Silences and Spin Doctoring

Silences and Spin Doctoring: Trying to Access Government Information on Elephants in South Africa

PRESS RELEASE: Date : 22 October 2008

The implementation of the controversial Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) legislative policy on elephants (the National Norms and Standards on the Management of Elephants in South Africa) which was promulgated eight months ago, has been put to the test by Animal Rights Africa (ARA), who have just completed a two-month investigative report.

ARA attempted to establish from DEAT and provincial conservation officials exactly how available and accessible comprehensive information relating to the use of elephants and their management actually is. These include the use of “culling”, the exact quantity of the elephant ivory stockpile held in the country, elephant hunting, the killing of so-called “damage causing animals”, the number of elephants held in captivity and the execution of some of the administrative processes called for by the Norms and Standards. The progress of drafting a “Minimum Standards” document in relation to the welfare of elephants in captivity (zoos, circuses and elephant back safaris) was also explored.

Many stakeholders involved in the debate leading up to the publishing of the NN&S are very interested in monitoring their implementation and in order to assess progress need access to a variety of information, information this report shows that is difficult, at times extremely so, to a obtain. Access to this information is therefore crucial to these entities that are playing a watchdog role, holding government to account and representing the elephants’ interests.

The findings of the ARA Report, entitled “Silences and Spin Doctoring: Access to Information on Elephants in South Africa ”, reveals alarming trends which appear to fly in the face of open and transparent governance.

Information and statistics in relation to culling, hunting and ivory stockpiles is inaccessible, incomplete, contradictory and, not independently verifiable. Obtaining information, particularly from some provinces is extremely time consuming and a frustrating undertaking. There are unfair and unjustifiable delays in the processing of legitimate public interest requests for government information to which civil society has a right in our democracy.

The legislation authorises culling but states that this must be considered after all other options have been exhausted, i.e. as the last resort. ARA research shows that currently it is impossible to track where and if culling is taking place and therefore the concept of “culling as last resort” cannot be publicly and independently monitored as conservation authorities are not making their intentions regarding culling known widely.

ARA is concerned that because while the Norms and Standards stipulate that the elephant management plans have to be submitted for all land and properties with elephants, provincial or private, in most instances officials say that these documents and permits cannot be disclosed because in doing so they might infringe third party confidentiality. This makes it difficult any independent body or member of the public to subject the implementation of this legislation to proper scrutiny.

Despite NGO opposition, DEAT shed its responsibility for managing captive elephants by passing welfare issues on to the Department of Agriculture (DOA). ARA has now learnt that the DOA is negotiating in bad faith and privileging the elephant exploitation industry to the detriment of the animal protection groups because it has been solely ‘consulting’ with individuals and groups within the captive elephant industry. This is despite public statements by Minister van Schalkwyk that consultation on these welfare issues would be compiled with input from ALL interested stakeholders.

DEAT does not have a current figure for South Africa’s total ivory stockpile despite being granted permission by CITES (the Convention on Trade in Endangered Flora and Fauna) to sell 51 tons of ivory to China and Japan in November this year. DEAT also does not have national statistics on the numbers of elephants hunted, killed as so-called “damage causing animals” or in terms of “ecological management.” Nor does DEAT currently have an accurate figure for the number of elephants kept in captivity and keeps no record of worker fatalities, even though at least five handlers/workers have been killed by captive elephants in the past seven years.

Said ARA spokesperson Michele Pickover, “the consequence of ARA’s findings is that the exploitation and oppression of elephants is continuing unabated in South Africa and it appears that our Minister and his department are good at spin doctoring but little else.”

Download the full Silences and Spin Doctoring Report

Contact :
Steve Smit ( Durban ) 082 659 4711
Michele Pickover ( Johannesburg ) 082 253 2124
E.mail :