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Monday 31 December 2007

Victoria Falls: An Elephant's Watery Death

They say an elephant never forgets. But the one who tried to cross the Zambezi on Good Friday would have had to be very old to remember the last time he saw the river running this high. And as he picked his way across from Zimbabwe, swimming from island to island along an ancient elephant corridor, a changed world was waiting on the Zambia side of the border as well: a sprawling five-star hotel along the banks in the national park.  With poachers and hunters at his back, and tourists sipping sundowners ahead, the elephant foundered and was washed downstream, plunging over the 130-meter-high (about 430 feet) Victoria Falls, Africa's mightiest cataract.  He wouldn't have had a chance of survival.
Word soon spread around this town upstream, named for David Livingstone, the white Scottish missionary who discovered the falls during his exploration of Africa. And the talk soon took on a political dimension. In recent years, as tourists with social consciences have spurned Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe's harsh authoritarian rule, visitors have headed for the Zambian side of the falls instead. That's been a blessing for the tourist industry in this southern African nation, prompting a boom in small hotels and game lodges along the Zambezi. But not all the locals appreciate the visitors. The Royal Livingstone, a Sun International property built six years ago in the Victoria Falls National Park at the top of the falls, is the only five-star establishment here, and "it would be fair to say, widely resented," said a tour guide. When the story of the elephant became known, residents said they'd heard that the doomed creature had been shooed from the grounds by guards firing in the air—and pointed out that a single drink on the hotel's riverside sundeck could feed a family of five for a week. They also heard, they said, that tourists were laughing as the pachyderm was swept over the falls.
The reality was different, to a point. "None of the rangers are armed," says the hotel's public relations officer, Jackye Nsovo. "Nobody's allowed to carry firearms.  Basically with elephants, they will come toward the hotel but they don't harm anyone."  Nor did anyone shoo the animal away," said Nsovo. "Elephants never come on the hotel grounds."
Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) Ranger Kenneth Nyambe, who is stationed on the grounds of the Royal Livingstone to keep guests from wandering into the hindquarters of zebras and to protect them from mugging by troops of baboons, said he heard a commotion from the hotel's riverfront sundeck about 4.20 p.m. last Friday. A crowd had gathered to watch what witnesses described as a 6-ton bull elephant (medium large, as they go) leading two smaller elephants, a male and a female, across the river.  Elephants are good swimmers, but as the river cascades toward the falls, the current goes at almost 25 miles per hour. The elephant got as far as the last islet in front of the hotel and then swam the channel, making it almost to the hotel side, according to accounts from several eyewitnesses. "He almost made it and we were all cheering," said senior waiter Kelvin Ng'andu, who was on duty that evening. The site is a popular place to watch the sunset, and the falls are close enough to see mist forming above the precipice, rising directly into cloud formations. But in front of the elephant was a bank of sharp rocks, topped by the hotel’s electrified fence; the elephant turned back and tried to swim the channel a second time, but was swept downstream, constantly trying to swim back against the current.
As Nyambe and Ng'andu described it, a hush descended over the scores of spectators. "It was a very sad struggle, we could all put ourselves in the boots of that animal," Ng'andu said. "Some people were crying, no one was laughing." Occasionally the animal would get a grip on the rocks or a spit of island, then lose it. The struggle went on for half an hour, with the elephant screaming piteously whenever it could blow the water from its throat, through the trunk. Its companions returned the calls, but remained on the island on the other side. "Tons and tons of flesh and bones, and exhaustion just occurs," said Isaac Kanguya of the Zambian National Heritage Conservation Commission. "We just watched helplessly as it went over," Nsovu said.
At 4:55pm, ranger Nyambe said, the elephant disappeared over the main part of the falls, tumbling more than 400 feet into the Boiling Pot, as it's called, at the bottom. "I swear we could see the splash a moment later," Ng'andu said. "It's an endangered animal and if we lose one we never get it back."
The Good Friday elephant wasn't the first to perish that way this year.  Officials at the local warden's office of ZAWA, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said they had three confirmed cases of live elephants being washed over Victoria Falls this year, all since the recent rainy season ended. Their carcasses were found by ZAWA rangers and stripped of their valuable ivory, in one of the gorges many miles below the falls.  "This has never happened before this year that anyone can remember," one said. The ZAWA officials say the presence of the Royal Livingstone on an established elephant corridor, plus the high water, and increased movement from Zimbabwe, were all to blame. The Livingstone hotel spokesman disputed that the hotel was on a corridor, saying the main elephant crossing in the area is more than three miles farther upstream. But elephants are often seen in the dry season crossing even at the lip of the falls in front of the hotel. Many more elephants are making the Zimbabwe-to-Zambia crossing now, as well, as Zimbabwe's economic collapse has led to widespread poaching on that side, and Mugabe's government has thrown open the doors to big-game hunters in a desperate search for hard currency from those prepared to pay as much as $50,000 for an elephant trophy.  Such hunting is banned in Zambia. "In the dry season we'll have 300 elephants now, where we used to have five or six," said Doug Evans, who runs the Chundukwa River Lodge about 15 miles upstream from the falls, and last week had his gardens and ponds trampled by elephants. His lodge is also on an elephant corridor. "We just put up with it. But over the long term, we can't handle 300 animals, it's just too many. But five kilometers [three miles] inland, there's a big human population, so where can they go? It's a problem. As always, the wildlife seems to get the short end of the stick." Evans is often called on to run capture and cull teams for elephants when locals complain that they're ravaging farms, or endangering populated areas. "Every time we go out on the river, we hear gunshots from the Zimbabwe side. I call friends who work with wildlife over there, and they say, there's nothing we can do, it's political."
Kanguya of the Heritage Commission acknowledged that hotels like the Royal Livingstone were built on elephant corridors, but says that measures such as fold-down fences have managed to alter their routes so they could safely cross.  But with the river as high as it is now, the electrified fences of the hotel grounds are right at river's edge. Some wildlife officials have called for expanding the national parkland along the river to protect them better, while at the same time major hotel operators have proposed building golf courses and sprawling complexes in existing parkland. "It's something we can manage by striking a balance," he said. "No overdevelopment at the expense of conservation, and no overconservation at the expense of tourism."
Finding that balance won't be easy, especially if more and more elephants vote against Mugabe with their feet.  The Easter drama didn't end with the bull's plunge.  His companions turned back, but one was stuck on another island until Easter Day. "That same day that our Lord Jesus died for us," said Ng'andu, "that elephant sacrificed for his friends to live.” Elephants never forget. I'm sure when they come back this way another year, they'll have a moment of silence for him." Elephant lovers might add a prayer.

