2021-10-07 05:15:31 ‘Just skin and bones’: Bali elephants left to starve | Wildlife News

‘Just skin and bones’: Bali elephants left to starve | Wildlife News

When COVID-19 spread around the world and borders were closed, an elephant park in Bali left more than a dozen elephants to starve and staff without pay after plummeting ticket sales forced it to close.

Bali Elephant Camp (BEC) is a safari-style park located a half-hour drive north of Ubud, the cultural capital of the Indonesian island of Bali, that offers a variety of nature-based activities such as bike riding through rice fields and white-water rafting.

BEC joined a wildlife conservation program run by the Ministry of Forestry in 2005, which entrusts critically endangered Sumatran elephants to privately owned zoos and safari parks in Indonesia.

After the coronavirus pandemic forced the park to close, elephants at BEC were discovered to be nothing more than “skin and bones” [Supplied].

According to a 2007 World Wildlife Fund study, there were as few as 2,400 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, and the number is now thought to have been halved as a result of ivory poaching, human-elephant conflict, and deforestation. Between 1980 and 2005 – the equivalent of only one and a half elephant generations – 67 percent of Sumatran elephant potential habitat was lost. The animal was listed as ‘critically endangered’ in the wild in 2012.

The elephants for the parks and zoos are sourced from breeding centers established 30 years ago in Sumatra as part of a population stabilization program. Accredited businesses were allowed to sell elephant-tourism services that were extremely profitable prior to the pandemic in exchange for giving the animals a home. A half-hour elephant ride for two people cost $230 at BEC.

The birth of three baby elephants in the last 15 years indicates that BEC was not only meeting, but exceeding, its animal welfare requirements.

“Our conservation friends say we have some of the healthiest, happiest elephants they’ve ever seen!” says the company’s website.

However, photographs taken by a wildlife veterinarian at the park in May and exclusively shared with Al Jazeera revealed several severely malnourished elephants.

“You can’t imagine a skinny elephant until you see one,” said Femke Den Haas, a Dutch veterinarian who has been working to protect wildlife in Indonesia for 20 years.

“They are large animals, and you are not supposed to see their bones.” But that’s exactly what they were – skin and bones.”

Government assistance

Haas came to the camp as a partner of Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam Bali (BKSDA), the government agency in charge of overseeing the safari parks and zoos that have adopted Sumatran elephants.

“Many industries in Bali have collapsed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said BKSDA director Agus Budi Santosa. “However, the impact on small businesses like Bali Elephant Camp has been particularly severe.” When tourism ceased, they were unable to cover operational costs, particularly the cost of feeding elephants. The government was forced to help them by paying for their food and electricity.”

The company told the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) in July that it was doing its best to care for the elephants but was struggling to meet its monthly $1,400 operating costs, and that neither the forestry department nor the BKSDA had offered any financial assistance.

Representatives from the BEC were unavailable to answer Al Jazeera’s questions about the elephants, and its phone lines were disconnected.

“As a company, you can’t say, ‘There are no more visitors, so I’m not taking care of the elephants anymore,'” Haas explained.

“That is exactly what has happened, and it is truly disgusting because these elephants have provided them with profits for the past 15 years.” As a result, I don’t believe them when they say they don’t have any money. Elephants aren’t that expensive to care for in any case. Feeding one costs $200 per month.”

“They have been irresponsible not only to the animals, but also to the employees who have dedicated their lives to their jobs.” “When I first arrived, some of the staff had left, while others remained, working for free to care for the elephants,” she explains.

According to Santosa, BEC was given two months to find new investors and restructure the business, during which time Haas’ NGO, the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, fed the elephants and paid the keepers’ wages.

When the BEC was unable to find a solution, the government seized the elephants.

“We had to solve the problem quickly because delaying could have resulted in the elephants dying,” Santosa explained.

“They didn’t want to let them take the elephants,” Haas adds. They wanted to keep them in order to re-employ them after the pandemic.”

A new residence

Three of BEC’s 14 elephants were adopted by an unidentified zoo on Java’s neighboring island.

