Wild Elephants Captured for Elephant-back Safaris

From Joyce Poole:

Some time ago I wrote about an abusive captive situations in Zimbabwe. We are now able to share the information with you. Please take a moment to read the history of these elephants provided by the ZNSPC. We will be posting some photographs of the elephants and an appeal on behalf of the ZNPCA tomorrow. Thank you.


In November 2006, Shearwater Adventures located in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, captured twelve wild juvenile elephants from Hwange National Park for the purpose of training the animals for use in the elephant back riding industry.  Once ZNSPCA heard about this capture, Inspectors visited the premises where the elephants were being held.  One elephant had died a day after it had been captured while another female elephant had escaped from her enclosure.  The remaining ten elephants were in a state of shock and showed clear symptoms of stress.  After vet reports on the elephants were obtained and photographic evidence taken, the ZNSPCA appealed to National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (NPWMA) for permission to stop the training of these wild elephants and release the animals.  NPWMA granted ZNSPCA permission to release the elephants.

On the day the elephants were scheduled for release, however, ZNSPCA Inspectors were told by a deputy Minister of Parliament to leave the elephants alone.  Inspectors subsequently filed twelve counts of animal cruelty charges against Shearwater Adventures at the local Police station and submitted photographic evidence to prove the cruelty. Shearwater Adventures subsequently banned Inspectors from entering their property in order to examine the elephants.  Two obstruction charges were filed against Shearwater Adventures with the Police.  During the next few weeks, the docket for animal cruelty against Shearwater Adventures was "lost", ZNSPCA replaced it, the docket was moved to another police station, and finally all charges including the obstruction charges against Shearwater Adventures were dropped by the Police due to "lack of evidence".

ZNSPCA fought to gain access to the elephants in the High Court for over a year.  During  time another two elephants died.  Inspectors approached elephant specialist, Dr.Joyce Poole, for assistance.  Dr. Poole submitted an affidavit regarding the cruelty involved in capturing and training wild elephants.  Furthermore, she wrote a motivated request to the Attorney General requesting the ban on future capture of wild elephants (note that these documents were used by ZNSPCA in the subsequent Sondelani case as well). During this period the story was widely publicised in the press and on the Internet, causing the near collapse of Shearwater Adventures' business. Shearwater Adventure was, thus, forced to stop the High Court battle and asked ZNSPCA Inspectors to visit the elephants.  Unfortunately, by this time, the intense and highly abusive training was over and Inspectors were unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt, that cruelty was continuing to take place.

NPWMA would not fully commit themselves to banning future captures of wild elephants, but shortly after issuing the release permit to ZNSPCA, verbally communicated that they would not be issuing further permits without ZNSPCA's knowledge.


ZNSPCA were unaware that in October 2008 a further ten wild elephants were captured on behalf of Basil Steyn, owner of Sondelani Ranch  in West Nicholson, also for the purpose of commercial use.  ZNSPCA heard rumours of such a capture in November 2008 and approached the Director General of National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (NPWMA) who assured us that no such permit had been issued.

It was not until April 2009 that ZNSPCA discovered the ten captured elephants and visited Sondelani Ranch to investigate the case on the 15th April 2009.  Inspectors learned, with dismay, that Mike Le Grange who owns a wildlife capture company in Zimbabwe caught the ten elephants and that a permit had been issued by NPWMA for the capture and translocation of eight elephants from Dubane Ranch (in the Gwanda area belonging to Cold Storage Commission) to Sondelani Ranch (belonging to Basil Steyn).   Senior NPWMA officials admitted that due to loopholes, they had been unaware of this permit.  Furthermore, two elephants had been captured without a permit - an issue that is being dealt with by NPWMA.  Five of the captured elephants were destined to go to Chengeta Safaris (in Selous near Harare owned by Phil Dobinson) and five were to remain in Mr. Steyn's possession and, after training, be moved to Victoria Falls.  All ten elephants were to be used for elephant back rides.  The Inspectors  were informed that the elephants came from a family herd on Dubane Ranch that had lost its other members to poachers and that their capture ensured that they did not suffer the same fate.   After travelling around Dubane Ranch and talking to local residents there, ZNSPCA found out that no such poaching was taking place and the captured elephants had come from at least two different families.  There was no apparent human/animal conflict and the only threat to the elephants lives were sport hunters. The future security of these remaining wild elephant on Dubane Ranch is a concern and ZNSPCA will be addressing this issue with the local authorities.

