Oct 26 2015: There is a lot more to this story. I have more information at hand that suggests i soften my stance, that possibly there is no right or wrong but an incredibly difficult grey in between. I still believe that the staff who were involved should have suffered more severe punishment than dismissal but all the facts were not in evidence. Interestingly, rather than hate me for the blog below, The Knysna Elephant Park responded by opening their doors to me. What i’ve seen has encouraged me to look deeper into both sides. The elephant industry, especially in a South African context, is complicated. The welfare of elephants is certainly more important than a blog or two of mine. To do it justice, it will require some dedication from my side which will be limited by my community work and activism elsewhere i.e. this will take some time. My fear is that the sensationalism of international media will be of more interest to readers than awkward facts.
Knysna is dung deep in feeling guilty regarding the alleged abuse of elephants on their doorstep. Tonight, 3 June 2014, on ETV, footage of animal cruelty soon had Twitter ablaze with condemnation and distraught SMSes cried through our home town which had once been elephant proud.
When this story first appeared, I ran an objective intro saying that there were 2 sides, partly as a reaction to overseas online media that had irresponsibly leapt for sensationalism that had no regard for Knysna or the elephants. They seemed to only want screaming headlines to attract screaming comments.
However, from the start, there were things that never added up so I began pursuing answers.
I phoned all the main players except (at that stage) Cape Nature (who was responsible for issuing permits for the transport of the elephants). My first stop was the Knysna Elephant Park (Lisette Withers and Dr. Debbie Young). Then Gerhard van Rooyen (owner of some of the abused elephants and Indalu Game Reserve), Wendy Wilson (NSPCA) and Greg Vogt, (KEP’s ex-manager who has been running Knysna Tourism, whilst there’s been no CEO, for the past year and a half).
Believing that the truth would eventually emerge via conflict between those involved, I hinted at such in the ‘The Madness of the Elephant Story’ before delivering interviews featuring Greg Vogt and Lisette Withers (owner, along with her husband Ian, of KEP). With so much finger-pointing, it was obvious that there was desperation to avoid being crushed by the weight of truth would inevitably arrive.
I totally dismissed the puff piece issued by Martin Hatchuel, possibly the most well-known tourism writer on the Garden Route – it was uninformative and blatantly Vogt-friendly [to give transparency credit, note that Martin Hatchuel has been a critic of mine. Despite no proof, and not responding to a single serious issue I’ve levelled at Knysna Tourism, he has criticised my investigation and labelled me negatively. His article added to my suspicion that he was partial to Vogt].
I will now point out contradictions and give you the information you never knew.
Again, for the sake of transparency, my Greg Vogt situation needs to be first explained. We’ve been at loggerheads whilst I’ve tried to have him punished for being involved in a cover-up of cronyism, supply chain absence and outright lies at Knysna Tourism which led the organisation from millions in the green to getting bailed out with taxpayer’s money. They even had the audacity to pay the ex-CEO, Shaun van Eck, out with R270 000 which I’ve interpreted as hush money. It’s a battle I’ve yelled all the way up to Helen Zille (which she’s acknowledged and done nothing about) and it’s the reason why this blog not only exists but is 363 000 words older. I pursue not only Vogt but some of the most powerful people in our local government who are as guilty as he is.
I have a bone to pick with Vogt which is why it was essential that I showed no bias in the elephant abuse story. I gave him every opportunity to tell the whole story which he chose not to. He provided me with a mixture of information, education and distraction. He provided too much information rather than what was really needed. These are tactics he has used before. His version made him out to be the paragon of elephant virtue who had brought about change at KEP.
He admitted to baby elephants being tied and chained so that they could be winched to the ground and forced to carry a rider. That is how elephant-back riding training is conducted. It may be legal but most would call it animal abuse and one person on Twitter got it right when saying that “This is not positive reinforcement. It’s Applied Punishment.”
Vogt’s “BUT” was that he had trained one elephant ‘kindly’ by using a food reward on the other side of blocks that would be continually lowered so that they would get used to going down. As devil’s advocate, one could say that there are many kinds of animals taught to do tricks and that, so long as they’re willing to reach a reward, it isn’t cruel. Others may say “it is cruel if they’re wild animals”.
My “BUT”, however, is to remind you that Vogt was the Manager of the Knysna Elephant Park for 7 YEARS, a burden of time that is stained with the possibility of many hurt elephants and other wrongdoings that far outweigh the possibility of only 1 escaping pain.
