“Only skin and bones”: Bali elephants must starve to death | Wildlife news
An elephant park in Bali starved more than a dozen elephants and unpaid staff after the slump in ticket sales forced it to close as COVID-19 spread around the world and borders closed.
Bali Elephant Camp (BEC) is a safari-style park a half-hour drive north of Ubud, the cultural capital of the Indonesian island, and offers a range of nature-related activities such as biking through rice fields and white water rafting.
In 2005, BEC joined a nature conservation program led by the Ministry of Forestry that entrusts private zoos and safari parks in Indonesia with the care of the endangered Sumatran elephants.
A 2007 study by the World Wildlife Fund found that only 2,400 Sumatran elephants are left in the wild, and the number is believed to have now halved due to ivory poaching, human-elephant conflict and deforestation. Between 1980 and 2005 – that is only one and a half generations of elephants – 67 percent of the potential habitat of Sumatran elephants was lost. In 2012 the animal was classified as “critically endangered” in the wild.
The elephants for the parks and zoos come from breeding centers that were established in Sumatra 30 years ago to stabilize the population. In return for giving the animals a home, accredited companies were allowed to sell elephant tourism services, which were extremely profitable before the pandemic. BEC charged $ 230 for a half-hour elephant ride for two.
The birth of three baby elephants in the last 15 years suggests that BEC has not only met its animal welfare requirements, but has exceeded them.
“Our conservation friends say we have some of the healthiest, happiest elephants they have ever seen!” The company’s website boasts.
But photos, taken in May by a wildlife veterinarian in the park and shared exclusively with Al Jazeera, showed several severely malnourished elephants.
“You can’t imagine a skinny elephant until you see one,” says Femke Den Haas, a veterinarian from the Netherlands who has been committed to protecting the wildlife in Indonesia for 20 years.
“They are big animals and you shouldn’t see their bones. But they were – just skin and bones. “
Haas visited the camp as a partner of Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam Bali (BKSDA), the government agency that oversees the safari parks and zoos that have adopted Sumatran elephants.
“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many industries have collapsed in Bali,” said Agus Budi Santosa, director of BKSDA. “But the impact on small businesses like the Bali Elephant Camp was particularly severe. [When tourism stopped] they were no longer able to cover the operating costs, especially the costs of feeding the elephants. The government had to help them by paying for food and electricity. “
In July, the company told the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) that it was doing its best to care for the elephants but was struggling to meet its $ 1,400 monthly running costs and that neither the Department of Forestry nor the BKSDA would have offered financial support.
BEC representatives were not available to answer Al Jazeera’s questions about the elephants and his phone numbers have been separated.
“As a company, you can’t say that there are no more visitors, so I don’t care about the elephants anymore,” said Haas.
“That happened and it’s really disgusting because these elephants have made them profit for 15 years. So I don’t believe it when they say they don’t have any money. Elephants are not that expensive to look after anyway. It costs $ 200 a month to feed you. “
Haas says BEC has also left its employees without pay.
“You have not only acted irresponsibly towards the animals, but also towards employees who have given their lives for their work. When I first got there, some staff were gone and others were still there, working for free, trying to take care of the elephants, ”she says.
According to Santosa, BEC had two months to find new investors and restructure the business.
When BEC couldn’t find a solution, the government confiscated the elephants.
“We had to solve the problem quickly because delaying it could have killed the elephants,” said Santosa.
Haas adds: “They didn’t want to take the elephants with them. They wanted to keep them so they could go back to work after the pandemic. “
A new home
Three of BEC’s 14 elephants were adopted by an unknown zoo on the neighboring island of Java.
The remaining 11 were relocated to Tasta Wildlife Park, a new, modern zoo that opened in June in Tabanan Regency, a lush mountainous region in southern Bali. When Al Jazeera visited Tasta Wildlife Park in September, all 11 animals were successfully rehabilitated and regained weight.
The chief elephant handler Ketut is a former BEC man who worked for the company for 13 years – the last 12 months with little to no salary.
He has no ill will towards his former employer, only gratitude towards his new one. He knows the name and age of every elephant in the herd and is happy to share his knowledge with visitors, even if they are rare at first.
“Elephants digest very little of the food they eat. So they always eat, ”he said. “You can eat up to 10 percent of your body weight in a single day.”
With tickets between $ 2 and $ 4 and only a handful of visitors a day, Tasta Wildlife Park operates at a loss but continues to make sure that all of its animals are well fed.
Three other elephant parks in Bali – Mason, Bali Zoo and the Bali Safari and Marine Park – also have financial problems according to BAWA, but feed their elephants.
But they are concerned about the welfare of seven elephants at Bakas, a safari-style amusement park in eastern Bali that charges $ 25 for entry and $ 85 for washing an elephant in a pool.
Bakas has long been followed by allegations of feeding its elephants with complaints from visitors to TripAdvisor that go back a decade.
“Don’t go to Bakas Elephant Park. This park aims primarily to get as much money out of tourists as possible, regardless of animal welfare, ”wrote a tourist on the website in 2011. “The elephants were clearly underfed and the one we were on kept trying to stop and eat, which resulted in a sharp blow to the head with the goalkeeper’s stick.”
Haas says the owners of Bakas are crying poorly as well and are calling for government help: “It’s pretty easy to say that we don’t have the money to feed their elephants, so hello government, come see it. But those responsible are the owners. “
Al Jazeera visited Bakas a few days after reopening after a three month closure during the partial lockdown and there were no visitors at all.
The staff said they are still feeding the elephants but do not know if the feed is paid for by the owners or donations. In the parking lot, they offered a “selfie” with an elephant for a fee, but refused to show the areas inside where the elephants were housed. The camp’s owners did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests to respond to the allegations.
The plight of the malnourished elephants amid the discussions about more sustainable tourism in Bali after the pandemic has sparked renewed calls for a rethinking of elephant tourism on the island.
“There are no known ethical havens in Bali,” wrote Bali Elephant Paradise Hell, an advocacy group founded by pre-pandemic tourists who did not like what they saw in the islands’ elephant camps, on its website prior to the pandemic.
“The elephants are often kept chained for long periods of time when they are not putting on hideous shows or being used for horse rides.
BAWA expresses a similar view. The group referred Al Jazeera to comments she had made before the pandemic.
“Tourist elephants are often overworked and forced to work in the heat of the day with insufficient food, water, or rest. They may not show any obvious signs of distress and obediently drag themselves on, but the constant, forced closeness to people without the choice of a place to retreat is extremely stressful for elephants, “said BAWA. “They are deprived of the ability to perform natural behaviors because they are either locked up, tied up, or bullhooked. That creates fear and frustration. “
Haas says all of these problems were caused by tourist demand for elephant rides: “That one ride, that one selfie, that means life imprisonment for these animals, and now that Covid has been hit, it’s even worse because there is no more money comes in and some elephants are starving. “
“I’m not saying these stores should close,” said the vet. “But I hope that tourists will get a wake-up call after the pandemic and will no longer ride elephants or play with them in swimming pools.
“It’s 2021 and we should have an ethical tourism where people who visit Bali on vacation should say: Yes, we want to see elephants, but in a sanctuary where they can graze and are not chained up waiting for people to ride them. You don’t have to come near wild animals, you don’t have to touch them or take a selfie, just admire them from a distance. “