I was deliberately slow to report on this because i simply didn’t have all the facts. I still don’t but i’m prompted to clarify the situation (with the little i know) as irresponsible news services have ignored the TWO SIDES TO THIS STORY, aiming, instead, to exploit the emotions of their readers. Unfortunately, that bias has already hit international news wires and Knysna is looking like the devil’s home. Locally, some media have been more even-handed with their words but tend to add the other side too late which isn’t good enough because most people will only read the intro whilst their mind remains fixated on a massive, poor elephant photo intended to devastate.
Locally, people who have mentioned it to me have also failed to represent both sides. I’m a resident of Knysna and realise how damaging that can be for our town. The elephants are Knysna’s second-biggest tourist attraction. We are a tourist-based economy. Where the hell has Knysna Tourism been in all of this?
One version is that the owners of the Knysna Elephant Park (KEP) tortured elephants at Elephants of Eden (a facility in the Eastern Cape which they previously owned), making them submissive for tourist pleasure in Knysna. The other side says that the photos, given as evidence, are in fact 6 years old and are of an elephant belonging to Gerhard van Rooyen who owned the Indalu Game Reserve.
An NSPCA press release has stated that they have a video of the abuse and that “the footage shows elephant calves and juvenile elephants being chained, roped and stretched, shocked with electric cattle prods and hit with bull hooks– all methods used to force these gentle giants to submit to the will of their trainers and handlers. The elephants show signs of crippling injuries with severely swollen legs and feet, debilitating abscesses and wounds resulting from the abusive use of ropes, chains, and bull hooks. The calculated and premeditated cruelty of this nature that took place at this facility is a far cry from the loving sanctuary image that Elephants of Eden/Knysna Elephant Park like to portray.”
Lizette Withers, owner of KEP and ex-owner of Elephants of Eden, claims that the baby elephant (as seen in the most distributed photo) was abused by Indalu’s owners and staff which is why they took it in and nursed it back to health. It has been suggested that discrediting their park is revenge for the fact that Van Rooyen may have to forfeit his elephants to Knysna Elephant Park as Indalu is currently in liquidation.
Adding tension is the rumour that a disgruntled ex-employee of KEP earns an income from the management of a volunteer programme at Indula’s. This same person’s name (who is very well known in Knysna) turned up in last year’s controversy regarding the supposed illegal transfer of elephants to KEP. It was suggested that this person was the NSPCA informer which seemed strange as his/her position would have made him/her an integral part of the transfer decision and implementation. I withhold the name as it would be entirely unfair to mention unless more evidence comes to light. I mention it in case there is even more afoot.
Human interaction with wild animals is controversial in itself. The notion that animals belong in the wild competes with those who rescue animals who’ve had their habitats destroyed. Most times, Man is the culprit either way but the solution thereafter is far less simple.
Personally, i’ve visited KEP, having taken a bus load of poor kids for an unforgettable trip and education (see video here). Although i never witnessed any elephants giving rides (something i disagree with), there was a wooden structure enabling such activity. On the positive side, the entire herd of elephants looked healthy. The photos that are viralling through the internet are as alien to our experience so as to seem ridiculous.
I cannot form a decision for myself or my readers without a deeper investigation. I don’t expect it to be easy but i will begin digging. As a resident, especially, this is far too important an issue to not get right. And, somewhere down the line, some bastard has to pay for the pain inflicted on those innocent elephants!
Update: The Knysna Elephant Park has issued a press release with a lot of information to be considered. Read it at ‘KEP Denies Elephant Abuse’.
Poll: Vote on elephant edutainment here.