Training of Elephants Triggers Outrage: Animal Groups Say Methods Are Barbaric
Herbert, Ross, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
JOHANNESBURG - An international controversy has erupted over the fate of 30 elephants from an overpopulated reserve in neighboring Botswana that were tamed with an eye toward selling them to zoos and sanctuaries.
Animal welfare groups charge that they were beaten routinely by Indonesian trainers, or mahouts, who were hired by their owner, Riccardo Ghiazza, an Italian. His idea for taming the elephants resulted from a liberalization last year of rules governing elephant trading.
Safari operators fear the controversy will deal irreparable damage to the region's tourist reputation while conservation organizations worry that animal rights groups will use the elephant's plight to reopen debate on the trading regulations.
They were changed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to allow limited commercial trade in elephant products and live animals.
The case also puts at risk a growing free-market school of conservation, born in southern Africa, which argues that animals living near desperate humans only will survive in the long run if humans can profit through hunting, live animal sales and tourism.
Such activity, permitted for elephants under CITES over bitter opposition from many animal welfare groups, is viewed in most of southern Africa as the only hope of dealing with a burgeoning elephant population.
The 30 elephants, ages 2 to 7 years, were chased by helicopters in Botswana, taken from their mothers and shipped to Hartbeespoort, an hour north of Johannesburg, to be trained for zoos and safari parks in Europe, China and Africa.
BITTER COURT BATTLE
Mr. Ghiazza hired six Indonesian mahouts whose methods, according to elephant experts brought in to review the operation, involve breaking the animal's spirits to bend them to human will.
The mahouts usually work with Asian elephants, which are regarded as more trainable than their African counterparts, which have the bigger ears.
Videotapes show the animals with deep red cuts around their ankles where they had been chained and numerous red wounds on their trunks and heads, resulting from blows from a metal training tool that resembles an ice pick attached to a foot-long handle.
The national Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) filed criminal charges against Mr. Ghiazza under anti-cruelty laws and has been waging a bitter court battle to take the animals away from his care.
The suit charges that he has chained and hobbled the elephants, allowed his Indonesian trainers to puncture their hides with sharp hooks and deprived them of water and food. The society wants the elephants released to other game reserves where they can roam free.
SPCA investigator Rick Allan said the court had been shown his videotape of a mahout trainer throwing 18 buckets of water in the face of a young elephant who was thirsty and trying to drink. The elephant was not allowed to drink.
Another group, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, has protested outside South African embassies in several countries, including the one in Washington. Even the Spice Girls have appealed for their rescue.
Mr. Ghiazza denies any mistreatment and softened his training methods, but it did not seem to mollify conservationists and animal lovers.
"We are going to train them a lot slower," he told reporters at African Game Services, the elephants' training camp near the town of Brits, north of Johannesburg.
"If I don't see the elephants being treated right by their trainers, I will first give them a warning, and the second time I'll send them back to Indonesia," he said, according to South Africa's SAPA news agency.
Mr. Ghiazza "admits mistakes have been made," Cobus Raath, a veterinarian, told reporters at the game ranch near Pretoria. "Everyone must go through a learning curve. …