Thursday 10 May 2007

Elephant-back Safaris “Simply Accidents Waiting to Happen” Warns Top Tourism Insurer

Elephant-back safari operators are under fire from Africa’s top tourism risk insurer which says the gung-ho attitude of certain elephant tourism players makes their operating practices “simply accidents waiting to happen.”
As thousands of travel industry heavyweights from across the globe gather at the annual tourism Indaba in Durban this weekend, a new report released by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare – shows a marked upswing in the number of elephant back safari operations – and highlights the concerns of the major insurer of “high risk activities”.
In the report An Overview of the Commercial Use of Elephants in Captivity in South Africa the chairman and founder of the “high risk activities” insurer says the lack of formalised norms and standards or protocols within the industry is of considerable concern,
“My experience is that many in the industry in South Africa seem to be happy to go it on their own and believe they know everything there is to know about elephant training. Some operating practices are simply accidents waiting to happen. There have been a number of incidents in the past and they will happen again,” he said.
As the only specialist risk managers in the tourism and wildlife industry in South Africa, the insurer has eight branch offices in other African countries and has extensive expertise and knowledge on risks associated with “high risk” activities. The company first insured captive elephants more than 15 years ago. Their risks are covered through Lloyds of London.
IFAW’s newest report on the status of the elephant tourism industry shows an industry markedly on the increase. Since its first investigation in 2005, the numbers of elephants kept in captivity for commercial use has grown by 25 per cent – from 89 to 112.
At least three handlers have been killed by elephants in the past two years, and there have been a number of incidents in which people have been injured – most recently two British tourists suffered serious injury and were admitted to hospital when they fell off an elephant in April 2007.
“IFAW has long been calling for better legislation to manage the elephant safari industry which is nothing more than an awful blight on South Africa’s tourism landscape,” said Southern Africa Director of IFAW, Jason Bell-Leask.
“Our investigation has shown that most of the new elephants that have entered the safari industry are animals forcibly removed from their live wild herds, only to be subjected to training that is wrong, cruel and exploitative.
“Ideally this industry should be banned altogether in the interests of elephant welfare, but also from a human safety point of view. If that cannot be then IFAW would welcome regulations to prevent any further growth of elephant safari tourism,” said Bell-Leask.
The insurance industry views many tourism activities including horse riding, scuba diving, bungi jumping and interacting with captive elephants as “high risk activities.” All, with the exception of the elephant back industry (including elephant walks and other human elephant interaction), have carefully drawn up protocols and norms and standards.
In the report the insurer said proper norms and standards were also necessary to ensure that captive elephants were properly treated. He added that their underwriters, Lloyds are also “desperately concerned that any activity they underwrite does not have the slight hint of inhumane of cruel treatment of animals.”

Friday 20 April 2007

SPCA battles Shearwater over elephants

The Zimbabwe National SPCA is continuing its efforts to gain access to nine 
elephants being 'trained' by the travel company Shearwater Adventures. The 
nine are the survivors of a group of 12 captured from herds in the Hwange 
National Park in November 2006.

In a January 2007 press release, Shearwater insisted that the ZNSPCA's 
claims that the elephants were being mistreated were untrue, claiming that 
their training methods were 'willing relationship[s] based on mutual trust 
and respect'. The ZNSPCA has consistently demanded that the company allow 
them access to the elephants to test this claim. After legal wrangling, the 
ZNSPCA were granted a court order for the inspection, which has yet to take 
place after Shearwater refused access to their premises on the grounds that 
the ZNSPCA had not obtained the assistance of vets named in the court order 
at the company's insistence. The ZNSPCA point out that they have written to 
these vets on more than one occasion but have not yet received any reply.

