This statement details the timeline of the critical engagement process initiated by members of the Pro Elephant Network (PREN) and representatives of the EMS Foundation with Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment in South Africa.
Since December 2020, at the behest of Minister Barbara Creecy, members of the Pro Elephant Network and representatives from the EMS Foundation have attempted to engage transparently with the administrators of the National Zoological Gardens (NZG) in Pretoria and representatives of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) with regards to the well-being and welfare of Charlie, the Elephant at the NZG. The NZG is part of SANBI and accordingly reports to Minister Barbara Creecy.
Collectively, we have diligently, persistently and explicitly presented valid requests to have Charlie independently assessed by internationally renowned zoo and captive Elephant experts, for more than sixteen months. To date we have been unable to achieve a desirable result for Charlie through out engagements with SANBI and the NZG and as a result we have taken the unprecedented decision−in his best interest−to make public the details of the unsatisfactory engagement process.
The copies of the numerous communications referenced in this statement have not been included below, but we reserve the right to do so in the future.
Initiation of Discussions in December 2020
On South Africa’s National Day of Reconciliation, the 16th of December 2020 , members of the Pro Elephant Network (PREN) wrote an open letter of concern addressed to Minister Barbara Creecy. The subject matter addressed the mental and physical well-being of Charlie, a solitary male Elephant living at South Africa’s flagship zoo situated in Pretoria. This letter was initiated because of numerous negative media reports about Charlie’s well-being, which were published in the media, after the sudden and tragic death of Landa, the female Elephant who had shared his enclosure.
All members of the Pro Elephant Network strongly believe that Elephants belong in the wild and that they must be returned to the wild in all cases where this is legitimately possible. In the twenty-first century, given what is commonly known, and scientifically verified, about Elephants, there is no good reason to keep them in captivity.
In May 2019, SANBI spokeswoman, Angeline Schwan, denied the fact that Charlie showed signs of distress after concerns had been raised about the devastating appearance of Charlie, she said that the allegations from the general public were false. “Charlie’s head-swaying is a learned behaviour from the circus life.” She said the head-swaying would never be completely unlearned; however, the zoo has tried dealing with it during the 15 years that Charlie has been at the National Zoological Gardens (NZG).
Schwan’s statement is inaccurate. Kaavan the solitary Elephant who was released from a zoo in Islamabad after three decades and transferred to an Elephant sanctuary in Cambodia stopped swaying and bobbing his head shortly after he arrived at the sanctuary. His on-going physical and mental recovery is remarkable and has been widely published to a growing global audience.
Stereotypic and atypical behaviours in Elephants can be expressed as repeated swaying of the whole body from one side to the other, weaving with the head, swinging the trunk, lifting the feet and bobbing up and down with the head. According to Elephant specialists this repetitive behaviour is a sign of frustration and sometimes even mental illness brought on by being taken away from their natural surroundings and family members and kept in cramped enclosures.
Besides the inadequate size, the Elephant enclosure at the NZG is austere. It has been widely recorded that Charlie and Landa have suffered with complications due to sand impaction, which has resulted in colic. Colic can be fatal in Elephants. The scientific data that we have shared with SANBI dictates that there is no Elephant enclosure anywhere in the world that is adequate for an Elephant’s needs.
Critical Engagement Opportunity 2021
Only after further correspondences were sent to Minister Crecy, and an online public awareness petition was started, were representatives from PREN invited to attend an online meeting with representatives from SANBI and administrators from the NZG. This meeting took place on the 31st March 2021.
At the meeting PREN representatives were invited to present scientific evidence as to why no zoo in the world is adequately equipped to exhibit Elephants. PREN representatives also took this opportunity to request an urgent Elephant expert on-site meeting at Charlie’s zoo enclosure.
One month later, following a highly publicized outcry about the dire conditions at South Africa’s flagship national zoo, on the 12th of April, another letter was sent to Minister Creecy with an offer from the EMS Foundation to rehabilitate, relocate and reintegrate Charlie into a wild system in Limpopo where Charlie’sneeds as an Elephant would be more satisfactorily met.
This offer included the possibility of the opportunity of scientific research which would be beneficial to SANBI and to Elephants in captivity throughout the world. The offer was also extended to the staff currently taking care of Charlie at the Zoo. All related costs would be borne by the EMS Foundation. The EMS Foundation reiterated the fact that Charlie would need to be assessed by zoo Elephant experts prior to any decision being reached about translocating him.
Not deterred, and in the best interests of transparency, collegiality, collaboration, the members of PREN wrote yet another letter to Minister Creecy on the 24th August 2021, noting their continued concern that there had been no meaningful or constructive follow up from the meeting held five months previously despite their on-going concern for the health and well-being of Charlie. Furthermore, PREN members requested that two captive Elephant medical specialists be given access to Charlie as a matter of urgency.
On Monday 11th of October 2021, representatives of the EMS Foundation were requested to attend another online meeting with representatives of SANBI and administrators from the NZG. The subject matter of the meeting, according to the agenda prescribed by the organisers, was to establish whether two independent international captive Elephant experts sponsored by the EMS Foundation could have access to Charlie in order to assess his mental and physical well-being.
Unfortunately, the agreed upon agenda was never followed at the meeting and despite repeated requests by the EMS Foundation for clarification none has ever received to date.
Twenty days later, on the 31st October 2021, the EMS Foundation was alerted, by members of the general public, that Charlie had been ill for a few days. Images of him lying down in his enclosure circulated on social media. Representatives from SANBI confirmed via WhatsApp messages that Charlie was ill with a stomach complaint.
