The proposed massacre of thousands of wild elephants in South Africa has sparked international outrage, yet the zoo community has been strangely silent. Zoos tout their elephant conservation efforts, yet not one U.S. zoo has joined the many respected scientists publicly opposing the large-scale killing of a species already threatened with extinction.
The slaughter is being proposed under the pretext of protecting environmental biodiversity—despite there being no scientific evidence that elephants pose a threat. Killing elephants to “solve” a non-existent problem is arbitrary, reflects outdated wildlife management principles and is scientifically unsound.
Elephants are highly social, intelligent animals. They experience joy, anger, grief and sympathy. They reason and play, have exceptional memories and live about twice as long in the wild as they do in captivity. Male offspring stay with their extended families for up to 15 years; females, their entire lives. Elephants have extremely intricate communication systems. Their mourning ritual over the death of a family member rivals any that we humans have developed.
Killing even one elephant, let alone thousands, rips apart elephant families and leaves survivors with lifelong emotional scars. If South Africa’s elephant kill takes place, terrified elephants will be herded into groups with helicopters while people on the ground and in the air open fire with high-powered weaponry. The African savannah will be turned into a blood-soaked killing field. Death screams will be heard by other elephants miles away.
The zoo community, by purchasing the terrified orphaned calves and shipping them around the world for display in small enclosures, will be contributing to this bloodbath. As horrifying as this sounds, this is exactly how many zoos, often under the guise of a “rescue,” have obtained elephants from the wild in the not too distant past.
Beyond the overwhelming cruelty of this plan, there are pragmatic reasons to reject the slaughter. Ecotourism plays an important role in South Africa’s economy. Paying tourists flock to Africa to see free-roaming elephants. A widespread killing of elephants will undoubtedly have a damaging impact on this important source of revenue.
Elephant researchers have suggested humane, sensible alternatives to kills: Reduce the number of artificially created watering holes to divert elephants to previously underutilized areas; expand protected elephant habitats by linking them to adjacent areas; establish migration corridors to other regions; develop community-based wildlife conservation programs outside the existing protected areas to increase the benefits of tourism to nearby rural areas; protect vulnerable and valuable areas by erecting and maintaining fences and implementing other nonlethal deterrents; and administer contraception, which is an affordable method involving minimal intervention that can reduce the number of elephants within a large population.
Zoos should be leading the charge to halt this cruel and misguided plan. They should be asking their members to write to South African officials, urging them to oppose the kill. And every single U.S. zoo must make it clear that they will not capture, purchase or import any orphaned elephant, thus reducing the financial incentive for South African authorities.
PETA is working for the day when all elephants will roam freely and unmolested, but until that time, the zoo industry has a moral obligation to take a strong stand against the wanton slaughter of wild elephants.
Debbie Leahy is director of PETA’s Captive Exotic Animals Department, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.