Johannesburg: Alice Masombuka with Lammie the Elephant at the Johannesburg Zoo. Photo: ANA pictures/Matthews Baloyi

The fight for Lammie the Elephant continues to rage on as different parties claim that they know what's best for him.

On one corner is the Joburg Zoo which has  been raising the elephant since 1979 together with her male companion Kinkel (35), who succumbed to a chronic colic ailment in September last year.

On the other is Conservation groups like Human Society International-Africa (HSI-Africa), Future4Wildlife as well the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) who want "lonely" Lammie to be removed from the zoo.

Things came to head last year when the NSPCA quit the Joburg Zoo's Animal Ethics Committee, saying they had been excluded from decisions regarding Lammie. 

This was after hearing allegations that the zoo was in the process of getting another elephant to keep Lammie company.

Recently, the Joburg Zoo stated that it had been closely monitoring Lammie and that she was doing well and was also non-aggressive.

Candice Ward, enrichment officer at the  Zoo said Lammie was enjoying a healthy diet, was receptive to scenting and greeting her caregivers and visitors and her physical disposition was not stereotypical of being depressed. 

"In the interim, the Joburg Zoo is engaging with relevant authorities to obtain in-principle support to acquire a companion for Lammie. 

"This will be subject to the Zoo finalizing its Elephant Management Plan, which will see an increase in the size of the existing elephant enclosure, to include a swimming dam with mud-bathing and sand-wallowing areas. Further development will include added enrichment nodes such as a training wall, wobbles and a tusking tree," Ward said.

However, HSI-Africa and other conservation groups are fighting to have Lammie removed from the zoo and not having another elephant taken there to keep her company.

In December, the HSI-Africa started a petition in support of a Care2Petition that was started by Future4Wildlife. 

HSI-Africa's Audrey Delsink said that as of January 24, the HSI petition stood at  approximately 150000 signatures while Care2petition's were 118000. 

Member of the mayoral committee for community development, Nonhlanhla Sifumba, said in November last year that the the world needed zoos now more than ever.

With diminishing forests, unrelenting poaching, the threat of climate change and rising numbers of endangered and extinct species, facilities like the Joburg zoo had become critical havens for animal conservation and education, Sifumba said at the time.

However, Delsink said elephants were highly social, cognitive and intelligent animals who require adequate social groups. In the wild, she said, a female elephant remains with her natal herd (the herd she was born into) for her entire life and can move up to 100km a day as part of their daily feeding and movement activities. 

"Zoos cannot replicate these intense social, physiological and psychological requirements irrespective of the exhibit or enrichment activities provided. A single female elephant does not aid in any conservation or education efforts, particularly as the wrong picture about elephants, their welfare, social needs and conservation status is portrayed. 

"HSI supports the proposal to relocate Lammie to a more natural, social and re-wildling sanctuary where she can live out her last few years as close to a natural setting as possible. "

Delsink said they have since identified  two "appropriate re-wildling sanctuaries" for Lammie to be relocated to as that would allow her to live her remaining years with dignity as a free elephant with other ex-captive elephants.

The HSI also advocates for the shutting down of the elephant exhibit at the Joburg Zoo, this is despite the fact that some people say that's the only place children will see elephants as their parents wont afford to take them to game lodges to see them in the wild. 

"Lammie serves no educational or conservation role. A researcher’s observation of Lammie during October and January demonstrated that the average time spent by visitors at the enclosure was 2.46 minutes,  over 50% of the visitors just walked by without stopping, 43% stood for a short while and only 6.6% sat down to watch Lammie.

"The zoo’s role in education should extend beyond just having a single elephant on display. The public’s learning experience should encompass education about the intricate social behaviour, communication, bonding and family life of elephants, and their role in ecosystem conservation.

"We believe that children and their families are not learning about healthy, natural elephants, and deserve so much more than seeing a lonely elephant who suffers from the mental trauma of captivity. 

"We should not be teaching children that keeping an elephant deprived of the correct social, physiological and psychological needs akin to their natural environments is acceptable. South Africa is blessed with a wide range of provincial and national parks and reserves, some of which cater for school groups, where children are afforded the opportunity of seeing elephants and other indigenous wildlife in their natural habitats."

The different conservation groups who also have elephants' interests at heart have written a letter to Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, advocating for Lammie's release.