Saturday, 3 February 2018

 A Journey with Elephants

By Greg Vogt – Conservation Guardians

Chapter 1: The awakening


For six years I had been waking up before the sun rose and my day began working with elephants. These were captive elephants, elephants that each had their own story, but no voice to tell this story to the world.

I had however been hearing their story being told by others for fifteen years.
Sadly in the year I was introduced to Thandora I had chosen to step away from working in this industry.

Thandora grazing in the fynbos (Cape Floral Kindom). A beautiful site for us humans to see, but is it really what Thandora wanted? Grazing and browsing for her was hard work for very little reward.

I had just watched a documentary called Blackfish, a story on captive Orca’s that performed in Aquaria. It was then that I made the decision to put the lives of these gentle giants – elephants - before my own, and to begin working for them, to tell their story no matter what the cost.

You see, there is no viable financial model to do what I was about to do. Logically it made no sense,  and the risk included causing a lot of pain for my family and in some cases friends close to me.

Thandora was forcefully orphaned during the Kruger Park culling* era. An acceptable practice at that time was to not cull young elephant calves during this population management practice implemented as a means to protect the biodiversity of the Kruger  National Park, a valuable natural space in South Africa.

I say forcefully orphaned, because there are many cases where elephants are orphaned in genuine instances. For example where a mother had been poached or died through natural causes. It was, and still is, not uncommon for landowners in southern Africa to have a young elephants arrive at their doorstep, the reason unknown. And in some instances, this is where the story of captive elephants begins.

At the age of about three to four years old Thandora was moved to a Zoo in Bloemfontein (South Africa) and her life in captivity began, just as many other young Kruger orphans’ lives began in Zoo’s around the world. The practice of ‘ordering’ young elephants was common in those day’s, however this practice was later stopped and whilst culling as a means of population management continued, it was eventually stopped in 1994 when policy dictated that the culling teams were required to cull (kill) the entire family.

Thandora is released from her night quarters at the Pretoria Zoo just before she was to be darted in preparation for her  800km journey to her new home.

During this series of blog’s, I will not mention the names of people I dealt with, however will focus on the main theme that will become the foundation of what we are really dealing with: the integrity of the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity for society to enjoy. Let’s call it edutainment*, a term used to highlight the link between education and entertainment. During this blog series we will explore the practice of culling and why the conservation managers were required to manage these elephant populations.

I met Thandora when she was around 23 years old at Bloemfontein Zoo. There were a number of processes that took place before this meeting. Thandora had lived many of her years with a bull elephant, again, a practice of places keeping a young male with a young female. Why one should ask, when we know that elephants live in a matriarchal society?

To breed later in years of course.

Zoo keepers told me that as Thandora and her friend grew older, the bull bullied her and the limited zoo space did not allow Thandora to get away and find solace from this bullying. They eventually removed the bull, however Thandora’s lonely life tugged at the heart strings of visitors to a local hotel that was established in the Zoo area. The public could not bear to see Thandora on her own in the confined space, pacing around and exhibiting stereoptypic* behaviour.

The decision was made to move her from the zoo and release her into the wild.

Exercising Thandora whilst she was in her release boma. We needed to improve her condition and get her to walk more, something she had very little of at the Zoo (for 23 years)
I am starting my blog at the end of my journey of working in the captive elephant industry for a reason. Thandora’s story highlights many concepts the blog will explore and my hope is that this blog becomes a voice for elephants in general. More importantly, this blog serves for us all to evaluate the conservation objective of keeping wild animals in captivity.
During the episodes of Thandora’s life being told, there is hardly a chapter where human voices are not articulating that Thandora would be better off in the ‘wild’.

Was that really the case?

Help us provide the best quality of life for elephants in captivity!


Culling:   A population management practice where managers of protected areas keep the animal populations to sustainable numbers. If they do not manage the numbers, the very ecosystems that supports the wildlife is destroyed, causing a collapse in the system.

Edutainment:  Educational entertainment. Entertainment that makes education interesting, especially for young folk.

Stereotypic behaviours:   An animal behaviour that exhibits stereoptypies, like swaying, bobbing or pacing aimlessly for example, is considered an indicator of poor psychological well-being.