There are nights when one looks up at the sky to see one lone star sparkling brightly. I find it comforting as I imagine it is a loved one, no longer here, watching over us. I used to call it Billy’s star in memory of our beloved Wilbur but, now, it could just as well be Pop’s! Either way, it is a welcome sight. Why did that come to mind? I was just contemplating the week’s news, most of which is downright depressing – same old, same old – and then I remembered that sparkling star in the darkness …. This week, at the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Conference in Geneva, a majority vote was reached in favour of a ban on the international trade of wild-caught elephants for captive use. This ruling will prevent the taking of elephants from the wild – specifically in Botswana and Zimbabwe – to be sent to zoos around the world – not surprisingly, mainly China – and condemned to an utterly miserable life. Now, that is one bright star!
I detest zoos – something I have written about before. To subject a wild animal to a life behind bars for the sake of human entertainment is unacceptable let alone unforgiveable. The guise of conservation is transparent for all who choose to see.
‘We could learn as much about lions by studying them in their cages as we can about men by studying them in their prison cells.’
The Lions Are Free (1967), Bill Travers.
Need anyone say more? These are the words spoken by Virginia Mckenna in the opening moments of her late husband’s award-winning documentary which follows the story of the lions lucky enough to be given their freedom, courtesy of George Adamson, after the film Born Free. Privileged footage of an incredible venture, one cannot help but be moved by the love and trust afforded by these wild animals to the human beings who have shown them the same. To think these magnificent creatures were destined for a life behind bars … I would recommend this DVD to everyone and, certainly, anybody who questions the validity of zoos. (Go to my Seriously Good! page and click on The Born Free Foundation where you’ll find it).
Zoos exist under the guise of conservation, claiming to be vital in its plight. Exactly how? According to a report of 12th March, 2019 in the online publication European Interest: ‘In 1984, there were 20 zoos in the UK keeping around 50 elephants, of which 44 had been taken from the wild. Today, 35 years later, there are 52 elephants in 12 zoos across the UK.’ Static numbers belying the real story of the suffering endured by these magnificent sentient creatures deprived of their freedom and their very way of life. Hark back to Virginia’s words above. What can possibly be learned from watching an elephant in its concrete ‘cell’? Elephants are, above all, social. They live in herds comprised of a matriarch and related females, covering great distances, daily, in search of food and water. Extremely intelligent, they form lifetime bonds, grieving and burying their loved ones. Known to shed real tears they exhibit emotions across the spectrum including joy, anger and compassion – and they never forget. Look up Lawrence Anthony, the South African conservationist who came to be known as ‘The Elephant Whisperer’. Making world headlines in 2003 when he went to war-torn Baghdad to rescue the animals in Saddam Hussein’s zoo, he died in 2012 when, incredibly, two herds of wild elephants – whom he had helped rescue and rehabilitate – trekked 12 hours to his home and kept vigil for two days as a mark of respect for their friend. How did they know? They had not been to the house for a year and a half.
The arrogance of mankind presuming to know and yet being ignorant of so much. So much to learn from these incredible creatures – all these incredible creatures – and yet we think it fit to take them from the wild subjecting them to a life behind bars for what? Our entertainment for which we are prepared to pay. Money! The revenue made by zoos is immense courtesy of the millions who, thoughtlessly, contribute.
I used to spend hours filming Mercedes, the last remaining polar bear at Edinburgh Zoo. Taken from the wild as a cub, she spent 25 years of her life in a barren enclosure, deprived of everything natural. If I remember correctly, her mate, Barney, died as a result of choking on a toy thrown into said enclosure by a member of the public! Bored, lonely and confined, Mercedes was a star attraction at the zoo and I used to despair at the parents who brought their children to gawp at her en route to one of the play areas within the grounds having, inevitably, consumed their burgers and chips. ‘There’s a polar bear sleeping, Daddy!’, and that was the extent of it. Nothing learned, unless … If timed right, one could witness one of Mercedes’ two meal times consisting of a bucket of ‘goodies’ thrown over the bars onto the ground of her ‘cell’. Cakes, carrots, dead birds, all staples of a polar bear’s diet in the wild? My heart would sink and the shame I felt if I caught her eye, I shall never forget.
Conservation? These animals will never be returned to the wild. Rather, taken from the wild, their fate is sealed. Arguably there for preservation in the face of extinction, if the worst were to happen, what is there to be learned from those exhibits in captivity? At most, their size? As well they be stuffed and displayed in a museum thus spared a lifetime of misery and mental anguish deprived of both their freedom and natural habitat. Little Johnny could still pay to go and see the elephant, the polar bear or the lion just not bear witness to the sadness in his eyes. Meanwhile, all focus and funding would be geared towards protecting these animals in their rightful habitat – in the wild.
We live in a world of excess – and access. Many of us are privileged to see wild animals in their natural habitat, an experience which is truly humbling. As I have said before, if I could grant one wish for everyone, it would be the chance to sit and watch wild elephant grazing in Samburu. It puts everything into perspective. The eye of an elephant, I believe, holds all wisdom.
Meanwhile, in this digital age, we also have access to incredible film footage courtesy of the likes of David Attenborough. Footage and commentary from which there is so much knowledge to be gleaned. Infinitely preferable to that which is offered by an industry funded by captivity under the guise of conservation … Yes, a ban on the international trade of elephants taken from the wild for captive use? A ray of hope.
Yesterday marked the 22nd anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, a prompt – if any be needed – to write about the Royal family; so much material of late. (Somehow my undisciplined train of thought derailed that idea.) Amazing, though, that the passage of time has done nothing to dim the poignant memory of her loss. I suspect it never will.
‘Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.’
To an Athlete Dying Young, A. E. Housman.
This is Trish, signing off.