Mandy Carter: NZ's gift a cruel 'white elephant'

Image / iStock
Image / iStock

As reported in the Herald today, New Zealand has been 'gifted' an elephant under the guise of diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka.

A five-year-old elephant called Nandi is soon to undertake the gruelling journey to our shores to join Anjalee, the previous elephant sent from Sri Lanka. She'll live at Auckland Zoo, along with Burma, their existing elephant.

Nandi's deportation to New Zealand has been cleverly packaged, but the truth is that Nandi will leave her home and her family to become yet another spectacle for the public to gawp at.

The zoo needs a 'flagship species' that will attract visitors, and they know elephants are the perfect drawcard. She will live out her life as a mascot for the rest of her disappearing kin, and bring in the revenue to keep the zoo afloat.

All this, despite the widespread, continued opposition to keeping elephants in captivity.

Some of the worlds most prominent international zoologists and respected elephant experts have publicly appealed against plans to import more elephants here. More than 20 distinguished animal behaviourists and animal advocates have written to express their concerns. These include; Will Travers of Born Free Foundation, Dr Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices and Peter Stroud - a zoological consultant, along with representatives of Amboseli Trust for Elephants, RSPCA, Elephant Aid International, In Defense of Animals, International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society International.

I have no doubt that keepers at zoos really love the animals and try their best, but it's not enough. Zoos simply cannot provide elephants with everything they need.

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Peter Stroud has said, "No urban zoo can cater for the complex needs of elephants. Sound science tells us that elephants are social animals that spend their lives in and around families of closely related individuals, moving across vast areas. Family life cannot be created in a zoo and there is growing evidence that simply placing unrelated elephants together does not simulate natural social life."

The UK RSPCA called for the phase out of elephants in zoos, saying that "recent research has shown that they were suffering from severe welfare problems, which range from lameness and obesity to obsessive behaviour, and that it was inappropriate and cruel to keep them in confinement."

Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena gave PM John Key a deed of ownership for 5-year-old Nandi. Photo / AFP
Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena gave PM John Key a deed of ownership for 5-year-old Nandi. Photo / AFP

As many people know, Kashin, Auckland zoo's much loved elephant, died in 2009. But what some are not aware of is that she was euthanised after losing her battle with chronic health problems largely caused by being kept in captivity. Kashin suffered painful arthritis and foot abscesses, problems often associated with elephants kept in zoos due to standing on hard floors and not having the space to roam and exercise.

Knowing all of the issues, some zoos around the world are choosing to no longer keep elephants.

As a part of the deal, Auckland Zoo will reportedly help with Sri Lanka's management of its own elephant population, as well as train wildlife workers. Sounds good, but they are effectively 'green washing' - spending millions of dollars on the upkeep of three elephants in captivity and then donating a few thousand so they can claim to be saving animals in the wild.

The Zoo has also boasted of intentions to start a breeding programme, but let's be clear: this is not conservation. In the last 100 years elephants have been kept in zoos all over the world, yet we've seen a huge decline of their numbers in the wild.

The elephants at the zoo will never be released and neither will their offspring. The main problems facing wild elephants are human-elephant conflicts and pressure on their natural habitat. Having these animals in captivity will not benefit those in the wild in any meaningful way. At best, we'll end up with living museum exhibits.

And what of the argument that zoos inspire the next generation to care? Numerous studies, including those by the zoo industry itself, have shown that most visitors to a zoo take only a brief look at displays as they wander round, spending more time getting snacks or using the facilities or the gift shop.

Neither does Nandi need rescuing. The elephants in Sri Lanka are not in need of new homes.

As everyone knows, elephants are incredible animals and I understand why many people will think it's great that they can see elephants up close at the zoo.

But we should be thinking what is really best for them, as individuals, and as a species. We need to stop treating these magnificent animals as disposable, something to be paraded as a gift or to gawp at.

Mandy Carter is Head of Campaigns at SAFE.

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