The Knysna Elephant Park has dedicated the last twenty-seven years to elephants, and it is both nationally and internationally recognised as one of the best captive elephant facilities in the world.
Calves rescued from culls, elephants relocated from reserves where conflict with rhino threatened their survival, a tiny calf, searching for milk after losing her mother in a translocation, orphaned and abandoned calves from reserves and zoos, animals no longer wanted by their owners as they were seen to be unworkable – the Park has taken each and every one of these animals on. They have all found a home with the Knysna Elephant Park ‘family’, which extends well beyond the physical borders of the Park. Some elephants have stayed and become part of our resident herd. Others have moved on to other facilities and even reserves where they now roam freely and have started their own new families.
Our management style includes what we call a “controlled, free-range environment”, which allows our elephants as much freedom as possible, within the borders of the Park. Following the feeding session, the elephants are free to move away and graze, browse, wallow or play. Guests are then invited to follow the elephants and enjoy their time amongst the herd: observing and learning about elephant biology and behaviour. This type of management is unique and is not found anywhere else in South Africa.
Over the last several years, the Park, in conjunction with AERU has recognised the need for changes to be made to traditional elephant management protocols used in South Africa. These changes have been vital to prioritise elephant welfare; and to balance the needs of elephants, with the tourism activities conducted at the Park.
These changes include the following:
*The bullhook is an internationally recognised tool in the handling of elephants. It is specially designed with the welfare and safety of both elephants and staff in mind. It can be used in the right way; and, unfortunately, can also be used in the wrong way. Used in the correct manner, it extends the handler’s reach so that the handler may touch specific points on the elephant’s body, as a way of signalling to the elephant what the handler is asking it to do; much like a horse’s bridle and bit. Protocol requires that unnecessary force must be avoided and only recognised cue points on the elephant’s body are allowed to be used. These movements are paired with verbal commands and positive reinforcement such as praise or food. In this way, the need for physical contact is reduced, as the elephant learns to associate the command with the reward. The elephants at KEP are also trained to pick it up and familiarize themselves with it so they become accustomed to it as a tool and not a weapon.
The tourism industry has recently seen a growing trend within the wildlife sector, where tourists are being made aware of the need to view animal activities and attractions they may visit during their holidays, in a different light. All over the world, animal welfare organisations and animal rights groups are asking tour companies and tourists to think carefully about the ethics and responsibilities associated with many of these wildlife tourism ventures.
Many of these non-governmental organisations have focused on the use of elephants for tourism purposes, particularly in Asia, where elephant trekking is a very popular tourism activity. The ‘traditional’ methods of breaking and training Asian elephants are well known and have been highly publicised. These methods use a variety of cruel and abusive methods to ‘break’ the animals, so that they can be ridden and controlled. In many cases the animals are kept in poor conditions, tethered for long periods of time and often isolated from other elephants. In the past, many tourists visiting elephant facilities in Asia have been unaware of these training methods. However, recent awareness campaigns and an emphasis on responsible tourism has served to bring these issues to the fore; and, as such, tourists are now more aware of their choices; and how these choices may contribute to animal welfare.
Here, at the Knysna Elephant Park, we support and welcome these changing trends – increased awareness of the welfare requirements of animals in captive situations can only have a positive impact on the animals in these tourism facilities; and the way in which their owners and managers care for them.
Comparisons between the Knysna Elephant Park and facilities in Asia, can only serve to highlight the positive and responsible manner in which the Park operates its elephant encounters and interactions. Our tourism activities are conducted ethically and always with elephant welfare as a top priority. If ever we identify an area where welfare may be compromised, our flexible style of management allows for immediate notification, so that changes can be made to benefit the elephants.
Since 1994, the Park’s primary objective has been to offer elephants in the need the chance of a new and better home; and we have worked tirelessly to achieve this goal. We believe that the Knysna Elephant Park, in many ways (as detailed above), now stands as an example of how a responsible and best practice facility should be run, illustrating optimal standards of husbandry and welfare.