The remaining 11 animals were transferred to Tasta Wildlife Park, a new, modern zoo that opened in June in Tabanan Regency, a lush mountainous region in south-central Bali. When Al Jazeera visited Tasta Wildlife Park in September, all 11 animals had been rehabilitated and had gained weight.

Ketut, the company’s chief elephant handler, is a former BEC employee who worked for the company for 13 years – the last 12 months for little to no pay.

He harbors no ill will toward his former employer, only gratitude toward his new one. He knows the name and age of every elephant in the herd and enjoys sharing his knowledge with visitors, even if they are few and far between for the time being.

“Elephants digest only a small portion of the food they consume. “They’re always eating,” he explained. “They can consume up to 10% of their body weight in a single day.”

The elephants were apprehended and relocated to a new zoo in Bali, where they have recovered their weight and health [Supplied].

Tasta Wildlife Park is losing money despite charging $2 to $4 for admission and only a few visitors per day, but it continues to feed all of its animals.

According to BAWA, three other elephant parks in Bali – Mason, Bali Zoo, and the Bali Safari and Marine Park – are also struggling financially but continue to feed their elephants.

They are concerned about the welfare of seven elephants at Bakas, an east Bali safari-style amusement park that charges $25 for admission and $85 to wash an elephant in a pool.

Bakas has long been accused of underfeeding its elephants, with complaints on TripAdvisor dating back a decade.

“Avoid Bakas Elephant Park.” “This park’s primary goal is to extract as much money from tourists as possible, with little regard for the welfare of the animals,” wrote a tourist on the site in 2011. “The elephants were clearly malnourished, and the one we were on kept trying to stop and eat, resulting in a sharp bang on the head with the keeper’s stick.”

“It’s quite easy to say we have no money to feed their elephants, so hello government, come and take care of it,” Haas says of Bakas’ owners. Owners, on the other hand, are accountable.”

Al Jazeera went to Bakas a few days after it reopened after a three-month closure due to partial lockdowns, and there were no visitors.

Staff said they continue to feed the elephants, but they don’t know if the food is paid for by the owners or donated. They offered a’selfie’ with an elephant for a fee in the parking lot, but refused to show the areas inside where the elephants were housed. The camp’s owners did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the allegations.

The plight of underfed elephants in post-pandemic Bali has reignited calls for a rethink of elephant tourism on the island.

“There are no known ethical sanctuaries in Bali,” wrote Bali Elephant Paradise Hell, an advocacy group founded before the pandemic by tourists who were dissatisfied with what they saw at the islands’ elephant camps, on their website prior to the pandemic.

“When not performing hideous shows or being used for rides, elephants are frequently chained for extended periods of time, living in fear of being stabbed with bullhooks and denied what is natural and important to them.”

The elephant is being led by a keeper. In 2012, the Sumatran elephant was listed as critically endangered [Supplied].

Similar sentiments are expressed by the BAWA. The organization referred Al Jazeera to comments it made prior to the pandemic.

“Tourism elephants are frequently overworked and forced to work in the heat of the day with insufficient food, water, or rest.” “They may not show overt signs of distress and may be plodding along obediently, but constant, forced proximity to humans with no option of retreat is extremely stressful for elephants,” BAWA said. “Because they are either confined, tethered, or under the bullhook, they are deprived of the opportunity to perform natural behaviors.” This causes stress and frustration.”

All of these issues, according to Haas, are the result of tourist demand for elephant rides: “That one ride, that one selfie, it means a life sentence for these animals, and now that Covid has hit, it’s even worse because no more money is coming in and some elephants are starving.”

“I’m not saying these businesses should go out of business,” the veterinarian said. “However, I’m hoping that after the pandemic, tourists will get a wake-up call and stop riding elephants or playing with them in swimming pools.”

“It’s 2021, and we should have ethical tourism, where tourists visiting Bali say, yes, we want to see elephants, but in a sanctuary where they can graze and aren’t chained up waiting for people to ride them.” You don’t have to get up close to wildlife, touch it, or take a selfie with it; just admire it from afar.”

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‘Just skin and bones’: Bali elephants left to starve | Wildlife News