The Aspinall Elephant Controversy

A beautiful African bush (or savanna) elephant – We often talk of the ‘African’ elephant but they are actually recognised as two species, the bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). This was only officially recognised by the IUCN in their 2021 red list, as such the bush elephant is classified as endangered whilst the forest elephant is critically endangered. The reintroduction is of bush elephants, the least troubled of the two African elephant species, and it returning them to Kenya, an area with a large elephant population thanks to their own grass-roots conservation. (Credit: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

You may have heard on the news, read in The Guardian, seen in the full-page ad in The Sun *spits* newspaper or seen on BBC Breakfast the heartwarming tale of Damian Aspinall, the multi-millionaire animal lover, who is air-lifting, at great expense, an entire family of elephants raised at Howlett’s Wild Animal Park, near Canterbury in Kent, all the way to Kenya.

And you would probably have been left thinking that this is a wonderful thing. Wondering why people could be opposed in any way! But conservation is nothing if not messy and a lot of people elbow deep in the grime of conservation work have problems with this scheme.

So why could you possibly have a problem with the return of beautiful, wild, animals back where they belong?

Well – I’m going to try to explain.

For one thing I read often of the ‘success’ of the Aspinall Foundation for re-releasing other wild animals, specifically gorillas and rhinos, into the wild. Some successful re-releases have occurred but this is usually within Aspinall owned, and managed, reserves. Effectively these animals live a semi-wild kind of life, they’re in their native environment but still watched, monitored and managed.

A Western lowland gorilla in San Diego Zoo. This species has the best Latin name…Gorilla gorilla gorilla. Whilst the Aspinall Foundation has done excellent work improving gorilla numbers it is on their own, owned reserves in Congo and Gabon. Leading to the questions 1) are they truly wild? and 2) to what end? (Credit: Heather Paul CC-BY-ND 2.0)

But even with so much careful watching and management things are not without their problems. An attempt to return a captive black rhino from Aspinall managed Port Lympne Wild Animal Park ended with the death of the 17 year old male rhino mid-transportation.

Funnily enough large animals used to wandering around plains are…well, not used to planes!

A project to move 14 black rhinos from others National Parks in Africa (Lake Nakuru and Nairobi National Parks) to another (Tsavo East National Park) ended with the deaths of the 11 rhinos that were actually moved – not from poaching, not from some grim human activity. These rhinos were being moved to a managed, monitored space and they died from…being…rubbish at…living there?

The black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) – They’re gorgeous, to be honest and the truly terrible thing is…I live in the South East, Aspinall run parks are some of my nearest zoos. The families of gorillas at Howletts and Port Lympne, the rhino from Port Lympne – I knew them! I visited them regularly, saw them, I’m not a ‘wander-take-a-snap-and-move’ zoo visitor. I sit, I watch, I talk to the animals. I look at their behaviours. I feel distressed if I see they’re distressed. I mean, the captivity, it ain’t a perfect life for them but you can tell they seem happy enough. Happier than dead, that’s for fucking sure! I’d prefer no animals were in captivity but I prefer captive live animals to dead ones! (Credit: Yoky by GFDL)

I wish there was some other way to say it, the investigation by Save the Rhinos (who were involved in the project and naturally very upset by its failure) suggests they died of multiple stress syndrome. The multiple stresses were mainly related to making a living. They had stomach troubles due to their diet and likely not knowing safe and healthy food from stomach-churning garbage, many showed signs of starvation as if they hadn’t been eating at all, many showed signs of dehydration suggesting an inability to source good water in their new environment and most of them had salt poisoning, likely from drinking salt-water.

The media presentation focussed heavily on the ‘salt poisoning’ part which, unfortunately, does not inform the public of the reality of re-locating animals – and again, this was a group of Rhinos being moved from Africa, to another part of Africa. Not from KENT!

You’ve probably heard the stories of how many gorillas have been re-wilded by the Aspinall Foundation. Most of these go to Aspinall owned and managed reserves in Gabon and Republic of the Congo.

This has gone quite well at times but itself has not been without its problems. You may have seen the lovely videos on the news or on YouTube, of Damian Aspinall, his wife, and his daughter Tansy reuniting with a family they helped raise in Howletts before releasing them. They went to a special gorilla re-wilding training school, were moved to a specially managed island in the Aspinall reserve in Gabon to acclimatise and then a bridge was built to connect them with the ‘wild’ unmanaged part.

Only…

Well, experts, such as Tara Stoinski of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund warned this might not be such a good idea. The ‘wild’, even managed, is a savage eden – it’s the brutal beauty I so often talk about. Never mind the dangers of humans and their constant meddling, habitat loss, poaching, the bushmeat trade; there are predators, diseases, poisonous plants, injuries, infections. ‘The Wild’ is not paradise – It’s the most beautiful hell you can imagine!

