During the past week the elephant world has seen a few tragedies; in the US two zoo elephants passed away unexpectedly, and in Africa one of the most watched, admired, and unfortunately targeted males was killed and slaughtered for his tusks. “Satao” had already been speared by poachers on at least two other occasions and treated by the Kenya Wildlife Service. He knew he was being watched and tried to conceal his tusks by hiding them in bushes as he grazed. But the price for his tusks and his life were too great and the poachers have won out once again killing the last of his kind.
Here in the US, news has quickly spread about “Joy/Joni” an African elephant from South Carolina passing away in transit to Colorado, just three hours after they had previously checked up on her. We still don’t know the cause of death but we’ll be watchful for answers. There is always a risk when moving any animal and unfortunately, zoos use this argument of risk to prevent moving their elephants to sanctuaries. This argument, for the most part, is without merit when precautions are taken. Both of the notable sanctuaries, PAWS and TES have moved more than 45 elephants, from across the US and even from Canada, without incident. Moving elephants is not easy, it can be a little stressful for the elephant, but when you consider moving elephants you have to look at the reasoning for the risk, however minimal it may be. When relocating elephants to a sanctuary the reward is substantial: you are offering a whole new life, dynamic, fulfilling, liberating and above all healing. It is impossible to underestimate the profound benefit of sanctuary for captive elephants.
In North Carolina this week, “Little Diamond” passed away as a result of sand colic. Sand while present in most soils, in not truly a natural substrate for elephants but zoos often use it as the best of the bad solutions when housing elephants in limited space. Sand is softer than most other substrates used in zoos, but it comes at a cost. Even passively and unintentionally, elephants will consume sand while they eat their normal diet. Just look at your own experiences at the beach; sand gets in and onto everything including our sandwiches. This passive ingestion can be compounded for elephants. In the wild and in sanctuaries elephants will typically ingest soil to help balance out their nutritional needs and to aid in digestion. In zoos, due to the limited access to soil and earth, captive elephants will sometimes turn to the next best option and in this case, it was sand. However, sand when combined with the liquid of digestive fluids and water will become heavy, wet and will often clump together. The behavior of eating substrates is not at all abnormal. With one of the elephants I worked with at The Elephant Sanctuary, we found more than 40 pounds of rocks in one section of her intestines. The vast majority of the stones were not typical to Tennessee, which led our veterinarians to conclude that she had consumed these in her former home and had been carrying them for more than 3 years. This did not contribute to her passing but some speculated about what may have happened if she had remained in her former zoo. Would her nutritional needs and the lack of a balanced diet have caused her to keep eating rocks that would have lead to life-threatening impaction?
Sanctuary offers a tremendous benefit to captive elephants reaching far beyond all expectations. But Sanctuary is not the answer for everyone; the wild must stay wild. It is painful to see what is happening. The wild populations are being devastated and we’ve been asked why we can’t create sanctuaries for large numbers of elephants in Africa. But we must remember that sanctuary is still captivity and these elephants deserve to remain free. More has to be done to protect the wild; we have to kill the ivory market, it simply can’t exist. If there is a market for ivory trinkets, there will be a price on every wild elephant’s life. Somehow that needs to shift; they need to have more value alive than just the sum of their pieces. We will all need to work together to enlighten the world around us to the tragedies that elephants are facing every day.
There is a recent movie that shares the message that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I personally feel the same way about life for elephants; for those in the wild, it is better to have a shorter life with the ultimate freedom than to live under the control and confinement of humans. For captive elephants, even 3 months of sanctuary and the opportunity to experience some degree of autonomy is better than 6 months or even 3 years within the extreme confinement of zoos. For elephants, quality will always outweigh quantity, and we all need to do what we can to provide them with both.