On the 18th November and the 8th of December 2021 respectively the EMS Foundation addressed communications to representatives of SANBI, administrators of the NZG Zoo and the Honourable Minister Barbara Creecy setting out further details of how two named independent Elephant experts could assist SANBI. The EMS Foundation questioned why, after a full year, an independent assessment of Charlie was being denied.
The Failure to Engage in Good Faith
During the course of February 2022, various correspondences were delivered to administrators of the zoo. The administrators informed the EMS Foundation that they would be carrying out a scheduled routine hour-long medical assessment of Charlie to which they extended an invitation for one of the Elephant experts to attend. No date was given for this medical assessment, furthermore the administrators insisted that the expert be accredited in South Africa.
This caveat was a circuitous attempt to avoid the inclusion of international zoo Elephant experts. The administrators had, at their request, received copies of the curriculum vitae belonging to the international veterinary zoo Elephant experts sponsored by the EMS Foundation.
The EMS Foundation addressed a response to the administrators of the zoo stating that they had, in all previous communications, clearly set out the necessity and the roles of the team of experts that would be required to assess Charlie in order to obtain a realistic and comprehensive outline of his current mental and physical health an assessment which would need to be carried out over a period of at least 48 hours.
Senior representatives of the NSPCA confirmed during an online meeting with representatives of the EMS Foundation, held on the 14th of February 2022, that they too had been in communication with SANBI representatives from March 2021 with regard to their concerns for the welfare of Charlie.
Furthermore, they stated that they issued warnings against the Zoo. The NSPCA representatives confirmed in the same discussion that they had attempted to gain access to Charlie in order to carry out an assessment but had met with resistance from the zoo administrators.
The NSPCA further informed representatives from the EMS Foundation that they had been given the date of the 8th of March 2022 for the scheduled hour-long medical assessment of Charlie.
Since December 2020, despite the numerous correspondences with the Minister Creecy and SANBI representatives, neither PREN or the EMS Foundation were advised that the NSPCA was concerned about Charlie nor that this welfare organisation was trying to gain access to Charlie. Similarly, no specified date for the medical examination been offered to the EMS Foundation or to any member of PREN.
The NSPCA was given a definite date for the routine scheduled medical assessment which allowed them the opportunity to mandate a South African veterinarian to act on their behalf.
Unfortunately, after more than a year of stalling and properly engaging, the EMS Foundation felt exasperated in their objective to communicate transparently with representatives of SANBI in order to facilitate the urgent medical expertise and independent assessment that Charlie requires.
The EMS Foundation was therefore left with no other option and sought immediate legal relief in the hope that communications from their legal representatives would be taken more seriously.
Thus, on the 18th of February 2022, Cullinan and Associates, lawyers acting on behalf of the EMS Foundation, communicated with representatives of SANBI and the zoo. Despite the urgency and tight deadlines, the lawyers acting on behalf of SANBI finally responded to Cullinan and Associates, this letter was received on the 3rd March 2022.
On Saturday the 5th of March 2022, Cullinan and Associates wrote a communication to the SANBI lawyers, to which we have not yet had the pleasure of a comprehensive response.
A Traumatised Elephant in the Court of Public Opinion
Charlie was born in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe in 1982, he was captured as a youngster and trained to perform in the Brian Boswell Circus. This circus owner and staff appeared in court on animal cruelty charges more specifically, contravention of the Animal Protection Act 71 of 1962. These charges included the following acts of cruelty which were caught on camera, beating, chaining, confining and not providing sufficient water and shade to the elephants.
Charlie arrived at the zoo on the 30th of July 2001 on loan from the Brian Boswell Circus, he has therefore been in captivity in the zoo for almost twenty-one years.
Besides experiencing the trauma of being forcibly removed and separated from his mother, family and community, Charlie was transported to another country and then subjected to cruel, spirit-breaking ‘training’ to perform tricks in a circus for more than a decade. Based on well-developed scientific knowledge of elephants, their social and emotional complexity and cognitive abilities, this practice undoubtedly causes immense trauma and is unquestionably cruel.
Once forcibly captured, elephants used in circuses are subjected to absolute control and dominance, social and physical deprivation and often psychological and physical violence. A variety of tools and methods that cause intense distress, pain, and injury are used to limit elephant behaviour and movement. Bullhooks—wooden poles with a curved metal hook at one end—are used to inflict pain on sensitive areas of the elephants for the process of “breaking,” a long-held tradition that is grounded in principles of physical and emotional coercion and negative reinforcement to obtain absolute control.
Charlie has also witnessed several Elephants in his meagre enclosure die prematurely at the zoo.
A wealth of scientific data is in existence substantiating the extreme sociality and intelligence of Elephants. Such traits make Elephants in captivity are particularly vulnerable to stress and trauma and the long-term consequences thereof. It is well documented that Elephants suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders in brain damage.
According to his most recent physical medical records Charlie also suffers from colic which can be fatal to Elephants−his collapse in October 2021 should serve as a stark warning.
Charlie is being denied the right to the best Elephant expertise available in the world. If he is well enough, he has been offered the opportunity of living the remainder of his life as a free Elephant with other Elephants if he so chooses.
Why is the Minister (and her representatives) unreasonably denying this lifeline and opportunity to Charlie?
Charlie ill at the Pretoria Zoo on the 30th of October 2021 Image Credit Rochelle Liebenberg
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