And it’s believed one of the males killed, or is implicated in the deaths of, 6 of the others. Five adult females and a baby.

It’s the bit missing from heartwarming Youtube videos.

The family-tree of the gorillas released from Aspinall Foundation properties in Kent to a managed reserve in Gabon. Four females are confirmed dead, one female is missing, presumed dead, a baby was confirmed dead. It is believed that it is possibly Djala himself who killed the females, although there is no evidence and it may have been another rogue male. The suggestion does seem to be, however, that they sustained injuries consistent with a gorilla attack. (Credit: Willard CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ll play devil’s advocate for a bit here the Aspinall Foundation has done an awful lot on its reserves to help numbers of western lowland gorillas in Gabon and Congo.

But this is where we have to get to the other questions. Why?

Maybe it’s the piss-broke council tenant in me but I don’t trust millionaires. Damian’s father, John Aspinall, sold his stakes in casino businesses in order to help fund his – admittedly controversial – wildlife parks. Damian has bought those back. Damian Aspinall is also spending huge sums of money investing in land in Africa, has recently called for all captive animals to be returned to the wild (as if it is that easy!) and is paying to take out huge ads and running a PR machine to advertise it. Why?

I don’t trust that this is out of the goodness of his heart. It may be, and I might just be a cynical git who has seen too much corruption and misery, but millionaires do not become or stay millionaires by throwing their money away trying to make themselves look like wildlife Jesus.

The Aspinall Foundation’s wildlife parks, Howletts and Port Lympne, over the last few decades, have turned themselves from regular old zoos into glamping and luxury wildlife accommodation experiences. They’re a zoo-hotel now. I think this is a model.

The window at Tiger Lodge in Port Lympne. Prices? Around £1,100 per night. Just, you know, cheap family getaway! The Aspinall Foundations zoo parks have increasingly turned to these zoo-hotel models in the last few decades and I believe they set a blueprint for future wildlife tourism models. Unfortunately any money to wildlife tourism going to Aspinall reserves is money being taken away from reserves set up by native people in the native countries. (Credit: Ian Duffy CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I think the ultimate aim is to own and run wildlife tourism reserves in Africa, whilst running campaigns to end wildlife captivity, close other zoos and parks in the UK, such that the Aspinall Foundation can have an effective monopoly on seeing rhinos, elephants and gorillas ‘in the wild’.

Damian’s buying back of the casino businesses his father once sold is also another piece of the puzzle, we wouldn’t be talking mosquito-bitten wildlife-tourist pioneers in yurts. I suspect it would be luxury resorts. Their lodges at their parks in Kent are incredibly high-end and expensive. I suspect they would do similar in Africa.

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, said at a conference that philanthropy was the future of marketing. And in an increasingly complicated, messy world it’s easy to see how charitable initiatives, greenwashing, planting trees or – spending a shit-ton of money moving elephants – could be used as a tool to promote yourself and your brand whilst the seedy underbelly of what you do goes unnoticed.

What’s more you, in the West, in the UK or the US or wherever, might think “Africa” and imagine a savage dustbowl full of starving children with protruding bellies and sad faces covered in flies.

Welcome to the PAST of marketing! Kenya is a surprisingly modern country and is growing and modernising rapidly. They’re also not dumb. A huge part of the Kenyan income is from wildlife tourism already so they’ve done a great job over the years of bringing elephant numbers up.

Hardly chock-full of half-naked starving children, Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is a modern, built-up city in one of the top ten wealthiest African countries by GDP per capita. Kenya does not need wealthy, millionaire, white-saviours air-lifting fucking elephants to it. It’s own people, along with charities and NGOs, have done, and continue to do, a great job supporting their own wildlife because a lot of THIS modernisation has been built on a native wildlife tourism industry! (Credit: ninara CC-BY-2.0)

Back in 1989 it was estimated there were fewer than 16,000 elephants in the country. By 2018 that was up to over 34,000.

There are so many, right, that they’re a problem! Here’s an excellent impact study done in 2020 that goes into detail about how and why elephants can be a problem to the communities they co-exist with. It talks not just about the direct impacts – loss of crops, danger to human lives, but the psychological and well-being impact. Kids having curfews because of elephant movements, living in fear that elephants could ruin your livelihood and how all of that impacts the grass-roots conservation work because one of the fundamentals of conservation is making sure the people in the area of the species you are trying to conserve actually support it!

Elephants are fucking massive! They roam, and these animals are literal forest clearers! When elephants roam a track through a forest what they effectively do is trample the shit out of it, eat the vegetation, stomp the trees – Surely this is bad? Well that’s up for debate. There are suggestions that they clear old trees to encourage new sprouting which helps both the trees and the elephants, as well as other herbivorous species. There are suggestions that it’s a little excessive and causing problems. There are suggestions that in a human-free, ideal world these forests would be big enough to cope and that human effects make the elephant behaviour problematic because there aren’t enough trees. Like everything in nature; it’s complicated! One thing I can say for sure is they do significantly less damage to forests and trees than humans do!