The initial visit by ZNSPCA Inspectors to Sondelani Ranch on 15 April revealed that the elephants were malnourished and had varying degrees of wounds, hence ZNSPCA returned to Sondelani Ranch on the 23rd April 2009 with veterinary surgeon Dr. A. Dube.   ZNSPCA were informed that the elephants were receiving fresh vegetables, fruit, cubes as well as mopane branches, yet the only food we saw was the mopane branches.  Despite the amounts of food that Steyn claimed to be feeding them, and considering that the elephants had been in captivity for six months, the condition of the elephants was very poor.  Further concerns were the lack of access to water and the lack of shade as well as the long hours that the elephants were chained without any socialisation with each other.   Furthermore, an adult female elephant was housed on her own, separated from her male calf, causing the calf unnecessary physical suffering as he was continuously straining on his chains in an attempt to get to his mother. The veterinary report compiled by Dr. Dube confirmed these concerns. Furthermore, handlers were feeding the elephants cubes from such a distance that  the elephants had to stand on three legs and strain on their chains in order to reach the food.  We suspect this was done to enforce the dominance of the handlers and the wounds from the chains caused by this action was unnecessary and cruel.  Additionally, the elephants were given only limited access to water,  meant to further enforce their dependence on the handlers  and this, in our opinion, was cruel and would cause health issues as the intense heat that the elephants were exposed to would cause dehydration if water was not readily available.

ZNSPCA returned to Sondelani Ranch on the 7th May 2009 with elephant specialists, Karen Trendler and Dr. Lucy Bates .  Both these specialists' reports illustrated that the elephants were suffering both physically and mentally (indeed on 28th June   one young elephant died as a result).  During the visit, Mr. Steyn admitted to the specialists and ZNSPCA that the elephants do suffer wounds from the chains during training and that they scream when they are forced into unnatural positions. This admission of cruelty is unacceptable.

Discussions with Joyce Poole and other elephant specialists made it clear that it was entirely possible to successfully release these individuals back into the wild and ZNSPCA began to look into suitable locations.

Due to the lessons learnt in the Shearwater case, ZNSPCA were uneasy about lodging a cruelty charge in regards to these ten elephants as their wellbeing was our responsibility and a future without cruelty needed to be secured.  Instead, ZNSPCA used evidence of the severity of abuse suffered by these ten elephants as well as Dr. Joyce Poole's previous affidavit and letter to the Attorney General and approached the Honourable Minister Nhema of Environment and Natural Resources to discuss the way forward for the animals.  Honourable Minister Nhema told ZNSPCA that the elephants should be released and that ZNSPCA should work with NPWMA in order to establish stricter controls regarding elephants in captivity in order to prevent such cruelty from reoccurring.

Mr. Steyn had, meanwhile, gone to Court and obtained a High Court order preventing ZNSPCA from releasing the elephants.  After consultations and meetings with him, he agreed to withdraw the order and work with ZNSPCA in order to release the elephants.

Further meetings were held with NPWMA top officials regarding enforcing stricter welfare controls to protect those elephants already in captivity and to halt the practice of capturing of wild elephants for the elephant back industry.  NPWMA agreed that stricter controls need to be established to protect the existing captive elephant herd in Zimbabwe and that the existing loopholes must be blocked in order to prevent another incident like the Sondelani elephant case.  The NPWMA will formalise this at a stakeholders meeting to be held in the near future.

As our Society's funds are limited, ZNSPCA approached Four Paws (Vier Pfoten), an International animal welfare group with its' Headquarters based in Austria, for assistance in facilitating the elephants' release.  Four Paws accepted the appeal and have committed themselves to the welfare of the elephants on Sondelani.  Thanks to Four Paws, the elephant enclosure has been extended from 100  m2 to 2500 m2 and further extensions are in progress.. With the assistance of the Four Paws team, on the advice from Joyce Poole, the elephants were successfully moved from solitary confinement to the small enclosure and from there into the new large enclosure area.  All chains have been removed from the elephants.  No more training is taking place.  Elephants suffering from ill health are receiving veterinary attention and responding well.  Bonds are forming within the small group and the elephants are allowed to now express normal behaviour.  This transition period is being accurately recorded for future reference.

It is ZNSPCA's aim to release the remaining nine elephants to an area where they will be secure and safe from any hunting or poaching activities.  Consideration for their release and neighbouring elephant herds where older males can join bachelor herds must be taken into account when choosing their release location.  This release will take place as soon as the elephants are psychologically and physically prepared.

In order to secure the elephants' future, ZNSPCA needs to raise funds to pay for the costs of the food, staff and veterinary treatment of the elephants for the last few months and months to come.  Once these nine elephants are safe, ZNSPCA will then use the evidence of cruelty in the form of photographs, video footage and recorded behaviour to present to NPWMA in order to secure the banning of the future capture of wild elephants in Zimbabwe for commercial use.

Any donation towards this project will be greatly appreciated.  Photos of the individual elephants are available on request.

Please help us to secure these sentient animals' future.

 Original Article