Lammie, one of Joburg City Parks and Zoo’s favourite elephants, has aroused controversy with some conservation groups calling for him to be released into the wild.

A heated debate has erupted over the keeping of wild animals in zoos.

This follows the recent death at the Johannesburg Zoo of elephant Kinkel, leaving his mate, Lammie, alone.

Several conservation groups, including the Conservation Action Trust and the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), have pleaded with the zoo to release Lammie back into the wild.

However, the zoo said Lammie would not fare well in the wild as she was born in captivity, adding that zoos deal mainly with captive-bred animals and only in dire circumstances house animals born in the wild - due to injury or through approved conservation programmes.

The Conservation Action Trust said this was not the first tragedy that captive-born Lammie had endured in her 39 years at the zoo.

Both her parents, Jumbo and Dolly, who were taken from the wild in the 1970s, died at the zoo within a year of each other and her brother, also born at the zoo, died shortly after being sold to a French zoo, said Melissa Reitz, from the Trust.

Johannesburg Zoo, she said, had confirmed that it plans to acquire another cow to keep Lammie company but animal welfare and elephant experts have objected, saying that the lone elephant should be released into a wild reserve, where she can roam free and bond with a herd.

The EMS Foundation, a conservation organisation, has offered to find a suitable sanctuary or reserve for Lammie and to cover all the costs of her relocation.

The NSPCA has also strongly argued against bringing another elephant into captivity.

“Most captive elephants that have been in unnatural circumstances behave unpredictably and do not necessarily behave like a wild elephant would,” said the manager of the NSPCA’s wildlife protection unit, Martie Rossouw.

However, the city member of the mayoral committee for community development, Nonhlanhla Sifumba, said 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 Johannesburg Zoo have become critical havens for animal conservation and education.

“Good zoos support field projects and work to protect the wild. Good zoos play a critical role in fighting extinction and act as sanctuaries for animals injured through poaching,” she said.

Kinkel was rescued in the wild in 2000 after his trunk was caught in a snare. Lammie is being closely monitored by her caregivers to ensure that the zoo adopts a proper management plan that will give priority to her health.

A study in 2010 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that conservation breeding in zoos and aquariums played a role in the recovery of 28% of the species listed as threatened in the wild.

“There are species that would already be extinct if not for the work of zoos and aquariums. Many frog species will only survive in captivity because the chytrid fungus is devastating wild populations,” Sifumba.

The recent successful release of more than 200 Pickersgill’s reed frogs bred ex-situ at the zoo and the award-winning wattled crane recovery programme were examples that helped balance our ecosystems and helped protect the food chain.

Sifumba added that good zoos acted as outdoor classrooms and nurtured green conscientious behaviours. Indigent communities, deprived of resources to travel long distances to experience animal life, could enjoy an affordable big five experience at a zoo.

The Joburg-born president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Dr Jenny Gray, said: “We cannot be the last generation to see elephants in the wild or hear the snorting of wild hippo or watch spellbound at the magnificence and untamed power of wild lions.

“We have a duty to a future that is rich in wildlife for our children and all future generations, to protect our biodiversity through zoo programmes.”

With species on the brink of extinction, the work of good zoos was becoming increasingly important. And that was why now, more than ever, it was time to support good zoos,” she said. 

@annacox