Vogt said: “Lisette Withers ran the books tightly. I never ran the entire business and was merely the front of the business to the guests – that is KEP. I was censured from EOE. Gerhard van Rooyen will attest to that where he was told, “Greg has nothing to do with EOE”. Mark Andrews was told this directly in around 2007.
I did get presented financials at meetings when I was invited to sit with the auditor, but this never happened all the time. I think many of these animal places make very good money. They are lucrative. Sadly this conflicts with caring for animals unless your ethics are sound.”
It took some persuasion to get KEP to respond but when they did I found Lisette Wither’s PA to be very helpful (which is why I leave her name out here – it is possible that she was unaware of the abuse and she’s already received death threats). She and Dr Debbie Young, KEP’s elephant researcher, helped Lisette Withers with the interview I’d sent as an emailed record of our telephonic conversations. Young later phrased it as her typing out Lisette’s answers.
I kept the toughest questions in reserve so as to encourage their cooperation. Once I got the first round back, I directed the next salvo at Dr Debbie Young who never responded. When I queried with, “When will I receive the answers that were directed at you specifically?” she dodged with, “I, unfortunately, cannot comment on this matter directly. Please refer all enquiries to Lisette. I have forwarded your questions on to her. ” Like Young, Lisette never answered this:
- How often is there actually such a thing as an “orphan elephant calf” versus the number of them that are taken into private ownership and institutions such as KEP in South Africa?
- Are all KEP elephants orphans?
- Please justify KEP taking young elephants from the wild?
- How were KEP’s elephants trained to carry humans? Were rope (or chains) and a winch used to make the elephants submit?
- What is the breeding success and lifespan of captive elephants versus elephants in the wild?
- What is your stance on edutainment versus animals been left in the wild?
- Why did many elephant transfers by KEP not have permits, especially between EoE and KEP?
Vogt had told me that there was no such thing as an “orphaned elephant” in South Africa. Certainly not at KEP or their previous facility, Elephants of Eden, where most of the “training” took place. If true, that took away the cute, public face that KEP and others have used before i.e. what animal lover can resist someone claiming to rescue baby elephants.
Cape Nature hadn’t been diligent in checking KEP. And don’t forget that it was Cape Nature who issued 4 permits to KEP to allegedly illegally transport 4 baby elephants back in 2013. Cape Nature’s version is shifty because it accepts no responsibility: “CapeNature has only issued an import permit enabling KEP to remove the elephants from the Eastern Cape property and has not issued any permit that authorises keeping wild elephants in permanent captivity.” You can take them but you can’t keep them makes no sense. Vogt claims that 2 of the abused elephants, Induna and Gambo, were moved without permits from KEP back to EOE. The same happened when Induna was sent away and Gambo returned to KEP. The permitless situation was allegedly repeated with 4 elephants sent to Indalu.
One person at Cape Nature told me that he/she wanted nothing to do with this story as it was a hot potato that nobody wanted… and then directed me to another person higher up the chain.
I, obviously, already knew the answer to the “ropes and chains” question, the one they most wanted to avoid.
Vogt was senior management. It defies logic that Vogt never knew what was happening at EOE as his role including assessing whether the elephants were “park friendly”. Some elephants would refuse to be trained fully and one can’t help but wonder if the death of 2 staff members, one at each park, had been the response from a traumatised elephant. Vogt even said that there was an unsettled elephant he wanted to be removed from KEP, just before he quit, but that Lisette Withers would not allow it.
Vogt never held back with his accusations. He said that Ian Withers, Lisette’s husband, was actually staying at EOE during the period of elephant abuse.
From the other side, Lisette has stated that Greg was a regular at EOE and was extensively involved in the permit process which countered his reason for quitting and, instead, implicated him. In her interview, she said:
“His resignation was related to the fact that we found out that he was conducting clandestine elephant relocations without our knowledge. Five days after he resigned, he was involved, with the NSPCA, in the relocation of Thandora [the elephant] from the Bloemfontein Zoo to Gondwana Game Reserve. He had been planning this for months, behind the backs of the owners and staff of KEP. Initial discussions had taken place between Greg, AERU and the zoo that KEP assist with her relocation. Greg then took it upon himself to organise this relocation independently, excluding KEP and AERU. Darryl Barnes, from the Bloemfontein Zoo, was even led to believe that he was still working with KEP, during her relocation.”