The problem is they also do the same with human farms and villages! When they raid crops they’ll stomp, turn over and clumsily damage just as much, if not more, than they’ll eat! If they scratch their arse on the side of your house they may well take your roof off or break a wall! Like you going for a walk and accidentally snapping a small branch or stepping on a snail, there is no evidence of malice from the elephants. They’re just big and don’t register the small shit they damage.

A short clip of an elephant ( I believe an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) – smaller ears, double-domed head) scratching itself on a tree and…almost breaking the tree! By scratching! Again, they’re not trying to destroy the habitat and the way elephants co-evolved with their environment means this kind of destruction, mixed with their eating and defecating habits, encourages healthy, new forest grrowth. But not when they do it in villages!

As I said, Kenya is quite modern and modernising fast. Urban centres, suburban centres, increasing agricultural needs, requiring more land for farms and elephants, those farms build communities around them for workers, who need houses and schools and hospitals and elephants – basically being an intelligent, hungry, thirsty battle-tank – they’ll just tread all over it.

Human-wildlife conflict is, outside of preventing habitat loss, possibly the BIGGEST problem in conservation right now. Increasing human populations, increasing populations of the species we are trying to save due to working initiatives, modernisation, increased need for land for agriculture for native populations, increased desire for agricultural land for export markets to make more money, it all adds up and complicates conservation.

There is no right for Western conservationists from wealthy, developed nations, to tell people not to change, adapt and enrich themselves because of wildlife. The UK, for example, has a significantly altered biodiversity from 1,000 years ago, 500 years ago, even a century ago, because of the species we have persecuted and made extinct. For us to now tell people in Kenya to ‘suck it up’ because we like elephants and don’t have to deal with the problems they bring when they’re on your doorstep is the kind of backwards, colonial thinking that caused a lot of these problems in the first place.

Africans are not all semi-naked starving children, many of them are ambitious people in business attire and they are entitled not only to have problems, as they grow and adapt, with the wildlife in their area, but to be part of the solution to those problems. In fact it is vital they are the leading drivers of the solutions to those problems – Not some millionaire whose main office is in fucking Central London!

These elephants kill people, and people kill elephants in retaliation as a result. Kenya has too many Kenyan elephants! We don’t need to introduce the Kent variant!

The amount of money that has been spent, that will continue to be spent, on what is a saviour-complex pseudo-conservationist project; if spent on the ground, in Kenya, could save many human and elephant lives.

It could even go to places outside of Kenya, that do have reduced elephant populations, that do need help to manage their wildlife.

When you see them in your zoos, behind bars or in sunken-in enclosures, or when you watch documentaries of them wandering the plains and forests – It is easy to see the charm, the beauty and the intelligence of the elephant. But now imagine one hanging around your back garden eating your petunias and dropping a shit the size of a boulder on your doorstep. Imagine a large male in musth, the aggressive, piss-dripping, horny phase males go through, trying to gore and/or hump your kids’ schoolbus. This is a reality of life in many parts of Asia and Africa and one of the biggest problems in elephant conservation. Learning how to manage populations, increase elephant numbers whilst reducing human-elephant conflict (HEC) is one of the key problems to be solved in elephant conservation and it is not helped, in any way, by a twat air-lifting 13 captive-born elephants from one continent to another. (Credit: Lynn Greyling via PublicDomainPictures)

This is money that could be given to true conservationists to research, to plan, to develop systems and schemes that promote healthy wildlife and biodiversity and minimise human-wildlife conflict, saving animal and human lives and setting a blueprint for inevitable projects in other developing nations into the future.

Instead it’s being spent advertising in the second shittiest newspaper in the UK and airlifting Kentish elephants to Kenya.

Many conservationists are begging for this not to go ahead and for good reason.

Like with the black rhino, some of these elephants could die of stress in transit.

Like the relocated rhinos these elephants will probably just die quite quickly while they’re in Africa, being unused to the vegetation, the climate, the water or even finding water sources (a very wild-elephant skill!)

Even if they survive, where will they survive? In ‘the wild’ free to roam? Or in ‘the wild’ a penned in, managed reserve?

Studies have shown that in parts of Africa the most significant natural cause of damage to trees over 2m in height is elephants. This boabab in Botswana is believed to have been damaged at its base by elephants. (Credit: dmitri_66 CC-BY-NC 2.0)

In which case what’s the point?

I haven’t even mentioned the investigation by The Charity Commission into potential financial misconduct at The Aspinall Foundation.