Shearwater has been operating in Zimbabwe since 1982, and offers a range of 
activities in the Victoria Falls region, including jet-boating, helicopter 
rides and whitewater rafting in addition to 'Elephant-Back Safaris'. The 
company's website claims to be the 'leading adventure activities company in 
Africa', as well as being 'ecologically sound' and 'in full compliance with 
respective National Parks regulations.' Their January press release argued 
that safaris were an excellent way to 'learn more about the elephant and as 
a result take a greater interest in the conservation issues surrounding 
them.' The company has strenuously denied the claims by the ZNSPCA that the 
elephants captured in 2006 have been left in unhygienic and dangerous 
conditions, pointing to three inspections by Government vets which gave 
positive accounts of the elephants' condition.

The competing press releases by the ZNSPCA and Shearwater Adventures are not 
helpful in establishing the condition of the elephants. The company has not 
responded on its website to the claim by the ZNSPCA that another elephant 
has died, nor explained why it has allowed three inspections by Government 
vets but obstructed the ZNSPCA's inspection. - Jaime Ashworth 

Source: SPCA battles Shearwater over elephants, The Zimbabwean (19/04/07) original article deleted.

Further Reading:  Captive Animal encounters: are they ethical? 

More from this blog: elephant-back safaris 

Thursday 25 January 2007

Statement on the wild elephant capture by Shearwater

Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA)
As our only concern is the welfare of animals and the enforcement of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, ZNSPCA has patiently remained silent in the midst of a barrage of defamatory press releases, whilst at the same time having received letters from Atherstone & Cook, on instruction from Shearwater, threatening to bring charges of malicious prosecution against the Society.

In response to reports of possible cruelty taking place during the capture of 12 wild elephants in Hwange Game Reserve, which was witnessed by visitors to the park, ZNSPCA initiated an investigation.

On 11 January 2007 on a follow-up visit to Victoria Falls to check on the reported improved conditions for the elephants, the ZNSPCA Inspectors were denied access to the elephants. A charge of obstruction has been laid against Shearwater.

In order to be fair and reasonable and in order to give Shearwater time to improve conditions and the opportunity to allow ZNSPCA Inspectors to check on the alleged improved condition of the elephant, although Inspectors are not required to have such permission, we have waited 7 days in order for permission to be granted and have withheld making any statements to the press in this regard at the behest of Shearwater. It is therefore most regrettable that permission has not been granted.

We have heard that there have been apparent improvements in the condition of the elephant and the boma, but our Inspectors are unable to ascertain if this is true.
This is the first instance where our Inspectors have ever been denied access to premises housing wildlife in captivity. It is the duty of SPCA Inspectors to ensure the welfare of any wild animal in captivity.

In addition, Shearwater refers to a report by two veterinarians that was CONFIDENTIAL and not for release to the media. Regrettably Shearwater has breached that confidence and has been selective in quoting from the report.

Many remarks contained in that report clearly indicate that in our opinion cruelty was taking place at the time of report.

Our Inspectors will continue to conduct their duties in this regard without fear or favour, in spite of being subjected to verbal abuse and insults, having their every move monitored and all other efforts to discredit their motives which have been appearing in the media.

Monday 8 January 2007

Victoria Falls 'at risk', UN warns

Victoria Falls, one of the world's greatest natural wonders, may cease to be a World Heritage Site as a result of the chaos in Zimbabwe.
Known locally as Mosi oa Tunya, or "the smoke that thunders", the falls are more than a mile wide and 420ft high. They have been a tourist hotspot since 1905, but Unesco is now considering listing the site as "endangered" because of mismanagement that has allowed the once prosperous resort to deteriorate.
Furthermore, over-zealous Zambian developers are proposing to build 500 chalets in a national park overlooking the falls, prompting warnings that the plan could lead Unesco to remove the site'sWorld Heritage status immediately.
Control of the Victoria Falls, named by the explorer David Livingstone in 1855, is at the centre of a turf war between two government bodies - the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management - both fighting over rights to manage one of the country's last remaining sources of valuable tourist revenue as hyperinflation touches 1,100 per cent.
The Zambezi river, which plunges over the falls, forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Most Western tourists used to stay on the Zimbabwean side, attracted by top-class facilities such as the Victoria Falls and Elephant Hills hotels, but the surrounding decay, and safety fears after the often violent land seizures initiated by President Robert Mugabe, have seen tourist revenues plunge by more than 70 per cent to $98m (£51m) last year from $340m in 1999, before land reforms started.
Unesco is also alarmed by Zambia's efforts to benefit from Zimbabwe's disarray. In a reversal of the traditional position, most foreign visitors now approach the falls from the Zambian side, even though the view is less spectacular. The tourism industry in Zambia is booming, with the number of overseas arrivals doubling between 2003 and 2005, bringing the country much-needed income, and new hotels are springing up near the Zambian town of Livingstone.