Regards the NSPCA and Gerhard van Rooyen, Lisette has been scathing in several media. I cannot comment on everything but I can clarify some points:
- The NSPCA doesn’t need a specific reason to inspect KEP (they have every right to launch surprise inspections under the Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962 and the Performing Animals Protection Act No.24 of 1935). Lisette had NO legal right to refuse them access to the park.
- EOE is listed as a rehabilitation centre and sanctuary. There is no right to train elephants there (elephants are as cheap as R10 000 but trained elephants fetch big profit).
- Lisette kept repeating that it was one case of abuse that happened years ago. She leaves out that that is still punishable… and that the NSPCA has video and photo proof of the elephants being tortured for months.
- Extreme irony in her saying that the NSPCA is wrong to leave the elephants at Gerhard van Rooyen’s Indalu Game Reserve when it was KEP who sent them there after the abuse. Furthermore, they have joined other elephants and become a bonded group. By law, a bonded group cannot be separated. Wendy Wilson, from the NSPCA, has confirmed that the elephants are doing well there and are, in fact, far better off as they are roaming free.
- Lisette had no right to shift the blame onto Gerhard and his staff. She had no right to as Gerhard has paid her R1.5million rand to train the elephants and staff (including his brother). The elephants were in her care, on her property and she had a contract for which she had been handsomely paid for.
- Furthermore, when training wasn’t completed timely, she charged +/-R34 000 p/m for the extra time they were there (EOE overheads, for all the animals, was allegedly only +/-R60 000 at the time). Gerhard van Rooyen was a cash cow (except now he’s in liquidation). Gerhard confirmed with me that there was a contract. Unfortunately, he did not answer my emailed questions but did get hold of Vogt after he received them (what is the full extent of their relationship?).
- Sias van Rooyen was being trained as an elephant handler. He was also accused by Lisette as being part of the problem but Vogt stated that when Sias took leave, a period during which elephant abuse occurred, he’d been replaced by Alex Vipond, elephant overseer and brother of Lisette.
Elephants of Eden doesn’t exist anymore. The 380ha property was sold for R11 million to the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.
Knysna will suffer as that Elephant Park is the second biggest tourist attraction in a tourist-based economy, apparently attracting as many as 90 000 people annually. The town’s finances are already embattled.
What happens to the leadership of Knysna Tourism? The town cannot afford to have it’s brand tainted further. Vogt must step down as Chairman of the Board. I addressed a DA councillor on the matter after the abuse scandal failed to reach the Council Chambers and warned that they were about to get egg on their faces. Whether coincidental or not, Deputy Mayor Esme Edge and Councillor Richard Dawson (both on the DA Mayoral Committee) relinquished their seats on the Tourism Board last week.
On Sunday, May 25, I asked Vogt why Knysna Tourism had not addressed the public regards the issue and how would he separate himself from Tourism for this matter? He dodged a clear answer but, later that day, I saw this on The Gremlin (which reads as if they are taking a side, not addressing the red hot herring that is their boss, clearing some distance and not honestly taking a stand):
Knysna Tourism to Take a Stand in Knysna Elephant Park Controversy
Knysna Tourism Marketing Manager, Johan van Schalkwyk, said he was personally shocked and saddened at the allegations, and together with the Knysna Tourism board of directors is consulting with the Provincial and National authorities, including the Department of Environmental Affairs, the National Council of SPCA’s (NSPCA) and Wesgro, on the way forward.
“It is absolutely horrible to see images and video footage of such extreme animal cruelty. As the marketing agency for Knysna, we simply will not tolerate unlawful members, and will act swiftly within our code of conduct and membership rules.”
Vogt says that he’s testifying for the state and that whose at fault will then be clear. We can hope so but I have my doubts as he’s one of the most persuasive speakers I’ve met (even when I know he’s wrong). And Ian and Lisette Withers have money for good lawyers. And South Africa is known for being lenient in animal cases. If anyone is guilty, will justice be served?
Wendy Wilson (NSPCA) has said that no one involved is immune to prosecution.
The most important fact is that despite so many being involved in this elephant abuse tragedy, no one reported the crimes to the SAPS.
- Prosecution charges were dropped then reinstated, now seemingly in limbo.
- The Knysna Elephant Park won the case regards the transfer of the baby elephants.
- The elephants are all healthy and well.