Elephant cruelty alleged in custody case
South African judge's decision awaitedOctober 20, 1998
Web posted at: 3:56 p.m. EDT (1956 GMT)
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BRITS, South Africa (CNN) -- A custody case set for decision soon by a South African judge pits a wild animal trainer against accusers who claim 30 young elephants in his care are malnourished, dehydrated, covered in wounds and possibly diseased.
Britain's Spice Girls, U.S. rock singer Chrissie Hynde and wildlife experts from around the world are among those who have taken up the cause.
They've appealed to President Nelson Mandela to help return the elephants to neighboring Botswana, where they were captured in the overcrowded Tuli game reserve last year to be trained and sold to circuses and zoos.
The animals, owned by Riccardo Ghiazza of South African-based African Games Services, "have not only been brutally beaten, but they've been psychologically traumatized as well," says Dr. Joyce Poole, an elephant researcher from Kenya.
'They hate and fear the trainers'
She inspected the animals at a compound in Brits, a small farming town outside Pretoria where the elephants are being trained. "They hate and fear the (trainers) so much that they lunge at them and would kill them if they could," she said.
Ghiazza declines to comment on the controversy on the advice of lawyers who strongly deny the elephants have been mistreated.
The elephant trainer has appealed a decision by a South African court that granted custody to The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after questions were raised about the conditions in which the elephants were held.
Ghiazza's appeal prompted Brits magistrate Herman Glas to order on-site visits by Poole and other independent experts.
They told Glas, who will make the custody decision, that the animals should immediately be removed and allowed to recuperate.
"They are being deprived of food and water to discipline them," said British zoo and wildlife veterinarian Simon Adams. "All have wounds to their heads with pus running out of them from where they have been beaten and restrained."
Big money at stake
The case raises as yet unanswered questions about the international traffic in wildlife: whether it should be allowed and, if so, how can it be controlled.
Ghiazza paid $2,000 each for the elephants which, after training, could be sold for as much as $30,000 each, according to Randall Moore, who runs an elephant safari in Botswana.
"This is all about profit," he told CNN. "If I was a baby elephant and I had to go here, I would say shoot me with my family because I do not want this type of life."
Wildlife experts see the court action as a test case that will help focus attention on loopholes in the Convention for Trade in Endangered Species, the result of an international treaty drawn up to protect animals like the elephant.
"The people who draw up these conventions don't always know a lot about animals," says conservationist and elephant tamer Daphne Sheldrick. "This is a slave trade in animals."
Richard Farinato, a director of the Humane Society of the United States, warned that if the elephants remain in captivity, South Africa's credibility in conservation circles could be ruined.
"There are a lot of sensitive people out there who will simply say we are not supporting them (South Africa) and we are not going there," he said.
Celebrities plead with Mandela
The Spice Girls, who met Mandela last year, pleaded in a letter to the South African leader to "help these frightened baby elephants feel the comfort and love of their mothers once again."
The pop singers also called on him to ask Botswana to ban further captures of elephants in the big but sparsely populated country.
Hynde, who fronted for the rock group The Pretenders, also wrote to Mandela, who was a political prisoner for 27 years. "I pray that their walk to freedom will not be as long as yours was," she said.
Johannesburg Bureau Chief Mike Hanna and Reuters contributed to this report.
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