterinary doctor and keeper on Thursday. 

"The Joburg Zoo went through a thorough and lengthy process to acquire the legal permits for the elephants.

"This included making certain that the elephants are captive-bred, that the zoo has an approved elephant management plan that is compliant to best management practices set by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD), and to ensuring it is compliant with the Code of Ethics and the 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare, adopted for 'Good Zoos' by the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria (WAZA)," the zoo said in a statement. 

Thirty-nine-year-old Lammie has been alone since the death of her partner, Kinkel, last year. 

Animal-rights groups have been calling on the zoo to have Lammie moved to an elephant sanctuary, stating that zoos are unhealthy for elephants. 

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

City Parks and Johannesburg Zoo spokesperson Jenny Moodley told News24 that the zoo could not relocate Lammie as she had been captive-bred since her birth at the zoo and was familiar with the environment and keepers.

"So we knew her coping capacity would be compromised," Moodley said on Friday. 

Requirements were met

"But we knew we had to find her some companions and we found two suitable elephants at a facility in the Eastern Cape."

According to Moodley, one of the many requirements the zoo had to meet was that the enclosure would be large enough to accommodate the new animals. "One hectare is required for four elephants, and we currently have 1.5 hectares. But we have plans to enlarge that enclosure," Moodley said.

The NSPCA however said it was "devastated that the Johannesburg Zoo has brought in another two elephants into a captive environment that is detrimental to any elephant's well-being". 

The animal welfare organisation's spokesperson, Meg Wilson, told News24 it had been kept out of the loop completely and found out about the addition of the elephants via the media. 

"GDARD told us on Wednesday at 16:00 that the zoo had applied for importing permits, and then we found out on Thursday morning that the elephants had already arrived at the zoo," Wilson said. 

'We were blindsided'

"We were completely blindsided by this." 

According to Wilson, the zoo does not have appropriate facilities to keep three elephants. "That environment is not conducive to good welfare for elephants.

"In a natural habitat, these elephants would walk hundreds of kilometres per day. They should not be confined to such a small area with very little environmental enrichment."

ALSO READ: Joburg zoo faces mounting pressure to free widowed elephant Lammie

Wilson asserted that they already had behavioural problems with Lammie. 

"We should be moving with the times. Zoos should not exist," Wilson said. "Wild animals should not be in captivity." 

Moodley doesn't agree. "In this age of endless poaching, diminishing foraging areas and threats of climate change, zoos have become critical conduits for environmental education and for conservation. No sanctuary has a veterinary hospital on site as we have. We have a dedicated vet, we have animal attendants, curators and keepers." 

The zoo further denies that it intentionally kept the NSPCA in the dark. "The NSPCA themselves stepped out of the zoo's ethics committee. To now say they were sidelined is a weak argument," Moodley said.

In January, the NCPCA quit the Johannesburg Zoo's Animal Ethics Committee, News24 reported. 

Wilson told News24 on Friday that the organisation had no choice but to quit because it did not want to associate itself with decisions that were detrimental to Lammie's well-being.

"We knew the zoo was looking for new elephants but the way they did it was completely swept under the carpet."

In a statement, the NSPCA said it had lodged official enquiries with GDARD in relation to the permit applications for elephants by the Johannesburg Zoo.

Already a semblance of bonding

"We implore the public not to support captive wildlife facilities," Wilson said. 

Moodley said Lammie has responded positively to the arrival of her two new companions. 

"Yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, Lammie bonded with both elephants and they had their trunks entwined, so it's good to see that there is already some semblance of bonding. We are quite positive that the adaptability factor will run smoothly." 

The two new elephants' public debut is set for World Elephant Day on August 12, which coincidentally, is on the same day that Lammie turns 40, the zoo said in a statement. 

The zoo was expected to formally respond to the NSPCA on Friday afternoon.

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