South Africans Guilty in Tuli Elephant Abuse Case

PRETORIA, South Africa, April 10, 2003 (ENS) - PRETORIA, South Africa, April 10, 2003 (ENS) - Nearly five years after charges were first laid relating to the beating and cruel tratment of young elephants, African Game Services owner Riccardo Ghiazza and one of his employees, student trainer Wayne Stockigt, have been found guilty of contravening the Animal Protection Act APA) at Pretoria regional court.

A third man, elephant handler Craig Saunders was not convicted because the state could not prove a case against him.

In 1998, a group of 30 juvenile elephants was purchased by African Game Services, a wildlife trading company, from the Tuli Block Game Reserve in neighboring Botswana, which was unable to support its elephant population due to a severe drought.

They were transported to the African Game Services property near Brits, South Africa where Indonesian mahouts employed by Ghiazza subjected the elephants to mahout style training that included beating the animals while they were shackled.


Two Indonesian mahouts with one of the Tuli elephants (Photo courtesy Wildlife Action Group)
Investigators from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) obtained a search warrant in September 1998 and, with a police escort, entered the African Game Services training facility. There they documented cruel treatment including chains that caused wounds, and the use of hooked ear loops. They found that the elephants were also hit with sticks and whips, and kicked in the genitals.

Video footage of the elephants was secretly made by NSPCA inspectors and was broadcast on "Carte Blanche," one of South Africa's top investigative news programs in July 1999. The public responded with indignation and outrage. Thousands of South Africans demonstrated outside the African Game Services property demanding that the Tuli elephants be protected.

Monday, Ghiazza in his personal capacity and African Game Services were found guilty under Section 2.1 (B) of the Animal Protection Act for their treatment of the Tuli elephants. Magistrate Adriaan Christiaan Bekker said there was undisputed evidence that uncovered chains had cut into the flesh of the animals causing wounds.

Magistrate Bekker said Ghiazza and African Game Services were guilty because they had taken no steps to stop the abuse.

Karen Trendler, an animal rehabilitator and founder of the Wildcare Africa Trust rehabilitation center just north of Pretoria, was called to the witness stand in the Tuli elephant case. She told the court the abuse of the elephants was one of the worst instances she had ever witnessed.

"They were exposed to the most shocking abuse. Hopefully this ruling will set a precedent to prevent further incidences of this kind of cruelty," said Trendler.

The Indonesian mahouts who conducted the training also were charged under the Animal Protection Act, but they have never been prosecuted as they disappeared although police were in possession of their passports.

Once "trained" the animals were to be sold to zoos, game parks and entertainment facilities abroad. Seven of the 30 young Tuli elephants were exported in January 1999 to zoos in Germany and Switzerland.


After the abuse came to light, elephant expert from the Johannesburg Zoo visits the Tuli elephants at the African Game Services facility to ensure they were not being further abused. (Photo courtesy Maxidor)
The Brits magistrate court granted the NSPCA the right to seize the mistreated elephants and take them from African Game Services for their protection, but before the elephants could be moved Ghiazza launched an appeal, which was denied. Then he asked the Supreme Court of South Africa for a review of the lower court's decision.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled, upholding the NSPCA's right to take the elephants, there were no elephants left on the African Game Services property.

Nine of the elephants eventually taken into safekeeping by the NSPCA were later transferred to Sandhurst Safaris in the North West province. Five of these elephants were subsequently recaptured and taken to an educational facility near Hartebeespoort Dam run by Craig Saunders, one of the accused who was not convicted today.

Nine other Tuli elephants were purchased from Ghiazza and transferred to Marakele National Park for permanent release into the wild. Five others were later taken by the NSPCA to Marakele and released into the wild.

Sentencing in the case has been postponed until July 24. The maximum sentence that this crime can receive is R200,000 (US$25,740) and 12 months in prison.

Meanwhile, Ghiazza continues to function as a wild animal trader. According to the NSPCA, his property is now being used as a quarantine station for animals about to be exported to countries such as China.

Other animal conservation organizations assisted the NSPCA with the case against those who mistreated the Tuli elephants and with the elephants' welfare.

Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild supporters, with the help of the "Express" newspaper and its readers, raised a considerable amount of money that has sustained the case against African Game Services.

"We are relieved that Ghiazza and his former employee Wayne Stockigt have finally been found guilty in a court of law. The message is clear, the cruel and inhumane treatment of wild animals in South Africa will not be tolerated," said Jason Bell-Leask, Southern Africa regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare which contributed US$55,000.

"Thousands of our supporters world wide and in South Africa opened their hearts and pockets to the plight of the elephants - this conviction is a salute to every decent person who wants to see animals protected. Thanks to them IFAW was able to help the NSPCA get this important conviction," said Bell-Leask.