Elephant Tourism under Fire as Handler Dies

Thursday, 18 April, 2013
Cape Town, South Africa

The trampling to death of an elephant handler in South Africa this week has again thrown into sharp focus the dangers of the elephant-back safari industry.

On Monday an experienced handler at the Elephant Sanctuary, near Hartebeespoort Dam, North West Province, South Africa, was killed by two elephants.

“This tragedy is the fifth recorded of elephant handlers in South Africa since 2006 – all of them killed by elephants they worked with daily, and all because of a form of tourism driven by greed and without any conservation benefit,” said Jason Bell, IFAW Director Southern Africa of the IFAW and Director of IFAW’s Elephant Programme (International Fund for Animal Welfare – www.ifaw.org).

According to reports, a spokesman for the Elephant Sanctuary said the handler was experienced and well known to the bull and cow elephants which trampled him to death when he fell off one of the animals during a morning exercise session. The Elephant Sanctuary offers tourists elephant-back riding and interactive “hand-in-trunk” experiences. 

In 2007, two British tourists were severely injured while on elephant back safari at the Elephant Sanctuary.

Bell said no dedicated laws exist in South Africa to govern methods used in training elephants for safari tourism, and that trainers and handlers do not require any formal training or education to be able to handle elephants.

“Our investigations into the taming and training of elephants for this industry have shown that extreme levels of cruelty are used to make the animals compliant,” he said.

Last month authorities intercepted trucks transporting four young elephants that had been removed from their wild herds as their mothers were to be shot at a South African hunting ranch.

The removal of baby elephants from their wild herds is expressly not allowed by the Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa which states wild elephant calves may not be removed from their herds as a result of their mothers being identified for hunting.

According to South Africa’s NSPCA the elephant calves were en route to Elephants of Eden, a “rehabilitation” centre owned by the Knysna Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape Province, an establishment that offers elephant-back safari activities.

In 2005 one elephant handler was killed and, in 2011, a second badly injured by elephants at the Knysna Elephant Park. A farm worker was also killed by an elephant at the Elephants of Eden in 2008.

“There is no reason to believe that these four young elephants would not have ended up being trained and tamed for the elephant back safari industry,” says Bell. “In which case, this too would be contrary to legislation which seeks to ensure the ethical and humane management of elephants in South Africa.”

Other deaths in recent years include, in 2005, an 18-year old British volunteer at Elephants for Africa Forever (EFAF) in Mpumalanga Province who was mortally injured by an elephant he had been riding. The youngster was repatriated to hospital in the UK where he later died. EFAF is a training centre for elephants.

Three weeks ago, a handler also died after being attacked by an elephant he was training at  Mukuni Big Five Safaris near Victoria Falls in Zambia.  

“The elephant-back safari industry is one of greedy and willing participants in a practice that allows elephants to be subjected to training that is wrong, cruel and exploitative. They pay no attention to the psychological and social needs of these highly intelligent creatures,” said Bell.

“Captive elephant tourism is not responsible tourism and should not be supported in any shape or form. Elephants belong in the wild,” he said.

About IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Founded in 1969, IFAW saves animals in crisis around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit www.ifaw.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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