So, if you see people criticising this move please don’t think they’re just do-gooders who are never happy.

When the gorillas died Damian Aspinall himself said he reckoned people like me, other conservationists critical of what he does, would be “Jumping for joy.” While he was angrily ranting about others being the problem those conservationists were hanging their fucking heads in grief.

None of us want this.

No conservationist wants animals in captivity.

No conservationist wants animals to die.

No conservationist wants humans to have conflicts with animals.

No conservationist celebrates the failure of conservation related project, even the ones they disagree with.

The fact is conservation is messy work. There are compromises and trade-offs all over the place and they have to be made objectively, with research, with careful consideration of the tangled web of problems that they could bring, and often with a brutally utilitarian perspective.

There are no simple problems and there are certainly no simple solutions. There are people out there in labs, in universities and in the field, trying to figure out all the chaotic, messy variables that make up these problems and attempting to work at solutions.

Damian Aspinall is doing the equivalent of catapulting animals randomly into the wild and screaming “FREEDOM!” There’s a lack of thought, a lack of planning, a simplicity to this bullshit, ‘maverick’ pseudo-conservation.

Because the truth is…

Well it’s We Lack Discipline’s First Rule of Everything;

It’s always more complicated than that.

Usually I’d use this spot to advertise some of my other articles but I’d rather share some good, grass-roots, hands-on and in some cases local, charities dealing with conservation in elephants or wildlife conservation in Kenya and beyond. Feel free to check them out and donate if you can to help save elephants, other wildlife and promote peaceful co-existence of humans and wildlife across Kenya.

For some of these charities, the level of investment going into translocating just 13 elephants could fund them for a decade and help protect hundreds of elephants, people and acres and acres of habitat.

The Big Life Foundation – They partner with local communities across Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa working on initiatives to protect wildlife, protect habitats, reduce human-wildlife conflict and educate local communities about their wildlife and how to co-exist with it. Heavily involved in protecting elephants from illegal exploitation they employ hundreds of rangers to patrol the area and protect elephants.

SORALO – The South Rift Association of Land Owners – These are a smaller charity working in the South Rift Valley between the Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks on the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Their aim is to create an environment of peaceful co-existence between the native wildlife and the people of the South Rift region by working with local communities, including by managing issues of local governance and legal rights and by creating a sustainable living for people in the region that encourages cultural values of co-existence in the region.

Save the Elephants – Probably one of the larger and more well-known charities dealing with elephants they were established in 1993. Based out of Nairobi and doing a lot of their research in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, they also do significant grass-roots work helping to protect elephants, and encourage the peaceful co-existence of humans and elephants. Save the Elephants also invest a huge effort in international outreach, promoting cross-charity, multi-organisational initiatives as well as providing scholarships for elephant researchers to raise awareness of elephant conservation and encourage scientific solutions to problems from around the world.

Ewaso Lions – Not so elephant focussed but a small, local, “100% African”, grass-roots project aimed at working with local communities to conserve lions and large carnivores mainly in the Ewaso Nyiro River area (check out their website for more details because they work across multiple reserves and community conservancies). They are another charity that is heavily people-focussed, attempting to promote a sustainable lifestyle in local communities via an appreciation of, and a change in attitudes towards, their wildlife.

Lion Guardians – Working closely with local community members in the Amboseli-Tsavo area, this is another more lion focussed charity (lion numbers are signficantly down across Africa versus a century ago and are a predator vital to healthy ecosystems). Like Ewaso lions they attempt to involve local communities in investing in their lions, developing sustainable ways of living, and using local cultural values to enforce the culture of the value of wildlife and manage the issues of human-wildlife conflict that arise, particularly among pastoralist communities. This aspect of conflict mitigation is, as mentioned, one of the most important factors in wildlife conservation as we do restore numbers of potential conflict species and human-wildlife conflicts increase. By using local people, charities like Lion Guardians can ensure a community led, native-values led, approach to that conflict mitigation providing a sustainable model for the future that is not dependent on external, foreign intervention.

Lion Landscapes – As the name may suggest this group takes a literal ‘grass-roots’ approach, starting with promotion of a healthy ecosystem and conserving prey species to help ensure a healthy lion population. It may seem irrelevant to elephants but nature is chaotic and ensuring balance is good for all species in an ecosystem. By working with local groups, using a science-led approach and attempting to innovate to create sustainable models of living for local communities this charity is about so much more than just lions.

Wildlife Action Group: Malawi – Outside of Kenya this time, this NGO works in the Thuma and Dedza-Salima Escarpment Forest Reserves of Malawi to help protect the local habitats and ecosystems, protect their biodiversity and encourage sustainable community involvement and local educational schemes to encourage co-existence with wildlife. They work a lot to protect elephants and are partnered with Save the Elephants, above.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: