Owning the Wild – Part Two

So we’ve seen how humans have a taste for keeping even the most exotic wild animals as pets. The Julius Ceasar administration of Ancient Rome kept lions, hyenas, cheetahs and wolves to entertain the crowds of the Coliseum by fighting gladiators for entertainment. Arab sheiks kept cheetahs as pets because the represented a high status for the owner. Nowadays, Mike Tyson is well known for possessing tigers. Twilight’s Kirsten Stewart, somewhat unsurprisingly, owns a wolf hybrid named Jack. Even Justin Bieber is in on the wild ownership – he has a pet monkey called Mally.


Kirsten Stewart owns a wolf dog.

But what makes people believe that an unusual animal would act as a cool sidekick for their image?

The most obvious reason seems to be  the animal draws attention to its owner. In fact Mike Tyson’s public image, controversial as it may be, is significantly complemented by his association with tigers. The “Baddest Man on Earth” takes delight in relating himself to the fierceness, toughness, agility and regal nature of these big cats. In his cameo in the first Hangover movie he owns a pet tiger and in real life he has a tiger-like mural tattooed onto his face.


Mike Tyson with his white tiger cub.

On a game farm I grew up on, an orphaned cheetah was adopted and allowed to roam around the gardens inside the lodge compound. Which was all fine and well until it unexpectedly attacked a 3-year-old toddler . Sadly, but almost inevitably, the cheetah was shot to prevent any further such mishaps. While the logic of the lodges actions can hardly be called into question, I was left wondering why the lodge even kept the animal.

“It was unusual, the guests enjoyed it, they thought it was authentic Africa,” I was told.

Another prevalent theme is that wild animals are religious or status symbols. In India and other East Asian nations, elephants are enshrined in religious scriptures, such as the Hindu god Ganesh, and are highly regarded as working animals. In China, rare birds are kept by the rich and admired for their beauty. On every American government seal and dollar, the Bald Eagle can be found.

Perhaps wild animals are seen as things that people aspire to emulate – or at least emulate certain characteristics. In a romantic sense, most humans would like their bravery to be compared to that of a lion; their stealth to that of leopard; the strength to that of a bull. Almost every nation has a national animal and often their national sports teams honour wild animals: South Africa’s Springboks, the Three Lions of England or the Australian Wallabies.

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Great rivals at rugby as well as in the savannah – equally adored by fans: The South African Springboks and the Three Lions of England

In all cases it seems that humans have taken ownership of the wild animal. If not in a physical sense then maybe psychologically. Then it seems almost logical  the jump from owning the animal in name is hardly a hop at all. Hopefully peoples’ eagerness to take on the names of animals they treasure will translate into a greater willingness to preserve and protect the physical beings themselves – not just by remembering them on a shirt of a national sports team. Just ask Didier Drogba, captain of Les Elephants of the Cote d’Ivoire!


Owning the Wild – Part One

For some people, the average cat dog or hamster doesn’t really cut it as a sufficiently interesting pet. Thus is born the “exotic pet” owner. This doesn’t mean owning a horse, a bird (large or not) or even a cow. An exotic pet owner is the master or mistress of previously wild animals never normally domesticated – and it seems the more teeth or other weapons the animal possesses to kill the owner, the better.

While stories of alligators and turtles patrolling the underground sewerage systems of American cities may be urban legends, exotic animals are privately owned and hardly with clean records. Private individuals, for the purpose of entertainment or non-conservation specific reasons, have held tigers, primates, lions, bears, elephants and even sea dwelling animals such as killer whales in captivity. Even more bizarrely, people in continents usually different to the wild animals’ natural origin own the animals. Records of lions in North America, wolves in Africa and savannah antelopes zebra and kudu in the USA exist.

The dangers of owning wild animals are clear enough: one, your pet lion at some point might mistake you for an easy meal and kill you or your toddler; two, your harmless macaque might carry exotic diseases; three, the super-venomous snake you keep to wow your dinner guests may have found the couch to be an appropriately warm place to bed down for the night… I’ll leave what follows up to your imagination.

This doesn’t even consider the trauma and hardships the animals face. Most reptiles die in captivity, mammals starve due to malnutrition and certain birds sometimes die due to a lack of social interaction with members of their own species. Clearly, owning exotic animals is unnatural and in nearly all cases is detrimental to either guardian or animal. Additionally, according to PETA, animal wildlife trafficking is the third most lucrative criminal trade after arms dealing and drug smuggling.


Panjo the tiger at home. A big house cat – but with more tigers in captivity in the wild than in the wild, is this the possible future of these exotic cats?

A famous example of exotic animal ownership gone wrong occurred in South Africa during 2010, when a tiger named Panjo escaped from his owner’s bakkie in the Mpumalanga province, setting off a two-day, region-wide search for the missing big cat. The public was gripped by the fear that the next stray shadow they saw crossing the road at the dead of night might indeed be a hungry, 140 kilogramme Bengal tiger. Upon his recapture, owner Goosey Fernandes said Panjo was harmless and should be treated “like a dog”. Why then did Fernandes not keep a dog, if his Bengal tiger, which is a critically endangered species, was effectively reduced from a lethal hunter to a compliant canine?

Keeping an animal alive is better than killing them in most circumstances. Yet what is the point of wild animals being forced to live as pets? There are more captive or pet tigers than wild tigers left in the world. What has become of the evil Shere Khan, the baddie in the Rudyard Kipling’s, The Jungle Book, who struck the fear of God into our childhoods?



These images of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book gave me goosebumps. But the image of these majestic cats seems to have changed from frightening beasts to valuable trophies to fascinating exotic pets.

Ivory Trade: Has CITES inadvertently doomed Africa’s elephants?

Cites agreeing to allow Southern African nations Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe to sell off their ivory in once-off auctions to Japan in 1999, and again to Japan and China in 2008, may have been the catalyst in the recent spike in ivory poaching and seizures of illegal ivory.

This auction broke the zero tolerance trade embargo on ivory that Cites had put in place in 1990, leaving ivory traders and buyers “unaware” of the legality surrounding the trade. Unscrupulous traders, with the help of corrupt officials, can blur the lines of legal and illegal ivory. National Geographic’s article in 2012 claims that at least 25000 elephants were illegally killed last year. This id based on the reported number of elephants killed that have been found by officials, as well as being calculated on the amount of ivory that has been confiscated. The figure thus does not take into account the un-confiscated ivory or elephant corpses that were never recovered. In effect the number of dead elephants could be much higher. Also worrying is the manner in which the elephants have been killed.

Last year, Chadian and Sudanese poachers slaughtered around 650 elephants in a matter of weeks in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. This year another 89 were killed in Garamba National Park in Chad. These single large-scale killings made headlines because of their enormous size. Particularly victims of this recent jump are the forest elephants in central Africa, because ivory carvers in the Far East prefer their harder tusks for creating sculptures. The sculptures are stunningly intricate and are sold as works of art. In China, where the popular conception is that tusks, which translate into Chinese as “teeth”, grow back. In effect, harvesting the teeth of live elephants is not actually cruel, and an IFAW study has claimed that many Chinese and Buddhists, where ivory is a recognisable symbol of religious following, do not know that the acquisition of ivory entails the killing of the animal.

Because of ivory’s high value, it must be asked what African states’ policy is with regard to losing the ivory. Essentially the ivory trade can be compared to the trade in blood diamonds. Like diamonds, the ivory resources are forming integral parts of non-African economies. The ivory, like diamonds is often gained illegally. It is difficult to trace ivory and diamonds once it has been successfully smuggled and cut.

But at the end of the day Africa is losing wealth. The wealth it loses takes the form of poached ivory that flows out of the continent. Additionally, every set of tusks involves another dead elephant – which constitutes a loss in tourism money, biodiversity and jobs. The key to African states protecting the elephants or ivory wealth lies in its recognition that it is not just losing many expendable animals, but is seeing potential millions of dollars flowing off the continent. If this loss could be measured, perhaps Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe would think twice about opening the door for extermination of the African elephants.

Unknown Pangolins: Danger not just from the Far East, study finds

Last December, Chinese customs officials confiscated 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individuals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. In comparison, the size of the single seizure dwarfed South African rhino poaching statistics of the last 20 years combined.

While this enormous haul of mostly Asian pangolins received little media attention, alarm bells were sounding among conservationists in Southern Africa. They feared the increasing demand for pangolin scales and meat would spread to the yet relatively unaffected African continent fuels pangolin-poaching. Additional, blame for the growth in illegal wildlife trade in ivory and rhino horn has been linked to increasing East Asian economic and physical presence in Southern Africa. Some have argued that this presence makes facilitating the trade of illegal animal product to East Asian countries where the demand for ivory, rhino horn and pangolin is already high and increasing.

Yet a recent study on pangolins in Namibia, a country always believed to have had a viable population, has revealed that the species faces as great a danger from local people. According to University of Pennsylvania wildlife researcher Michael Drake says East Asians represent only small fraction of Namibia’s pangolin demand.


Above: A young pangolin, or scaly anteater on Mundulea Nature Reserve. Pangolins face extinction due to high demand in the Far East and Africa for its meat and scales. These are assigned high cultural values by many societies.

Drake conducted the first ever survey of pangolin numbers in Namibia. The two-month survey took him from the peopled north to the arid central regions as well as rural and urban areas of the southwestern African nation.

“This is the first figure that assesses the level of pangolin poaching in Namibia and tells us a lot about how acceptable pangolin poaching is in the country,” he added.

Drake said: “People assign a high cultural value to pangolins and feel fortunate to be able to catch and use one”.

He warned: ““I do not believe that pangolins are being exported in large numbers from Namibia to Asia yet, but as numbers of Asian pangolins decline, it will eventually become economically viable for smugglers to import African pangolins into the Asian market.”

Bruno Nebe, who heads up Pangolin Research Mundulea (PRM), a nature reserve based in northern Namibia that hosts an array of endangered animals including black rhino, said pangolins would struggle to supply an ever increasing human population with more financial muscle in Namibia and the Far East.

“This is a similar problem that threatens elephants and rhinos – more people are able to pay high prices for illicit animal goods and they don’t worry how they get it,” he said.

Drake also believes Namibian pangolins would not be able to survive the levels of poaching that have been found in Asia for long.

Pangolins populations occur in very low densities, and only produce one offspring per mating couple every year.  Thus, Drake suggests, their population is likely to be very sensitive to “aggressive poaching”.

“It is very possible for humans to poach pangolins to such critically low levels that pangolins will no longer be able to find mates and the population will collapse all together,” he says.

Part of the problem Drake says is the lack of any scientific data available on pangolins in Namibia or beyond.

“The biggest take home message is how little we know about pangolins in Africa,” he says.

Working with pangolins is a difficult proposition. Timoteus Andreas is the head pangolin wrangler at PRM and has worked with the animals for four years. He said while pangolins are harmless, tracking them is difficult because they are nocturnal, secretive and hard to find in the bush.

“We always fear rhino or cheetah ambushes while pangolin tracking,” he added.

Across Namibia, Drake found people “that saw lots of pangolins when they were young, but now see very few”.

Andreas concurred: “Growing up in rural Namibia, old people talked about catching or eating them, I never saw pangolins until I came to Mundulea.”

Nebe said many Namibians saw pangolins as pests that ruined roads and crops and killed the animals whenever they came across them. While pangolins face few natural predators, the species is extremely vulnerable to man. Hunting a pangolin is as easy as poking a stick into the animals belly and letting it curl up around the stick.  After that, one simply put the stick and the pangolin over your shoulder and walk away.


Above: “As easy as picking up and walking away”. A researcher from Pangolin Research Mundulea demonstrates the simplicity of capturing a live pangolin.

In the face of a global decline in biodiversity, Drake said it is important for a species to have a tangible value in order to make it worthwhile to protect.

In contrast to elephant and rhino, which governments have a vested interest in protecting because they provide valuable foreign income due to tourism, Drake said: “Pangolins only real value at the moment is as a commodity on the black market. It’s important to eliminate the belief that catching pangolins can be financially rewarding.”

Elephant culling and translocation – three versions, same story

On 20 March 2013, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) website reported the inhumane and allegedly illegal culling and translocation of an elephant herd in South Africa’s North West province. The story appeared in the Sunday Argus and Sunday Times on 25 March. While the issue was reported as a news story, it became more of a case study of how the South African government’s existing conservation frameworks constrain the rights of wild animals, especially elephants. This essay will discuss use agenda setting, framing and priming in the articles to analyse how the story involving the culling and translocation of elephants was reported and handled in the media.

The IFAW article, entitled “Baby Elephants Snatched from Wild Herds – Who’s Issuing the Permits?”, takes a harsh stance against the alleged mistreatment of the elephants and alleges a crime has been committed (IFAW, 2013). By opening with the rhetorical question, “Protection for elephants, or just an elaborate sham?”, the article can immediately be questioned as to whether the reader will get a balanced, and therefore credible and accurate, news report. IFAW, which published the article, serves to publicise and defend the rights of wild animals. Thus the article’s agenda, or “the correlation between the emphasis that media place on certain events and the importance attached to such events or issues by audiences” has been set to make that elephants appear vulnerable (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007: 11). Additionally, statements from the article such as: “Training elephants for the safari industry is well known for the cruelty employed in breaking the spirit of an elephant”, or “their mothers were to be shot at one of South Africa’s most infamous hunting ranches” frames the way in which IFAW wants to influence the reader (IFAW, 2013). This framing hopes to get the reader to understand the story in the context of the cruelty towards the elephants (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007: 11).

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A quick look at its sources reveals the IFAW article garnered most of its information from the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) and quotes from its own expert on the matter of elephant issues, Jason Bell, Director for the IFAW Elephant Programme (IFAW, 2013). There is no real in-depth research into the actual details of the event, with no sources from either the proprietors of the Sandhurst Safaris hunting lodge where the elephants were killed, the alleged receivers of the elephant calves at the Elephants of Eden sanctuary, or any Ministry of Environmental government officials.

Furthermore, the IFAW article makes subtle claims the Elephants of Eden sanctuary was unethically involved in organizing the culling of the elephants’ mothers and then the “snatching” the remaining calves. This forms a perception in the reader’s mind that the Elephants of Eden sanctuary is guilty without actually proving it (IFAW, 2013). The article says IFAW is “entirely opposed to the use of elephants for elephant back safari tourism”, making it biased towards NSPCA’s position on the matter (IFAW, 2013). Also, IFAW unnecessarily explains the concepts of elephant rehabilitation and what could happen to the elephants rather than focus on the current predicament (IFAW, 2013). This shows that the author employs a level of assumption without basing it in fact.

In contrast, the news article that appeared in the Sunday Argus by Simon Bloch and Paul Ash’s report for the Sunday Times reveal much sturdier attempts at investigative the story. The two articles are similar in the their content, sources and structure, but take different angles on the issue. The Sunday Times looks more at the ethical questions surrounding trophy hunting, culling and wildlife translocation, while the Cape Argus explores the legality and administrative problems around the culling and translocation operation.

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In comparison to the IFAW article, both newspaper articles seem much more credible and are reluctant to allege any unproven fact. Bloch writes “apparently not properly authorized”, “apparently linked” and “according to” to signify unconfirmed facts (Bloch, 2013:6). Both include sources and quotes from the proprietors of the Sandhurst Safaris ranch, from the wildlife veterinarian supervising the elephants’ translocation when conservation officials stopped them, and from Elephants of Eden sanctuary proprietors. Both reporters sought two external opinions on the nature of the entire operation from experts, Dr. Ian Whyte (Ash, 2013:6) and Dr. Mandy Lombard (Bloch, 2013:6), who were uninvolved.

While Ash’s article is not neutral in calling the translocation “inhumane”, the article takes all sources into account to provide a balanced narrative of the translocation (Ash, 2013:6). Essentially, the Sunday Times and Sunday Argus covered all their bases, except for getting a quote from the Ministry of Environmental Affairs. Additionally, Bloch sourced the initial information regarding the culling – a Facebook advertisement in December 2012 (Bloch, 2013:6). This deeper research provides a more balanced view and allows readers to make up their own minds of what side to take in the debate.Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 12.45.50

Both newspapers are more obliged to research the story thoroughly before publishing reports for two reasons: the articles appear in newspapers, where readers expect the content to be professionally researched and documented; and the articles would appear in South Africa, where the content is more relevant to the local population than international readership. In contrast, the IFAW article is an online publication unlikely to be as widely disseminated in South Africa than globally because less people in South Africa can access the Internet.

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 12.46.35Regarding agenda setting, IFAW’s homepage reveals there has been large-scale interest in elephant issues, most likely sparked by the increasing ivory poaching. Thus unsurprisingly a controversial story dealing with elephant culling is highlighted (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007: 11). The mainstream media outlets, the Sunday Times and Sunday Argus, have focused on the story because it implicates three major players in recent conservation headlines: the controversy surrounding wildlife vet Douw Grobler, who was implicated in a rhino poaching scandal (Bloch, 2013:6); and the elephant parks or sanctuaries where elephants handlers and clients were harmed in isolated incidents (IFAW, 2013). Additionally, the debate around elephant culling and trophy hunting has strengthened been strengthened due to the continued elephant depopulation across Africa (Ash, 2013:6). It can also be seen as a counterbalance to the disproportional amount of coverage rhino poaching has received in recent years.

The readership of the respective articles must be considered. Visitors to the IFAW page are interested in animal welfare and are thus primed, or asked “to make contact” with the elephant saga and connect it to questions of animal welfare (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007: 11). Despite the greater variety of stories available in the Sunday Times and Sunday Argus, and assuming news readers want to know the news, the articles are primed to tap into the readers’ existing concepts of the ethical treatment of animals. Furthermore, they are asked to recognise the law is being flouted carelessly in everyday society to the detriment of helpless or weak victims, and apply this knowledge to the ordeal the elephants face (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007: 11).

Thus three news sources with differing news angles, agendas and methods of priming have been explored in this analysis. It has shown how the Sunday Times, the Cape Argus and IFAW news site handled the elephant culling and translocation story in diverse fashions. All three are viable and valuable reports that contribute to understanding the narrative. Yet the analysis has revealed it is necessary to read more than one report for a balanced grasp of the story, as individual articles are subject to the author’s or publisher’s agenda setting, framing and priming interests, which are unlikely to be completely free from bias.


Scheufele, D.A. & Tewksbury, D. 2007.“Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models”. Journal of Communication 57: 9-20.

International Fund for Animal Welfare. 2013. “Baby Elephants Snatched from Wild Herds – Who’s Issuing the Permits?”


(Accessed 30 March 2013)

Ash, P. 2013. Move of elephant calves ‘inhumane’. The Sunday Times (Cape Town). 24 March:6.

Bloch, S. 2013. Cull probe as elephant calves are orphaned. The Cape Argus (Cape Town). 24 March:6.